Ukraine declared two days of national mourning for the victims of bloody clashes in Kiev this week, where close to 100 people died in battles between security forces and anti-government protesters. Some 900 miles to the southeast, at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, dozens of Ukrainian athletes—half of the national team—packed up and returned home in solidarity with the revolutionaries on the Maidan fighting against the “thug president,” Viktor Yanukovych.
The head of Ukraine’s Olympic committee, Sergei Bubka, asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to permit the country’s athletes who remained in Sochi to wear black armbands in memory of their fallen brethren. The IOC expressed sympathy but ultimately rejected the request. “There is nothing in the Olympic Charter about black armbands, but propaganda is strictly forbidden,” Bubka later said.
As the death toll mounted, many Russian spectators in Sochi expressed sadness over Kiev’s troubles. On Friday afternoon, Galina Savchuk, a figure-skating fan from Astrakhan, was eating a snack before the start of competitions at a Coca-Cola stand near the Olympic fire. “I feel scared both for us and for Ukrainians,” she said. “My thoughts are with Ukraine, as I have relatives there.”
Others noted that it was hard to fully enjoy the Olympics when the televisions also broadcast footage of the dead and wounded on Kiev’s streets. “My children are scared of what they see—we are all shocked that a real war came to our neighboring country while we were having fun here in Sochi,” said Yelena Mishenko, a native of Krasnodar.
Over on Russia’s pro-Kremlin channels, the consensus was that Ukraine’s Maidan uprising was a Western-backed plot.
Meanwhile, over on Russia’s pro-Kremlin channels, the consensus was that Ukraine’s Maidan uprising was a Western-backed plot. Some Russians in Sochi echoed this opinion, including Vladmir Bekker, who had come to watch the Games with his little son. “It is obvious that the Ukrainian leader Vitaly Klitschko inspired the unrest—he and other members of the opposition have businesses in the West, so of course the want to take over Ukraine. So the Maidan is once again a geopolitical struggle and people are just manipulated,” he told The Daily Beast.
The chairman of the Russian Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, would agree. “The West is pushing Yanukovych,” he wrote on Twitter on Friday. “Their final goal is to bring NATO bases closer to Russian borders.”
German Rene Holbalh dismissed the NATO conspiracies over a late lunch at the Swiss House in the Olympic park. “The continuous conflicts in Kiev have gone far beyond the original issue of Yanukovych not signing an agreement with the EU,” Holbalh said. “There are other issues at this point that make people angry.”
The only group of visitors who seemed completely unperturbed by the apocalyptic scenes coming out of Kiev were a gaggle of fans from Ohio, who were exploring the Olympic Park clutching tiny American flags. They admitted they didn’t know much about what was going on at the Maidan. “It must be important for Russians—Ukraine is closer to them,” said Christian Norman. “We are here to see sports events.”