For Ukrainian hurdler Anna Ryzhykova, an Olympic bronze medalist and four-time European Championships medalist, continuing her athletics career in the wake of Russia’s invasion of her home country more than a year ago seemed completely pointless. That is, until she homed in on her purpose – and breathed life into it with her voice.
“By participating in competitions, we do not let the world forget about the existence of the country that is Ukraine,” the 33-year-old Ryzhykova told reporters ahead of Wednesday’s celebration of International Women’s Day. “We draw attention to ourselves with our achievements, give interviews, communicate with other athletes and fans so that people can know firsthand what is happening in Ukraine.”
But the fact that Ryzhykova could even pursue this mission is due in large part to World Athletics, the international governing body for the sport of athletics, covering track and field, cross country running, road running, race walking, mountain running and ultra running. Upon the start of the war, World Athletics created the Ukraine Solidarity Fund, which distributed more than $220,000 to over 100 Ukrainian athletes to support training and participation in World Athletics Series events. Additionally, the fund gave assistance to athletes’ immediate family members, coaches and technical officials.
“When the full-scale war had started, I saw no reason for me to continue my sports career — it’s not important now,” Ryzhykova told On Her Turf on Wednesday. “But the support from World Athletics and the other sponsors was not about money. It was a chance for us. They told us, ‘We need you. You should do this. You should continue.’ And it was big for them to support us. They showed us they need us … and helped us to achieve as much as we can.”
Of note, female athletes made up 70 percent of athlete beneficiaries from the fund, which is not lost on Ryzhykova, who also is seizing upon other opportunities afforded her thanks to initiatives established in World Athletics’ #WeGrowAthletics campaign. The campaign, which launched on March 8, 2021, aims to promote and provide greater gender equality in sport.
On Wednesday, the organization announced several new pledges for the campaign’s third year, including an increase in the number of women on the World Athletics Council from eight members currently to a minimum of 10 (40 percent) – including at least one female vice president – at its August elections. It also pledged to build a pipeline to increase female representation across World Athletics’ four commissions to 50 percent for the 2023-2027 term as well as providing more opportunities for women administrators to join the council in 2027.
This pathway to a professional career upon retirement from competition is particularly appealing for Ryzhykova, who recently took her first steps into the front-office world after being voted onto the World Athletics Athletes Commission in July 2022.
“I want to make a next step after retirement, because I’m already 33 years old,” she explained. “I think after Olympics, I will stop my professional career as an athlete. I have so [much] experience as an athlete and I really want to make something better for the younger generation. It’s amazing that we have the commission because sport officials don’t always know what athletes need, so it’s a [way to share] our voice.”
Other pledges announced Wednesday included World Athletics’ commitment to repeating the Ukraine Solidarity Fund for 2023, plus its target of 40-percent female participation in World Athletics’ e-learning courses in 2023. The organization’s emphasis on education is directly tied to its belief that providing the right tools and education opportunities to women at all levels of sport will help achieve that 50-50 parity by 2027.
Similarly, Ryzhykova believes that education about her country, her teammates and the realities facing Ukraine is the best way to fight misinformation and Russian propaganda about the ongoing war. She admits she was particularly blindsided by Russian and Belarusian athletes’ willingness to either stay silent or sympathize with Russia after the war started, which has spurred her to make several public pleas calling for those athletes not to be allowed to compete in elite international competitions.
“It’s so hard, so complicated, but I know that I have no chance to quit,” said Ryzhykova of the complex emotions and relentless anxiety that have become a constant since the start of the war. “There are so many people who are [in a worse situation], who will need my support and need my help. It’s important for them to see me at competitions or just to speak with me. And yeah, sometimes it’s hard for me, especially when something happens and I read bad news.”
She jokes that her ability to cry easily has in fact been incredibly helpful to her mental health. “It helps,” she says with a smile. But also, Ryzhykova has been most buoyed by the overwhelming support she has received, particularly through social media, where she finds herself interacting with supporters from around the world.
“I understand how huge my voice is and how huge is the support I have, how many people follow me, and how good people are,” she said. “Together, we can do everything possible, all good things. I’m so grateful for all those people who are sending me support messages from all over the world these days. Every day, every week, there’s support on my stories or to my posts, [people] send me a comment or say, ‘Our support is there.’ They believe in me, and it’s really helped. I feel that I’m important to this world.”
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