Max Cobb

On the streets of the beautiful old city of Lviv it looked like any other summer evening, sidewalk restaurants and cafes full of people enjoying the last days of August under a moonlit sky. But something was not normal, there were almost no men to be seen. 

Hundreds of kilometers from the front lines to the east, this was the clearest sign of a nation fighting for its existence.

International Biathlon Union (IBU) President Olle Dahlin and I settled into the overnight train cabin as our host, the President of the Ukrainian Biathlon Federation, Ivan Krulko, told us about the early days of the war as a member of the Verkhovna Rada - the Ukrainian Parliament.

A father of two girls, eight and 14 and a lawyer with a long career in Government, he learned from security officials that there were plans to hunt many members of the Parliament by kill squads trying to operate in Kyiv. It was not safe for them to go home or any place they regularly visited, but they stayed in Kyiv to fulfill their duty at this pivotal time. 

The early days of the war were full of uncertainty, but one thing was made clear, there would be no surrender. Having declared independence twice before and endured two revolutions to ensure unfettered self-rule in 2004 and 2014 there would be no capitulation.

The rising sun reflected off the glass towers in Kyiv except where the glass was not. Today, air defences ensure drones and missiles rarely reach the ground, but the explosions overhead shake the city, blow out windows and terrorise the population as debris falls, starting fires and making the streets unsafe.

Heading out of town toward Bucha, our first stop, there is a crossroads with a monument erected to celebrate the Euro 2012 tournament hosted by Poland and Ukraine. The final was played at the Olympic stadium in Kyiv with Spain triumphing over Italy in a classic match up of great football nations. 

Today the intersection is a major checkpoint with soldiers checking vehicles as they pass slowly through a maze of barricades and sandbagged firing positions. Traffic moved slowly but without any road-rage, this was part of what it meant to be in this war.

In Bucha we met a proud Mayor who before the invasion had plans for a multi-sport complex for the youth of his town that included all the usual installations, tennis courts, football pitches and surprisingly for us a biathlon range and paved ski trails for roller skiing, our favoured training method when there’s no snow. He shared with us the impressive design mock-ups and even an animated flyover. As he thanked us for coming to meet and see his plan, he handed us each the official coin of the Bucha City Council, the city crest enclosed by an inscription that must have helped the citizens get through the occupation "The night is darkest just before dawn."

Walking past the beautiful church toward the new memorial, the Mayor recounted discovering the mass graves and the exhumation of more than 500 civilians. Inside the church photographs documented the tragedy and I was glad I missed breakfast. 

The invaders were gone now, the city is patched and cleaned up, but the memories of losses are still painful open wounds in this community which is determined to build sports centers to brighten the future for their youth.

Talks between the International Biathlon and National Olympic Committee of Ukraine were held in Kyiv during the visit ©IBU
Talks between the International Biathlon and National Olympic Committee of Ukraine were held in Kyiv during the visit ©IBU

Leaving Bucha, we passed blown up markets and homes, we crossed a temporary bridge needed to restore transportation after the bridges around Kyiv were blown to slow the invasion. Passing sandbagged check points staffed by soldiers who probably were not two years ago, but now are what protects Kyiv from truck bombs.

We were next greeted by Vadym Guttsait, a native born son of Kyiv, a one-time junior national fencing champion of the Soviet Union, and now President of the Ukrainian National Olympic Committee (NOCU) who won the men’s sabre team gold medal at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona competing for the CIS "Unified Team", despite Ukraine having declared independence on August 24 in 1991, almost a year before. The Unified Team was a collection of athletes and coaches from several former Soviet Union republics who formed a single team for Barcelona 1992. 

Among the other men on that gold medal winning sabre team was Stanislav Pozdnyakov, born in one of Siberia’s biggest cities, Novosibersk, a place I remember well from the Biathlon World Cup Final held there in 1997. Today Mr. Pozdnyakov is also a National Olympic Committee President, from Russia. Guttsait has said publicly he has no desire to speak with his former team-mate.

President Guttsait sat us at a long meeting table decorated with the flags of Ukraine and the Olympic Movement, so we were happy to be able to add the IBU flag to commemorate out visit. Flanked by biathlon leaders in Ukraine and the senior staff of the NOCU, the President welcomed us to Kyiv, saying how much he appreciated us making the trip and the IBU’s extra support for Ukrainian athletes.

