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Paralympic Proof That Ukraine Is The Kindest Country In The World

There's a strong Aussie connection behind the former Soviet republic's success.

17/09/2016 2:02 PM AEST | Updated 17/09/2016 3:37 PM AEST
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Swimmer Yelyzaveta Mereshko would definitely win a gold medal in the Smilympics.

Take a look at the Rio Paralympics medal table. Notice a country in the top three you perhaps weren't expecting?

Yep, it's Ukraine. As of Friday, the former Soviet republic was in third place on the table. Not bad for a country whose population is either 42 million or 45 million -- depending on whether or not you include Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 in a disputed referendum.

rio2016.com

Of course, if you've paid attention to the medal table at the last few Paralympics, you'd have known Ukraine would do well in Rio. It finished fourth on the London medal table with 32 gold medals, and fourth four years earlier in Athens, at what was just its third Paralympics.

Yes, but why the success? Ukraine finished a meagre 31st on the Rio Olympics medal tally. Why does it excel in Paralympic sports?

The Huffington Post Australia put that question to Stefan Romaniw OAM, Chairman of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Associations and General Secretary of the Ukrainian World Congress. He was the first Ukrainian Australian we called, and boy, did we ring the right guy.

Ricardo Moraes / Reuters
Anton Datsko won the Wheelchair Fencing and was silver medallist in the smiling.

Turns out Romaniw personally knows the man responsible for Ukraine's incredible Paralympic success story. That man was Valeriy Shushkevich, a wheelchair-bound former swimmer who founded the Ukraine Paralympic Committee, and who remains involved in both politics and sports administration today.

Shushkevich helped put in place a program called Invasport, under which each region in Ukraine has at least one school dedicated to sports programs for the disabled.

"[He had the idea] at a point in time where he was also competing," Romaniw explained. "He wanted a level playing ground in terms of sport."

Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters
Shucks, looks like judoka Inna Cherniak just won yet another Paralympic gold for Ukraine in Rio.

And the transformation in Ukrainian sport had roots here in Australia...

Romaniw first met Shushkevich in 2000, when the Ukrainian Paralympic team was in a pre-Sydney 2000 training camp at Albury Wodonga. When they got to the Sydney Paralympics, the Ukrainians -- Shushkevich included -- were inspired by the passionate Sydney crowds. It made them want Paralympic medals even more than before.

So if you're one of those who turned up and cheered, pat yourself on the back. A little of Ukraine's success is down to you.

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Kateryna Istomina wins yet another gold for Ukraine -- this one in the Women's 100m Butterfly S8. The little blue thing took the silver. OK not really, it's just a doll.

So what next? Will Ukraine's Paralympic achievements help create better facilities for disabled people in a country not known as being particularly disability-friendly?

"The government has recognised that it is an issue," Romaniw said. "In fact the new minister for health said disabled access is one of the issues they will now be taking up. There is a whole reform package looking at these sorts of issues.

"In today's Ukraine, given the fact there's a war in the east, disability is a critical issue because of the soldiers coming back. Some are missing an arm or missing a leg. The question now is how do we support them. The government is working on that now.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ukraine's Ihor Tsvietov celebrates being awesomer than everyone else in the men's 100-meter T35 final in Rio.

More broadly, do Ukrainians take pride in their nation's prominence on the Paralympic medal table?

"It good for national sentiment," Romaniw said. "Being on the international stage and doing well, like anything else it raises awareness and helps policies be enhanced.

"But we have more to do. I ran into Valeriy on Ukrainian Independence Day [August 24]. He's still very active in the area and he said the mission is not complete."

Ricardo Moraes / Reuters
That would be gold medallist Roman Polianskyi (R) of Ukraine hugging silver medalist Erik Horrie of Australia after the men's single scull ASM1X victory ceremony in Rio.

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