Torn between two places, some Crimean athletes may miss Rio
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) Crimean Artur Ayvazyan won gold in rifle shooting at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, competing under Ukraine's flag. After Russia's annexation of Crimea, like many athletes, he switched his allegiance from Ukraine to Russia.
The decision may have cost him his last chance to win an Olympic medal.
While Russia offers better living conditions and financial support for athletes, Ayvazyan, 43, is now stuck. A three-year ''quarantine'' period demanded by Ukraine means he can only compete within Russia. So while Russia and Ukraine's top shooters are preparing for the games, Ayvazyan is staying put in the Crimean capital, Simferopol.
And in Ukraine, he says, he is mostly considered a traitor.
Two years after Russia's annexation of Crimea, athletes from the Black Sea peninsula are split between Russia and Ukraine and could win medals for both countries at August's Olympics in Rio.
Associated Press interviews with athletes on both sides of the divide show that whichever country they represent, all have had to sacrifice something.
Those who stayed with Ukraine must live outside Crimea, some fearing for their safety if they return, while athletes who took Russian nationality have struggled to convince international sports bosses to let them compete. A Crimean swimmer on Ukraine's team told the AP he was harassed by other athletes at a meet in Moscow.
Crimean gymnast Anna Rizatdinova, who still competes for Ukraine, saw firsthand how her country slipped into turmoil while she trained in Ukraine's capital, Kiev.
As police clashed with protesters against then-President Viktor Yanukovych - eventually resulting in over 100 deaths - officials urged Rizatdinova to stay away from training for a month for her own safety.
When shots rang out in Kiev one afternoon, Rizatdinova's coach Irina Deriugina led a hurried evacuation of young gymnasts from a hall near the Maidan square, where protesters were camping.
Soon after, Yanukovych fled the country and was replaced by pro-Western politicians. Russian troops took control of Crimea and local pro-Russian politicians staged a vote which reported a much-disputed 96 percent of Crimeans voted in favor of joining Russia.
Rizatdinova was competing in Hungary on the day of the vote. ''They took my homeland,'' she says. ''I fell apart at that competition because all my thoughts were with my parents.''
Since then, Ukrainian troops have fought in the east of the country against Russian-backed separatists, while the Kremlin has integrated Crimea into Russia. In the sports world, political tensions run high enough that soccer officials have prevented Russian and Ukrainian teams from playing each other in European competitions.
Rizatdinova, who'll compete against Russian gymnasts in Rio, says her inspiration for the Olympics is a fellow Crimean from the Tatar minority, pop singer Jamala, who won acclaim across Europe with her victory for Ukraine in last month's Eurovision Song Contest.
''I'm aiming to prove that, yes, I'm from Crimea and I compete for Ukraine and I raise the Ukrainian flag,'' Rizatdinova says, the Olympic rings on her necklace. When Jamala won, ''it gave me more strength and confidence in myself. I sat by the TV and imagined being at the Olympic Games.''
Slender with broad, powerful shoulders, Rizatdinova is putting the final touches to her routines, including a Brazilian samba-themed performance. While she trains in the Ukrainian capital Kiev at an academy which has produced many champions, her mother remains in Crimea, coaching gymnasts for the Russian sports system.
''It's not important which flag'' her mother's young students compete under, Rizatdinova says. ''The most important thing is that they have a future.''
At a small, rainy athletics meet outside Moscow, former European champion javelin thrower Vera Rebrik was trying to rebuild a career thrown into turmoil by her decision in 2014 to switch from Ukraine to Russia.
Little has changed in Rebrik's day-to-day routine - she still lives in the Crimean tourist city of Yalta, has the same coach and keeps in touch with old friends on the Ukrainian team - but her Olympic dream was put on hold until the International Olympic Committee ruled earlier this month she could represent Russia internationally, despite Ukrainian officials requirement for a three-year ''quarantine'' period for athletes switching allegiance.
Sporting a close-cropped blond haircut and a red Russian national team jacket, Rebrik says she's ''satisfied, happy'' with the IOC ruling. But it may not help. Russia's entire track team was suspended from international competition last year after revelations of widespread doping, and unless that ban is lifted next week at a key vote, she won't be going to Rio.
After throwing 66.70 meters at a meet in Russia - which would have been good enough for second at last year's world championships - Rebrik could be a contender for gold if she makes it to Brazil.
Born in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, Ukrainian swimming star Andriy Hovorov has received a large share of the meager sports funding available in a country with deep economic problems.
Speaking by telephone from a training camp in Switzerland after winning two medals at the European championships, Hovorov says he condemns Crimeans who chose Russia after receiving years of financial help from Ukraine but understands how cash-strapped athletes could be tempted by generous Russian state funding.
''It's really hard to arrange training in good conditions,'' he says. ''Some people who didn't have the chance to train abroad or with professionals ... they'll put themselves first.''
Hovorov has been advised by officials not to visit the peninsula since the annexation because he could face harassment. Since 2014, he has only met his mother when she undertakes a lengthy journey from the peninsula to the mainland across the de-facto border.
Hovorov was in the call room ahead of a final at last year's World Cup in Moscow when another swimmer called out ''Crimea is ours,'' a slogan popular among Russian nationalists, apparently trying to throw Hovorov off his game.
''(Russians and Ukrainians) used to be considered brotherly peoples and that kind of attitude got to me,'' he said.
Despite the pressure, Hovorov went out and won that race. Now, his sights are on Rio.
Dmitry Fedorchenko in Simferopol, Crimea, contributed to this story.