SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Ukraine's victory in the women's biathlon relay was the standout moment of the Sochi Olympics, a powerful symbol of unity during the country's bloody political crisis, IOC President Thomas Bach said Saturday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bach praised Ukraine's athletes for staying in Sochi to compete for their country despite the violence and turmoil that has left scores dead back home.
"In this moment, mourning on the one hand, but knowing what really is going on in your country, seeing your capital burning, and feeling this responsibility, and then winning the gold medal, this really stands out for me," Bach said. "It was really an emotional moment."
The IOC leader also commended Sochi organizers for staging games in which "not a single athlete had a single complaint." He said the Olympic Charter's rule on non-discrimination was "fully respected" by the Russians and suggested the Pussy Riot punk rock group had used the games as a publicity platform.
The victory by the Ukrainian team in Friday night's 4x6-kilometer biathlon relay came with the country — torn between Russia and the West — embroiled in the worst unrest in its post-Soviet history. Twins Vita and Valj Semerenko combined with Juliya Dzhyma and Olena Pidhrushna to win the gold.
Bach said he had been in contact with Ukrainian team officials amid speculation that athletes might leave. Only one Ukrainian athlete withdrew from the Olympics because of the crisis.
"Imagine what (the) signal would have been to the world community and to the Ukrainian people if the Ukrainian team would have broken up," he said. "That would have created the image of two Ukraines and would have made a political solution even more difficult if not impossible."
Bogdana Matsotska, a 24-year-old Alpine skier, and her father, a coach, pulled out of the competition following the deaths of anti-government protesters. But they remained in Sochi, a decision that Bach saluted.
"This is also a great gesture ... to declare I am part of this opposition, but there is something more than just the political disagreement, this is the unity of the Olympic team," Bach said.
Asked about the overall success of the Sochi Games, Bach pointed to the perception of the athletes. Bach, who was elected IOC president in September, is a former Olympic fencer who won a gold medal in 1976.