Ukrainian Athletes Going All Out to Help Their Homeland

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Elina Svitolina is seen during the Wimbledon Championships in 2019.

PARIS — Notable Ukrainian athletes have been raising awareness — and funds — in support of their homeland following Russia’s invasion of their country.

Working as overseas ambassadors for UNITED24, a Ukrainian governmental initiative launched amid Moscow’s ongoing military aggression, the athletes had collected some $287 million (about ¥38.6 billion) as of Feb. 21. The money will be spent on demining; medical aid and equipment, such as purchasing ambulances; and reconstructing housing complexes.

Courtesy of UNITED24
Oleksandr Usyk

UNITED24 ambassadors include such renowned athletes as Oleksandr Usyk, 36, the world unified heavyweight boxing champ; Elina Svitolina, 28, a bronze medalist in women’s tennis singles at the Tokyo Olympics; and Andriy Shevchenko, 46, a former Ukrainian national soccer team forward and coach.

The money is dispatched to the respective government agencies in charge of defense, medical care, and infrastructure, according to each donor’s wishes.

Courtesy of UNITED24
Andriy Shevchenko

Earlier this month Svitolina, who gave birth outside Ukraine last year, visited a medical facility in the capital city of Kyiv to encourage women there who were about to have children.

“These women need special support as they’ll be having babies very soon,” Svitolina said during an interview with a local correspondent for The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Svitolina presented a generator to the facility to help it deal with power supply problems that have plagued the country amid Russian military attacks. “I’m very happy I was able to help the women during such difficult times,” she said.

Svitolina, who was born in Odesa in southern Ukraine, has ranked as high as World No. 3. In 2018, she won the WTA Finals, a tour event for the world’s eight top-ranking players, and in 2019, reached the semifinals of both the Wimbledon Championships and the U.S. Open. Her husband is Gael Monfils, a French pro tennis player.

Svitolina’s 85-year-old grandmother has to take the stairs to reach her 13th floor apartment in Odesa as the elevator has ceased to function due to power shortages. Svitolina says she was “heartbroken” when she heard about her grandmother’s hardships.

Courtesy of UNITED24
Elina Svitolina, left, during a recent visit to a Kyiv medical facility

She says she also becomes downcast when thinking about the ongoing loss of life among Ukrainian athletes, including young and promising individuals.

“The Russian attacks have destroyed sports facilities, and athletes haven’t been able to practice sufficiently,” Svitolina said. “Some have been killed when fighting on the front lines. Athletes should fight in competitions, not wars.”

Players from Russia and its ally Belarus are allowed to compete in pro tennis tournaments on an individual basis. Svitolina says she hopes that players from those countries will be excluded from the four major tournaments, as they were in last year’s Wimbledon Championships. “What can we do as [Ukrainian] athletes? We can participate in the tournaments, underlining our presence and demonstrating that we’re stronger than them,” she said, hinting at her frustration.