President Dahlin thanked our hosts for their warm welcome and reiterated the IBU’s ongoing support for the biathlon community in Ukraine.

Quickly we were into the details of the war’s impact on sport, 500 coaches and athletes have been among the United Nation’s (UN) confirmed 9,511 civilian deaths, though the UN notes the true numbers are likely "considerably higher." 

Hundreds of sports facilities and training sites have been destroyed, including the main biathlon-training base in Chernihiv, which we planned to visit later in the day. But President Guttsait assured us, biathlon is a priority in Ukraine and there is a plan to rebuild everything and make it even better than it was. In fact, President Krulko said, Ukraine hopes to hold World Cups and, someday, even the World Championships.

With our best wishes expressed in the Ukrainian Olympic Committee guestbook we headed off to the Parliament to meet the Deputy Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, Oleksander Korniienko. 

Security was tight as we approached the building, soldiers controlled the roads leading to the building and barricades defined a serpentine pathway, but all had been well prepared and we were traveling with a Member of Parliament and the Minister of Youth and Sport - Mr. Guttsait serves in this capacity, as well as being the NOCU President.

The ornate building is a fitting home for the Verkhovna Rada but nearly every window and entryway was fortified with sandbagged firing positions. 

Ukraine's main biathlon training centre in Chernihiv has been badly damaged during the war ©IBU
Ukraine's main biathlon training centre in Chernihiv has been badly damaged during the war ©IBU

The President and Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada were locked in a Security Council meeting and Parliament was not in session. Mr. Korniienko’s English was perfect, and he expressed his deep appreciation for the principled approach the IBU Congress had taken to ensure the safety and integrity of the competitions and support for the Ukrainian biathletes. 

It was brief but powerful, and as we moved back to the vehicles, we stopped to see the declaration of independence from 1991 and the original Ukrainian flag from the first independence in 1918. The juxtaposition of the sandbagged firing positions in the Parliament building next to these symbols of independence was a silent reminder of the determination to retain self-rule and their national identity.

After two-plus hours on the road from Kyiv, the Governor of the region met our convoy at the training base in Chernihiv, a historic city of a quarter-of-a-million in northern Ukraine with a 1,000-year history. The journey of many top biathletes and skiers has run through this residential training center built beside kilometers of paved ski trails and a biathlon range, a nirvana for high performance development. 

In my 40 years of involvement with biathlon I have visited a lot of training centers all around the world and while the track is modest, the centre had everything an athlete would need under one roof. So, I was breathless seeing the ruins before me. We walked the course out to the range and could see bomb-blasts captured in the pavement next to a stand of birch trees that had been devastated. 

We were cautioned to stay on the trails since it was possible landmines were still buried on the grounds of the centre. This was the most devastation we had seen up close on our visit and that is why my emotions finally caught up with me. 

I could not really believe this senseless destruction of such a great sports facility, why target this place?

We gathered with athletes and coaches who still train on the grounds as best they can, to hear the Governor and director explain their ambitious plans to rebuild after the war. 

With the President of the Ukraine Biathlon Federation and the Minister of Youth and Sport present, commitments were made to see this centre rise again.

As we left the meeting something changed, suddenly everyone was looking at their cell phones and as I stepped outside, I heard the whine of the air-raid sirens. My heart sank a bit, I had been given a warning shortly before entering Ukraine. 

The regional security officer at the United States Embassy in Kyiv shared this advice about our itinerary, “One word of caution is that Chernihiv is very kinetic and frequently targeted with drones, ballistic, and cruise missiles. We would not recommend this portion of the trip for that reason."

The IBU gathered to hear the thoughts of Ukrainian biathletes and their experiences ©IBU
The IBU gathered to hear the thoughts of Ukrainian biathletes and their experiences ©IBU

On August 19, just 10 days before our visit Chernihiv had been attacked on a peaceful Saturday morning, just as families were leaving a religious celebration a pair of missiles struck the theater in the centre of the city. Seven civilians died, over 100 were injured.

The missiles did not reach Chernihiv the day we were there, they fell somewhere east of the city. With the threat over, the director of the theatre walked us through the large and beautiful building to see where the missiles hit 10 days before. It was easy to imagine the hundreds of terrified people huddling there hoping they would be able to walk away when the attack ended. 

