Imagine this scenario: you are 19 years old, you play soccer, you do it very well, in fact, you are a potential star of your country defending the colors of Shakhtar Donetsk and the minor category of the national team; you are happy, you have just married your wife who is about to have your first child, you have a whole life ahead of you and suddenly, from one day to another, the war comes. The neighboring country starts an invasion against your homeland, bombs start falling and men between 18 and 55 years old must enlist and cannot leave Ukraine. It is a movie script that in Ukraine has simply become an everyday occurrence. This is the case of Giorgi Sudakov, a talented young soccer player who is now in a bunker and could take up arms at any moment.
If he does, Sudakov would be neither the first nor the last, as many Ukrainian athletes, recognized and not, are in the line of fire fighting against the Russian army.
“Before it was rackets and strings, now this (vests, helmets and weapons).”
Alexandr Dolgopolov is a well-known Ukrainian former tennis player who reached the top-50 of the ATP ranking and now, as he announced on his Twitter account, took up arms to defend Ukraine. Retired in 2021, the charismatic tennis player posted a photo where you can see a rifle, a helmet and a vest with the message “Before it was rackets and strings, now this.”
Some reports said that Dolgopolov was in Turkey at the outbreak of the war and therefore decided to undergo intensive military training before returning to Ukraine.
Dolgopolov is just one of many cases. Andrei Medvedev—who reached 4th place in the ATP ranking and played a Roland Garros final in 1999—is another tennis player who joined the army. His enlistment was announced by Sergiy Stakhovsky himself, also a recently retired tennis player.
Fighters in the ring and in the field
Boxers are others who have traded gloves for guns. The most famous case so far is probably that of the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, both former champions in the ring who are now defending Ukraine. The case of Vitali, who conquered and defended the heavyweight world champion belt in the first decade of the 2000s in WBO and WBC, is especially striking, as he is also mayor of Kyiv since 2014 and is one of the most important sportsmen in Ukrainian history. A patriotic man, to say the least.
Other emblematic cases include Oleksandr Usyk and Vasiliy Lomachenko. The first is one of the most dominant boxers of the last century, Olympic medalist and world champion in two divisions, who enlisted and said: “I don’t want to shoot, I don’t want to kill, but I have no other choice”. The second is one of the most important pugilists born in Ukraine, he won two gold medals in Olympic Games, conquered world titles in three divisions and now he is in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, his hometown, to fight against the Russian military.
But boxers aren’t the only ones, Bellator welterweight title holder Yaro Amosov said on Instagram that he will stay in Ukraine and “defend this country the best I can” from the Russian invasion.
From practicing sports to fighting a war
For Dmytro Pidruchnyi, a biathlon athlete, his life took a radical change in a matter of days: he went from competing in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing to enlisting in the Ukrainian National Guard. Dmytro is 30 years old and a former European biathlon champion.
Then there are moving stories. Like that of marathon runner Mykola Nyzhnyk, who left Kenya, where he was training, and traveled 8,000 kilometers to defend Ukraine and protect his pregnant wife, Olga, after he heard bombs exploding in the background near Kyiv on a phone call with her. Mykola, unlike other athletes, does have military training and is a first sergeant in the Ukrainian National Guard. “It is my duty and I am very motivated to defend my country,” he told The New York Times.
Chess players have also left the boards to join the ranks of the Ukrainian army, as did Grandmaster Georgy Timoshenko. “GM Yuri Timoshenko took a weapon and went to defend our capital. Meantime my native Kharkiv and exactly my dormitory district (Alekseevka) was bombed by Grad missiles this afternoon with dozens of civilian casualties. We’ll never forgive and forget!” chess player Pevel Eljanov also said via Twitter.
Stanislav Horuna, a karateka in the Kumite category, is another athlete who enlisted to defend Ukraine.
“I want to go to war and help my people”: soccer also reacts
Last year, in September, the humble Moldovan club Sheriff Tiraspol stormed the mythical Santiago Bernabeu, beating Real Madrid 1-2. The coach of that team is 56-year-old Yuriy Vernydub, who has now left his duties in Moldova to defend his homeland against the Russian army. Yuriy is also a former soccer player and, in fact, played for Zenit St. Petersburg from 1997 to 2000.
Oleh Luzhnyi is another former soccer player who signed up. He was a right-back and played for Arsenal. The man, who is now 53 years old, told Sky Sports that “The situation is horrible (…) I want to come and train in the UK, but first of all I will stand firm and fight for my people, for my country and for democracy”.
Other soccer players, far away, are having a hard time. Like Vasyl Kravets, 24, defender of Sporting Gijon, who assured that he wants to “Go to war and help my people” but could not because “I don’t know how to shoot, how to move, how to reload a gun”.
“Almost all our airports are blocked. If my country needs everyone to defend our country, I will go. I will talk to Sporting and leave,” the soccer player told Radio Marca. “I don’t sleep at all. My mother calls me, she hears shots… I’m training, but I only think about my country, my family… My wife cries 8 or 10 times a day, it’s unbelievable. My family is fine, but… they are scared shitless.”
Ukrainian athletes have also died
Unfortunately, several Ukrainian athletes who took up arms have died in combat. Vitalii Sapylo and Dmytro Martynenko were the first two soccer players to die in the war, as announced by the players’ union FIFPRO: “Our thoughts are with the families, friends and teammates of young Ukrainian soccer players Vitalii Sapylo (21) and Dmytro Martynenko (25), the first reported soccer losses in this war. May they both rest in peace.”
Sapylo was part of the Karpaty Lviv youth team, according to his club, he was killed on February 25 in the vicinity of Kyiv in a “battle with Russian forces while defending” his country’s capital. “Eternal memory to this hero,” the club said. The other soccer player, Martynenko, was killed along with his mother after a bombing at his home.
Yevhen Malyshev, a biathlete, was another sportsman killed during the war. Malyshev was killed in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine and one of the most targeted in the first three weeks of the invasion. He was a native of Kharkiv and was doing his military service. He was just 20 years old and had his whole life ahead of him.