KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - Four teammates stood proudly behind the Ukraine flag, smiles beaming, celebrating their country’s first gold medal at the Sochi Olympics.
Parliament paused in the deeply divided Ukraine to mark the occasion.
After days of deadly anti-government protests, and as government and opposition leaders worked on a political solution to the months-long crisis, the Ukrainian women provided some good news with their victory Friday in the 4x6-kilometer biathlon relay - Ukraine’s first Winter Olympics gold medal in two decades.
“Great proof of how sport can unite the nation,” Sergei Bubka, the pole vault great and leader of the Ukraine Olympic Committee, posted on Twitter. “Moments after girls won gold Ukrainian Parliament stopped discussions …. Speaker greeted the team, MPs sang national anthem! It is a day of crucial decisions in Parliament. Hope the power of sport help to find unity.”
“I am very proud,” Bubka said. “The girls brought such a fantastic success, which really we needed today for the Ukrainian people, to bring the light, to bring the bright future and to show that Ukraine exists, the Ukrainian people together.”
It was a momentum shifting day for Ukraine, with Parliament voting to restore the 2004 constitution that limits presidential authority, clawing back some of the powers that President Viktor Yanukovych had pushed through after being elected in 2010.
“My country has big problems but those are very good results for the people in Ukraine,” Volodymyr Brynzak, president of Ukraine’s biathlon federation and vice-president of the national Olympic committee, told The Associated Press. “Today’s victory in Parliament and now by the team in this competition, it is two victories for Ukraine today.”
Twins Vita and Valj Semerenko combined with Juliya Dzhyma and Olena Pidhrushna to win the last women’s biathlon event at Sochi. There were tears, and then there were smiles.
“When I came to the podium I cried, and tried to hide it behind the skis,” Valj Semerenko said. “It was not only my tears, but the tears of the whole Ukraine.”
At a news conference an hour after the race, Pidhrushna urged a room full of people to stand for a minute’s silence in memory of the people killed in the protests in Kiev.
“We dedicate this victory to the whole of Ukraine,” said Pidhrushna. “We concentrated on the race, we are professional athletes. Despite everything that’s happening at home, we went out to the start line with the intent of performing as we are able to. We know what we had to do, and how.”
Pidhrushna hoped the victory had a unifying influence.
“Whether it’s Russia or Ukraine, all people will be happy for us,” she said. “The Olympic Games is a situation when all people are united.”
The biathlon victory was warmly welcomed by protesters on Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, the scene of street battles between protesters and police earlier in the week.
“Today, Ukraine is winning in politics and sports,” Gleb Vashchuk, a protester on Maidan said. “Ukraine is a strong nation that has showed to the world how to fight and achieve the result.”
Dozens of people were killed and more than 500 injured in confrontations between government forces and protesters between Tuesday and Friday morning.
“The news has lifted our spirits after yesterday’s nightmare,” another protester, Vasyli Kosholynski, said.
Ukrainians in Sochi celebrated the victory.
“I think the situation in our country will be better for this moment,” said Zlatov Aleksander Sergeevich, a Ukrainian who studies in Moscow.
The Ukrainian team missed five targets but avoided penalty loops to finish in 1 hour, 10 minutes, 2.5 seconds.
Defending champion Russia was 26.4 behind to take silver, and Norway trailed by 37.6 to win bronze.
It was the second medal for Ukraine these games, after Vita Semerenko took bronze in the women’s 7.5K sprint.
Germany failed to reach the podium in an Olympic women’s biathlon relay for the first time since the sport became part of the Olympics in 1992 on a day the team was rocked by a doping scandal involving Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle.
Germany was the top-ranked women’s relay team but Franziska Preuss fell and lost a pole on the first lap, and lost even more time when she had to blow snow out of the sight of her rifle before starting her first shooting. Germany finished 11th, more than three minutes off the lead.
Franziska Hildebrand, who skied the third leg for Germany, said the team was told about the doping test earlier in the day.
“We are totally shocked,” Hildebrand said. “But now we tried to concentrate on our race today. … We wanted to show why we are such a good relay team. But today we were unlucky on the first loop.”
Hildebrand and Henkel both said they had not spoken to Sachenbacher-Stehle since the positive result was announced.
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau contributed from Kiev, Ukraine
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