The damage was extensive, but he was already looking ahead, he invited us to return next year, to celebrate the reopening of his theatre.

Driving through the beautiful centre of the city the signs of the war were impossible to miss. The biggest hotel on the main boulevard had its center blown to bits and many other buildings were just burned-out shells. 

The leaders of the training centre arranged for us all to share a beautiful midday banquet. It felt a bit strange to enjoy such hospitality after all we had seen. But for those who lived through it, life went on, maybe even with more will celebrate our visit and more generally to seize every last moment of the summer holidays in the last days of August.

Passing over the Dnipro River back into Kyiv the sun was already getting low and lighting up the giant memorial to the Second World War and a huge Ukrainian flag flying on a hilltop near by. 

We drove through Independence Square where thousands demonstrated in 2004 and sparked the Orange Revolution annulling a rigged Presidential election and brining about a wave of anti-corruption reforms. Ten years later the people protested the President’s sudden refusal to ratify trade agreements with the European Union that had just been approved by Parliament, in favor of closer ties with Russia. 

It was that 2014 revolution and ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President that sparked the Russian invasion nine years ago.

As the night train heading to the northwest boarder rolled out of Kyiv’s main station we shared our bag-dinner of chicken Kyiv with our ever-present host, President Krulko. 

He told us of all his ambitions to build more biathlon centers across Ukraine, to have more training centres like Chernihiv and biathlon schools where athletes could come together to train and study. And he elaborated on his big dream, his goal was to develop a venue that could welcome the world to Ukraine for a World Cup and eventually the World Championships.

IBU President Olle Dahlin, second left, joined secretary general Max Cobb, second right, on the trip to Ukraine where they were hosted by Vadym Guttsait, left, the country's Sports Minister, and Ivan Krulko, right, head of the Ukraine Biathlon Federation ©IBU
IBU President Olle Dahlin, second left, joined secretary general Max Cobb, second right, on the trip to Ukraine where they were hosted by Vadym Guttsait, left, the country's Sports Minister, and Ivan Krulko, right, head of the Ukraine Biathlon Federation ©IBU

Ivan woke us up around 5.30am with the news that a few hours ago Kyiv had endured the largest attack since the spring. Drones and missiles had tried to overwhelm the air-defences, but it seemed the casualties had been light, the shield mostly held.

We entered Ukraine just over 500 days into the war. 

One-and-a-half years into this invasion, top Ukrainian biathletes have been forced to train outside their country more than in it. For them, the road to the 2026 Olympic Winter Games in Italy is steeper and more unknown than for every other biathlete around the world. One can only imagine how the stress of the terrifying war, the fear of loss of one’s loved ones, the homesickness and likely a bit of guilt for living-well outside their country weighs on them. 

It is impossible to know how this will influence the athletes’ performances but one thing is clear, if we believe in Pierre de Coubertin’s creed for the Olympic Games, the sight of the Ukrainian athletes should bring us all to our feet as we welcome them to every competition: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle." 

There can be no greater struggle than training and competing when your nation has been invaded.

Not long-ago, well-known New York Times columnist David Brooks noted that residents of South Africa recently told him, that during apartheid the one sanction that they could not get used to, the one that really hurt, was being locked out of international sports at all levels. 

It is perhaps no wonder the post-apartheid leader, who had endured unspeakable hardships in his quest to end the oppression, Nelson Mandela, famously said in 2000, at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards: "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand."

What we can see today is that there are limits, there are times when ongoing hostilities and brutality cut too deeply for sport to be enough to heal while war still rages on. It is not what any sport leader wants, it is not the unity that we know sport can foster, but it is the lived experience of those who have been invaded, and we should never ignore the devastation war brings to those who fight and more broadly to society, the depth of anguish caused by the loss of civilians, the terror of rockets targeting them randomly hundreds of kilometers from the front lines.

Perhaps the most indelible impression from our brief time in Ukraine was the resolve of the people to persevere through this invasion, to remain Ukraine. 

No one spoke the words "after the war". It was always "after the victory." Life goes on in Kyiv and Bucha and Chernihiv, not as it was before, but nearly so, to hold onto a vision of the way life will be again and in defiance of the horrors of the war.