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Ukrainian Olympic Skiier Goes Home In Defense Of Freedom


Ukraine's Olympic skier, Bogdana Matsotska, was to compete Friday at the Olympic Games but she withdrew after the deaths in Kiev. NPR's Sam Sanders reports that she hopes her absence from the slopes will draw attention to her homeland.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Bogdana Matsotska has gone from Olympic athlete to activist and minor celebrity.

BOGDANA MATSOTSKA: Can you just call me, like, in one hour please because now I'm really busy?

SANDERS: Since Wednesday, when she dropped out of Olympic competition, Matsotska has been fielding calls from journalists all around the world. This was her seventh interview of the day in the Olympic Alpine Center of Rosa Khutor. Matsotska said her soul is clear about her choice to skip the lady's slalom competition in Sochi.

MATSOTSKA: The people are fighting here for the results and other people are fighting in the Ukraine for just to be alive and to be a democracy. I cannot be a sportsman. I just need to be a human being, a citizen of my country.

SANDERS: Her country is currently in turmoil. Opposition protesters are demanding Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, resign. Dozens have died and hundreds have been injured during protests in Kiev. Matsotska believes she's the only Ukrainian athlete to withdraw from the games and she says she's OK with her teammates remaining in competition.

MATSOTSKA: I respect them. They respect my choice.

SANDERS: You're not mad at them?

MATSOTSKA: No. No. Like, 50/50.

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Very often, athletes will just keep their mouths shut because - well, for one thing, they've waited four years to compete.

SANDERS: David Wallechinsky is the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. He says Matsotska's choice might bring more attention to Ukraine, but it probably won't change anything politically. He also says her choice might not have been that hard.

WALLECHINSKY: I think what made it easier for her was that she'd already competed. She'd been in two events.

SANDERS: Giant Slalom and Super Giant Slalom. Wallechinsky says when it comes to political statements in the Olympics, Matsotska's not alone. Before the '56 Olympics in Melbourne, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. During the Hungary-USSR water polo game, a fight broke out. The event came to be known as the blood in the water match. In 1968, the world saw the now iconic image of two African-American Olympic athletes raising fists at the Olympic medal podium in Mexico City.

WALLECHINSKY: Tommy Smith, John Carlos' silent, non-violent Black Power salute which got them kicked out of the Olympics.

SANDERS: Matsotska might not go down in Olympic history. She won't have an iconic moment at a podium or in competition. Right now she's just focused on getting home. She says once she's back, she'll go where the protests are, and in a few years she'll try this whole Olympics thing once more.

MATSOTSKA: I'm strong. I hope maybe next Olympic Games will be mine, but now this choice, what I did, is the right choice for me.

SANDERS: Even without Matsotska on Friday, Ukraine did well. They took gold in the women's biathlon relay. Sam Sanders, NPR News, Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.