"So that there are no Russians under any flag": the president of the NOC summarized the results of the year, spoke about the return of OI stars and future goals
Summing up the results of 2023, the President of the National Olympic Committee Vadym Gutzeit spoke about the greatest achievements of Ukrainian athletes, the fight to ban Russians and Belarusians, and the return of Olympic medalists who had previously announced the end of their careers.
In a conversation with OBOZ.UA, the NOC president noted the experience he gained as Minister of Youth and Sports and spoke about his relations with the International Olympic Committee.
- Vadym, please summarize the results of the outgoing year. Both at the NOC and the Ministry of Youth and Sports. What were the main achievements?
- I have been working in the Ministry for almost 10 months this year, and I can say that the work in the Ministry and the National Olympic Committee go hand in hand. Because the Ministry forms the policy, and the NOC implements it and represents the state at the international level, sends athletes to international competitions, provides travel to the Olympic Games, World and European Championships and other international competitions.
There are many achievements in 2023. We all - both the NOC and the Ministry - work for the sake of athletes and coaches, so we need to analyze the achievements of our athletes in 2023. Especially in such conditions, when the war is ongoing. And it's nice that we had victories at the European Games and the third place in the team, as well as awards at various world and European championships, we do not stop and move on.
We supported sports, we survived. Our athletes participated in almost all international competitions. There were no cases when we did not have the funds to travel to competitions, no cases when athletes did not have the opportunity to train. The NOC and the Ministry did everything possible to ensure that our athletes were represented internationally and were competitive in many competitions.
Yes, we lost in some competitions, as it is difficult to win everywhere nowadays, but we took part in competitions, won and our flag flew. And this is the most important thing. Because many countries no longer talk about the war in Ukraine, and sports gave everyone a reason to remember that Ukraine is, has been and will be.
The National Olympic Committee did a lot to develop the Olympic movement in Ukraine. All branches worked, events were held in all regions and many children were involved. During the war, everyone in Ukraine needs to understand that there is an Olympic movement and Olympic values, that we are raising children who participate in all competitions. And this is our work every day. And the most important achievement is one: we kept the sport together.
And how much has been done for grassroots sports across the country. All segments of the population were involved in training. Yes, unfortunately, we have not resumed the reconstruction or construction of infrastructure that was severely damaged during the war, more than 500 facilities were destroyed or damaged. But we understand that this is not the right time. First and foremost, we need to allocate more money for winning, and the funds that remain are used to train our athletes. And you know, all coaches and athletes receive their salaries during the war, there was not a single delay.
Of course, there was a very powerful effort to exclude Russians and Belarusians from international competitions. Not a single day went by when I did not address one of my colleagues - ministers or presidents of Olympic committees of other countries. At the ministerial summit, where more than 35 countries were represented, they supported the suspension of the Russians and Belarusians. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also spoke at this summit and called for their exclusion from the competition.
I took part in an online conference with the IOC and also urged them not to return the representatives of the aggressor countries. I spoke with the president of each international federation, with those who allowed the Russians to compete. But they still paid attention to the criteria of the International Olympic Committee, and in many sports, the leaders of the Russian and Belarusian national teams were not allowed to participate. And the fact that the Russian Olympic Committee's membership in the IOC was temporarily suspended is also the work that has been done over these 10 months or even a year.
We can see how many opinions are being voiced from the other side, saying that we have been suspended, we do not want to participate in the 2024 Olympic Games. And this is also not just for nothing. It is because every day the NOC and the Ministry team, headed by Gutzeit, worked without paying attention to the fact that someone is happy or not happy inside the country, that someone is criticizing something. It was a difficult year, a year of war, but there were many achievements, and I am proud of that.
- To what extent will these achievements of 2023 influence the next Olympic year? For example, in the context of the struggle to exclude Russians from the 2024 Games in Paris.
- There will be no Russians in team sports and program numbers at the Olympics. In many sports, too, because there is no time to qualify. In a number of sports, they were admitted, but according to the IOC's criteria, the best athletes will not start either.
I read a lot of statements from the presidents of the federations of the aggressor country, where they say that we don't agree with the IOC at all and don't want to participate in this competition or that. And this all happened for a reason. We are constantly on the move and, of course, next year we will also work to suspend the Russians so that they do not participate in competitions under any flag at all, although they do not have any now.
As for our athletes, we continue to prepare. Ukrainian athletes already have 51 licenses. And we need to work hard and do everything possible to ensure that they get as many as possible. In January, the Winter Youth Olympic Games will take place in Korea, and in July, the Summer Olympic Games will start in Paris. I have been working at the NOC for more than a month now and have been fully focused on the development of the Olympic movement in Ukraine.
