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September 27, 2017

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Paralympics in full gear under Ukraine shadow

SOCHI, Russia--Paralympians set out about turning the spotlight on to the sporting action as competition got underway in the Winter Paralympics on Saturday after an opening ceremony overshadowed by Russia's intervention in Crimea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had opened the Games the night before in Sochi, which lies just southeast across the Black Sea from Ukraine's peninsula of Crimea which has been seized by pro-Moscow forces.

Only one Ukrainian competitor, 37-year-old skier and biathlete Mykhailo Tkachenko, took part in the opening ceremony, in a symbolic protest against Russia's incursion into Crimea.

"It was a team decision to have one person in the parade. We had a discussion, and he said he wanted to do it," said Oleksandr Onischenko, a translator with the Ukrainian team.

"Today I want to talk about sport, about the sports aspect. The team is here to fight for the medals and for a great result. It's not about beating the Russians specifically," he told AFP, as the skiing events got under way.

Russia, which is now one of the world's strongest nations in paralympic winter sports and has high hopes of heading the medals table, started the Games by taking four out of the five golds on offer in the first day's biathlon races.

Medals in the alpine events were more evenly shared out, with Japan's Akira Kano taking gold in the men's sitting downhill and other golds going to athletes from nations ranging from Slovakia to Spain.

The first Ukrainian medalist of the Sochi Paralympics dedicated her achievement to "an independent Ukraine," appealing for peace as Russia intensifies its control of Crimea.

Olena Iurkovska claimed bronze in the first biathlon event on the first day of competition on Saturday — the women's 6 kilometer sitting competition.

After finishing behind Svetlana Konovalova of Russia, Iurkovska said: "I devote my first medal in Sochi to an independent Ukraine. Every time I race, it will be for Ukrainian independence and peace in my country."

Some two weeks after the Winter Olympic Games wrapped up in Sochi, there was still plenty of snow on the tracks, even if the sides of the hills were now covered with grass and the sound of birdsong gave an atmosphere of spring.

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