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Ukraine, Russia: Olympic Athletes’ Birthplace Controversy

This post is part of our special coverage London 2012 Olympics.

LVOV REGION (RUS), ZHITOMIR REGION (RUS), UKRAINE REGION (UKR), UKRAINA REGION (RUS): these bizarre geographic names were used last week on the official website of the London 2012 Olympics to describe the birthplaces of at least a dozen of Ukraine-born athletes representing the Russian Federation (e.g., volleyball player Taras Khtey, judoist Vera Moskalyuk, rhythmic gymnast Karolina Sevastyanova, canoeist Alexey Korovashkov).

The errors most likely got there due to sloppiness of the Russian Olympic Committee officials responsible for filling in the athletes’ biographical data forms and passing the information to the event's organizers. Several Russian team members born in the Caucasus and Central Asia had their birthplaces mixed up as well.

Many netizens in Ukraine found these misplacements offensive and rather typical, however – a kind of a post-imperial Freudian slip reflecting what's often perceived as Russia's possessive attitude towards its neighbors.

An online protest was launched [uk, en] in response:

On the official site of the 2012 Olympics, Ukraine has become part of Russia [...].

I propose writing angry letters to the Russian Olympic Committee (pr@olympic.ru) and to the organizers of the Olympic Games in London (complaints@enquiries.london2012.com). A sample letter [in English] is below.

[...]

Dear (London2012/Olympic) Committee,

I am writing to express my deep disgust concerning your mistake about
the russian athletes birth place. Thus, for instance, according to
London 2012 web site, Korovashov is born in Ukraina region (RUS)
http://www.london2012.com/athlete/korovashkov-alexey-1010562/ and
Khtey is born in Lvov region (rus)

http://www.london2012.com/athlete/khtey-taras-1013482/

It is well known that Ukraine is an independent country and
not part of russian federation, and that Lvov (correct spelling Lviv)
is situated in Ukraine (and was one of 4 cities of Euro 2012)!

I am really very disappointed by these ’mistakes’ and demand to
correct them immediately!

Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, Ukraine's Minister of Foreign Affairs, got involved, reporting on the steps taken by his office via Twitter. Below are Hryshchenko's exchanges [uk] with the online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda.

@ukrpravda_news:

@Gryshchenko Kostyantyn, can you comment on this? What does “Ukraine region” mean? Will there be a reaction from [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs]? pic.twitter.com/fZsa13P7

A screenshot of Ukrainska Pravda's tweet addressed to Ukraine's Foreign Minister, featuring a screenshot of the Ukraine-born Russian gymnast's bio page on the London 2012 website.

@Gryshchenko:

@ukrpravda_news The word “region” definitely shouldn't be there. A silly mistake even from the standpoint of the English grammar. We'll find out whose error it is and get them to correct it.

@ukrpravda_news:

@Gryshchenko Keep us posted!

@Gryshchenko:

@ukrpravda_news I've just asked our Embassy in Great Britain to get in touch with the organizing committee of the Olympics, so that they corrected this error.

Eventually, some of the errors were indeed fixed (albeit somewhat inconsistently) – while others remain. What used to be “LVOV REGION (RUS)” on Taras Khtey‘s page has turned into “LVOV REGION ()”, Vera Moskalyuk‘s “ZHITOMIR REGION (RUS)” is now “ZHITOMIR REGION ()”, and Karolina Sevastyanova‘s initial birthplace of “UKRAINE REGION (UKR)” is now “UKRAINE (UKR)”. Alexey Korovashkov still has “UKRAINA REGION (RUS)” in his bio:

A screenshot of Alexey Korovashkov's bio page on the London 2012 website.

The gaffe and the subsequent Ukrainian reaction didn't go unnoticed on Twitter.

User @MeybeGiuliia mentioned Sol Campbell, a retired English football player, who, back in May, didn't think it was safe for the English fans to come to Ukraine for the Euro 2012 (the fans did come anyway and later informed Campbell, through a mock protest in Donetsk, that he had been “wrong”):

ATT GB Olympic committee: Ukraine – isn't REGION of Russia, it's COUNTRY. Please, ask Sol Campbell.

