Para-Skiing Competition Connects Japan, Ukraine

Courtesy of the Japan Para-Ski Federation
A commemorative photo of Japanese and Ukrainian para-skiers taken on the final day of the Beijing Winter Paralympics.

A plan is unfolding to invite the national para-ski team of Ukraine, where Russian forces continue their invasion, to an international competition to be held in Sapporo in March.

Japanese para-skiers have taken action to support Ukrainian para-skiers, with whom they have competed in past events, as those Ukrainians have not been able to return home and have difficulty going abroad for competitions due to the war.

In early March 2022, the Ukrainian national team appeared at the ski venue of the Beijing Winter Paralympics. Koji Watanabe, 62, the manager of the Japanese national team and senior official of the Japan Para-Ski Federation (JPS) responsible for para Nordic skiing, noticed that many Ukrainian para-skiers bowed their heads as if in prayer.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began a week before the opening of the Beijing Winter Paralympics. With flights out of their country canceled, Ukrainian Paralympians had to begin their journeys to China by bus.

They suffered great anxiety and uncertainty.

Anastasiia Laletina, 20, pulled out of the women’s biathlon race after she learned that her father had been captured and beaten by Russian soldiers.

“Is there anything we can do for them?” thought Ryohei Ariyasu, a visually impaired cross-country skier, 36. He was impressed by how Ukrainian para-athletes competed despite the stress they were under. However, he did not know what to say to them, so he felt frustrated.

JPS President Shigeru Shiina, 58, who watched the Games from Japan after sending off the Japanese national team to Beijing, had the same feelings. He proposed to the Ukrainian national team members that they temporarily evacuate to Japan. However, as he knew that many of them were worried about their families in Ukraine and wanted to go home, he decided to collect donations and send them money for support.

In March 2022, Shiina sought donations through the JPS Facebook account and elsewhere, quickly raising about ¥9 million in donations.

On March 13, the final day of the Beijing Winter Paralympics, athletes from Japan and Ukraine who had gathered together in Beijing took a commemorative photo together. While they are rivals in competitions, they are also friends who have met many times in international competitions.

“We will ski together again,” Ariyasu said to Ukrainian skiers as he shook hands with them before departing Beijing.

After returning home, the Ukraine national team members stayed at the team’s training facility. Of the money the JPS had raised, about ¥5 million was used to operate the training facility as a shelter.

Head coach Andriy Nesterenko, 59, said that the athletes were able to keep training while staying with their families at the training facility and that the Japanese national team lent a hand when they needed it the most.

The 2023 Para Nordic Skiing Asian Cup will begin in Sapporo on March 17. The JPS, which cohosts the event with the International Ski Federation, calls the event a

“friendly competition with Ukraine as a special guest.” The JPS plans to use the remaining ¥4 million in donations to pay travel and accommodation costs for about 20 Ukrainian para-skiers.

“We would like to make the event a success and show to the rest of the world that we are with Ukraine,” Shiina said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shigeru Shiina, president of the Japan Para-Ski Federation, talks about support for Ukrainian para-skiers while showing equipment for para-skiing, in early February in Minato Ward, Tokyo.