In a modest gym in the heart of Kiev, boxer Anna Lysenko spends long hours preparing for next year’s Paris Olympics despite the haunting sounds of explosions echoing outside.
Lysenko already has Olympic experience, nearly winning a medal at the Tokyo Games in 2021, but this time her training routine was interrupted by the war in Ukraine, which began almost 17 months ago when Russia invaded her country.
In a spacious, well-lit gym with high windows, he often hears bombs going off outside, since the capital is still a target for the Russian army.
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«It’s suffocating. It probably won’t let me feel at peace, train and prepare in a measured way,» said Lysenko, wearing an orange sports jacket with «Tokyo 2020» on the back, reminiscent of a calmer training routine.
«The constant shelling or other stresses associated with the situation in the country always seem to be present.»
Despite these challenges, 31-year-old Lysenko refuses to give up her training. She has already sacrificed nearly 10 years of her life for the sport, reaching the quarterfinals in Tokyo but missing out on an Olympic medal after losing to the eventual gold medalist. Knowing that the Paris Games may be her last, she perseveres, training six days a week in hopes of getting better, faster, and winning.
However, his chances of competing in Paris remain uncertain.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian athletes have missed out on the world or European championships in judo, fencing and taekwondo, where Russians and Belarusians could compete after being approved as neutral athletes.
Last week, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, criticized the Ukrainian government for preventing some athletes from participating in qualifying events for the 2024 Games that would also include Russians and Belarusians.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said any neutral flag is stained with blood and invited Bach in January to join him in visiting the destroyed city of Bakhmut.
The IOC and Bach shaped the definition of neutrality in March — not publicly supporting the war, not being drafted into the military since February last year, competing without a flag, anthem or national colors — that the sport’s governing bodies must decide how to or if apply .
«This is very bad,» Lysenko said of the neutral flag for Russians and Belarusians.
As a Ukrainian athlete, she finds it «very unpleasant» that citizens of Russia have the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games. Despite the neutral flag, she said, the athletes «are citizens of their own country, they represent it.»
The IOC took a tough stance on Russia within days of the war’s start, urging sports bodies to bar athletes and officials from international events and strip the country of hosting rights.
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However, as the Paris Olympics approached, the IOC decided to allow some Russians to compete, and Bach said that excluding athletes just because of their passport would be discrimination and a violation of their human rights.
For Lysenko, such a decision by the IOC means that Ukrainian athletes have to compete in an «unequal battle» with the citizens of a country that started a war in their homeland.
“Because there athletes can train in peace, nobody bombs them, they do not lose their loved ones, acquaintances, friends. They don’t lose them in war,” he said.
«For every professional athlete, the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of their sporting journey,» Lysenko added. «As an athlete, I can understand that. But as a person… When you witness the pain of your loved ones, it’s very difficult to accept.»
She remembers how last fall, on the day she and her team were supposed to leave for the European Championships in Montenegro, Russia launched one of the many missile attacks on kyiv. At that time, Lysenko was at the Olympic base near the capital.
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«And there you could really hear those explosions, there was such a shaking there, and we had to leave in literally two or three hours that day,» he recalled. «How to leave your family in such a condition, when something like this is happening… It’s stressful.»
Even when he is abroad to compete, his thoughts remain anchored in events in the Ukraine.
During the most difficult periods, Lysenko did not stop training. During the winter, when Russia bombarded kyiv and the rest of the country with dozens of rockets almost every week to destroy the energy infrastructure, Lysenko kept training even without electricity.
«It was very challenging,» he said. «We were starting training a bit earlier to get some light from the outside.»
The Ukrainian Olympic Committee’s decision to boycott qualifying competitions involving Russians and Belarusians evokes mixed emotions in Lysenko.
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“If they are already banning everyone and saying it’s a boycott, then it should apply to everyone,” he said, explaining that, for example, Ukrainian tennis players continue to compete with Russians and Belarusians.
Given the circumstances that have arisen, Lysenko chooses to compete and fight.
«We have our own sporting front line and we have to go out there and win,» he said, adding that «it would be very disappointing» if he doesn’t go to the Olympics.
«A lot of effort has already been made for it to end like this, without being able to bring a medal for my country and once again represent our country before the whole Olympic world,» Lysenko said.
For her, the Paris Games could be her last chance to compete in the Olympic Games. She will be 36 years old when she opens the Los Angeles Games in 2028.
«I can still continue training, but I have my own plans on how to lead my life and develop in other areas,» Lysenko said. «Not just in sports.»
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For now, he continues his training, even in periods when the Russians attack kyiv almost every night.
«A person gets used to everything,» he said, noting that his challenges pale in comparison to what Ukrainian soldiers endure.
«When you think about how difficult it is there, you realize that everything is great for you,» Lysenko said. “And we will continue to work here because they are doing everything they can there so that we can do our job here in the rear.”