Joel Draper (@DraperMovies) mentioned the Russia-Ukraine controversy along with two others that preceded the Olympics, including the South/North Korean flag mix-up (GV text is here):

Yesterday the issue was a flag mix up, today it's Ukraine being a ‘region’ of Russia and a welsh player being listed as english #London2012

JaWill (@lgyyjaw) used the #olympicgeography hashtag in this summary of the situation:

Ukraine is a region of Russia #olympicgeography #London2012

User @Voloschka wrote:

Did these people even learn geography? Official London 2012 Olympics website's a mess. http://www.kyivpost.com/content/sport/russian-olympic-committee-annexes-ukraine-region.html …

Jonathan Campion (‏@jonathancampion) wrote this, linking to the not-yet-amended bio page of Karolina Sevastyanova:

This hasn't gone down well in Kyiv: an Olympic gymnast from the “Ukraine region” of the Russian Federation. http://www.london2012.com/athlete/sevastyanova-karolina-1013451/ …

And so did Nikolaus von Twickel (‏@niktwick):

They won't risk a war because of a beautiful sportsmenka [female athlete]? MT @jearlemsk Russian #Olympics gymnast from “Ukraine” region http://www.london2012.com/athlete/sevastyanova-karolina-1013451/ …

And The Economist's Edward Lucas (‏@edwardlucas):

Ukraine is a “region” in Russian eyes (according to bio of an Olympic athlete) http://l2012.cm/QD92zX

On Facebook, Ukrainian journalist Vakhtang Kipiani also posted a screenshot of Karolina Sevastyanova's page, along with the opening words [ru] of the Soviet anthem:

“An unbreakable union…” Yuck.

Kipiani's post generated nearly 70 comments; below are a few of them [uk; ru].

Yuri Beresten:

The spectre of the Soviet Union has started haunting Europe again!

Oksana Stebelska :

This is simply unacceptable…

Vlodko Tomash:

A disaster… oy-oh… unacceptable… while the fact that [the Ukrainian state officials] are [stealing] billions and dooming the country to annihilation is something we can close our eyes to… [...]

Oleh Pastukhov:

Just an ordinary sports betrayal that everyone is used to already. [...] People have been selling their motherland for gold and food for a few thousand years already.

Victoria Veremiienko (in reply to Oleh Pastukhov):

[...] I wouldn't call this betrayal – if a country is offering decent work conditions [...], why would [an athlete] refuse? (and for an athlete this is work). The same way one can consider it a betrayal that thousands of Ukrainians are going abroad to earn money.

Karolina Sevastyanova, the Ukraine-born Russian rhythmic gymnast – and “the face” of this controversy, did not seem to be aware of the seriousness of the situation. On her Vkontakte page [ru], a friend posted a note [ru] about the gaffe, but in the comments to this post there were no mentions of the protest letter-writing campaign or of the high-ranking Ukrainian official's involvement. The athlete's fans and friends were mainly wishing Sevastyanova good luck, she was chatting back, and the discussion [ru] was in general very friendly and apolitical:

Zlatoslav Kalinich:

Accept our congratulations! Ukraine is proud that it now has such an athlete)))

Maxim Sedoplatov:

Most likely, Karolina was born in Ukraine, and is Ukrainian, but lives in and represents Russia. And the organizers must have thought that the region in which Karolina was born (Ukraine) is part of Russia. Is that true?

[...]

[I guessed it right!] Moreover, Karolina was born in Kiev! Well, well, now there's nothing surprising for me here! Kiev women have always been known for their beauty!

Karolina Sevastyanova:

A huge thank you ) I'm very pleased! Yes, I was born in Kiev. But since early childhood I have lived in Moscow. And, naturally, Russia is my native country )

Natasha Kosinova:

Karolina, which passport do you hold? Russian or Ukrainian?

Karolina Sevastyanova:

I've never lived in Ukraine! I was only born there.

[...]

The passport is Russian.

On Twitter, where Sevastyanova (@Karolisha_S) has nearly 850 followers, she wrote:

After they reported everywhere that I had been born in Kiev, I am getting friend requests exclusively from Ukrainians!

This post is part of our special coverage London 2012 Olympics.

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