SOCHI, Russia (AP) — In the fading light in the mountains above Sochi, the athletes and flags from Russia and Ukraine appeared side by side Saturday, united by success on the opening day of action at the Paralympics as the discord between their nations deepens.
The collection of gold, silver and bronze medals amassed by Ukraine justified — in sporting terms — the decision before Friday's opening ceremony not to boycott the Winter Games in protest at Russia's military occupation of the nearby Crimean peninsula.
The confrontation, which escalated in the days after the Olympics ended here, has taken the shine off Sochi in the two-week lead in to the Paralympics as Russian President Vladimir Putin challenged the sovereignty of part of his neighbor's territory.
And from Ukraine's first Paralympic medalist in Sochi, there was a clear message sent back to her troubled homeland.
"I devote my first medal in Sochi to an independent Ukraine," said Olena Iurkovska, who won bronze in the women's 6 kilometer sitting biathlon.
The four-time Paralympian appeared at the medal ceremony alongside Svetlana Konovalova of Russia, who beat her to silver.
"Every time I race, it will be for Ukrainian independence and peace in my country," Iurkovska said.
Focusing on sports is not easy for some Ukrainians against the backdrop of the strife unfolding about 300 miles (475 kilometers) west of Sochi on the Black Sea coast.
But as well as two further bronze medals in the biathlon, Maksym Yarovyi claimed silver in the men's 7.5-kilometer sitting event, and Vitaliy Lukyanenko took gold in the visually impaired class ahead of a Russian.
"The most important thing in sport is not to beat a competitor, but to beat yourself," Lukyaneko said.
And what the team hopes for most is peace in Ukraine — a sentiment it chanted during Thursday's welcoming ceremony in the Alpine Village.
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