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Ukraine men’s gymnastics team endures to grab last Olympic spot

Ukraine Gymnastics

30 September 2023, Belgium, Antwerpen: Gymnastics: World Championship 2023, Men, Qualification Men, Sportpaleis. Illia Kovtun from Ukraine in action on parallel bars. Photo: Tom Weller/dpa (Photo by Tom Weller/picture alliance via Getty Images)

dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

ANTWERP, Belgium — Ukraine’s men’s gymnasts trained through the blare of sirens and the dark of power outages with a goal of qualifying for the Paris Olympics.

They accomplished it at the world championships this weekend, grabbing the 12th and final spot in next year’s Olympic field.

They competed Saturday, then had to wait for the last men’s teams to go through qualifying on Sunday. The Ukrainians were in 11th place going into the last subdivision of four nations, one of which (Italy) outscored them.

Ukraine qualified for the Olympics by 166 thousandths of a point over Brazil after more than 245 points of routines from each country.

GYMNASTICS WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule | Daily Guide | Results

Russian men won the Tokyo Olympic team title. All Russian gymnasts have been banned from international competition since March 2022, a suspension that ran through every Olympic team qualifying opportunity.

Essentially, that opened it up for an extra country to grab an Olympic spot at the last qualifier at these worlds. Enter Ukraine.

So, on the first full day of competition at the Paris Games, five Ukrainian men will march out for qualifying at the Bercy Arena in the 12th arrondissement on Saturday, July 27.

Gymnastics is Ukraine’s most successful Olympic sport (if you total medals in artistic, rhythmic and trampoline disciplines).

In 1992 and 1996, gymnasts from Ukraine won back-to-back Olympic women’s all-around titles — Tatiana Gutsu (in 1992 when Ukrainians competed for the Unified Team) and Lilia Podkopayeva (in 1996 when Ukraine competed independently at a Summer Olympics for the first time).

A Ukraine men’s team has competed at every Olympics since 1996 except for 2008. It won silver in 2000 and bronze in 1996.

Ukraine did not qualify a women’s team for the Olympics but can still qualify up to three individual gymnasts over the next eight months.

Its men’s team, which mostly trains in the capital Kyiv, is led by Ilia Kovtun, who won world all-around bronze in 2021 two months after turning 18, and Oleg Verniaiev, a 30-year-old who in 2016 came one tenth shy of dethroning Japanese legend Kohei Uchimura in the Olympic all-around.

“There were about five or six months that I couldn’t properly train because of the situation,” Verniaiev said, according to worlds organizers. “It’s getting better. We’re getting back on track. It used to be that we had three to five incoming threat alerts daily -- when rockets fly to Ukraine -- and each time we’d have to go down to the basement and wait it out. We would have to stop for one hour, then go back.”

Pantely Kolodii, an alternate at these worlds who has family in California and spent some time training at Stanford during the war, spoke Saturday about the recent circumstances in Kyiv.

“Less blackouts, less hot water shortages,” he said. “But you still have incoming threat alerts. ... It was definitely a bigger issue a year ago than now, but the threat is very much still there.”

Kolodii said the summer was “more calm” in Kyiv, but he expects the winter to be more difficult.

“Because that’s when critical infrastructure is targeted,” he said.