We are developing plans for the French Olympics, meeting with the presidents of the federations, head coaches and discussing how we can help, what needs to be done, maybe convince someone somewhere, because this is a joint work of the NOC with all the federations and athletes.
- How difficult was it to retain key athletes, since not everyone could stand it mentally, some had financial or family difficulties, some had problems with the federation? For example, in the summer, Olena Starikova, the vice-champion of the 2020 Olympic Games in cycling, announced her retirement.
- When I learned that Olena Starikova was done with sports, I called her and talked to her. She said she was very tired, including psychologically. I told her as a friend: "Take a month, two, three, and come back. You're an athlete, you're strong in spirit, you have a perspective, you have another opportunity to win the Olympics. You have every chance. You are a very powerful athlete with a strong character." And now she is back. But it's not just work, it's just a human relationship that needs to be there.
Another Olympic fencing medalist, Alina Komashchuk, went to Spain after the outbreak of the full-scale war and ended her career. I also contacted her, wrote, saying, Alina, think about it, there are chances, now the preparations are just beginning. She said: "Vadym, I can't. I give all my salary to the armed forces of Ukraine and their support. I want to start a new life and I can't go back to sports now. I'm not ready."
But time passed, Alina returned to Ukraine and is now back on the team. They are fighting, and the saber fencers have a chance to go to the Olympic Games as a team. And so are many of the athletes I talk to when I travel around the regions.
You know, everyone is used to the idea that athletes are so steely, they can withstand anything, but it's also very difficult for them. Of course, it's no more difficult than for our guys and girls who are now defending the country in such conditions. But, for example, there is a rhythmic gymnast Victoria Onoprienko, whose father is defending our country in the Armed Forces. And I used to fence with him, by the way.
And you can imagine how difficult it is for Victoria, because every day she waits for some information about whether her father is okay. And then she has to go to training, compete and be the best. And she did well, she won a license for the 2024 Olympic Games.
Or the case of our Olympic canoeing medalist Lyudmyla Luzan, when she and her colleagues had to go to a competition in Uman, and at night a Russian missile hit near their hotel. These are the conditions we live in and the conditions we train in.
It's hard for everyone, but we are strong in spirit and have no other choice but to win awards in the international arena and raise the flag of Ukraine. And if someone loses courage somewhere, they should look at our defenders who are now defending Ukraine. They are protecting us there, and we need to do our job.
- In the fall, you left the post of Minister of Sports. What was the biggest difficulty in combining two such responsible positions - state and public? And what useful experience did you gain?
- Experience is there where you want it to be. Having a lot of experience as a coach, I understood what our athletes and their mentors need. And now we speak the same language with all the coaches and athletes because I know their needs and they understand me well. I don't say some lofty phrases and make vague promises, I say specific things - we can or can't do it and what needs to be done. This has been the case in all the positions I have held.
Of course, when I was a minister, this was my greatest experience. I realized how to develop sports within the country, how to build infrastructure, how to develop grassroots sports, what to do for top-level sports. And most importantly, a lot was done in terms of legislation, the regulatory framework was seriously changed and updated during my term.
The NOC is already a public organization that cooperates with the Olympic committees of other countries, cooperates directly with the International Olympic Committee, although during the war we had very difficult relations, as they still allowed Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag. And our position is unchanged - we are against it.
Of course, at first we were very grateful that they suspended the Russians. But then a year later they returned them. But we still need to move forward with the International Olympic Committee, communicate and focus on the international work we have been doing since the first day of the invasion.
- Do you think it would be advisable to change anything in the NOC structure?
- You know, almost every leader comes in and says that they will change something, talks about their dreams, and then over time we see what they were actually able to do and what were empty promises. Of course, I have a desire to be more open, to make it even clearer what the NOC does. The openness of the president and the entire team is very important, so that everyone who has any questions or problems comes to us and we solve everything together.
I will support all our athletes and coaches, as I did when I worked in the ministry. I am always there for them because I am a man of sports, not of one institution.
We also want to organize more events and involve children more. And we are working not only in Kyiv but also in all regions of Ukraine. We plan to strengthen all our branches. In many regions, we have re-elected very powerful heads of our branches. Many businessmen have come forward who are ready to develop sports. And it is really impressive that during the war many events are held in the regions. I see how many children are involved, how many schoolchildren are starting their journey in sports. This is very important.
At the European Day of Sport, Ukraine was held up as an example, telling how in the city of Volodymyr, Volyn region, we, together with the head of the local branch, Hryhoriy Nedopad, gathered a whole stadium of children, with whom we held events, played sports, and then launched Olympic rings into the sky. When we showed this to our European partners, they were very impressed with how Ukraine was developing sports during the war. I have a goal to hold similar events in every city and in every region. And I want all mayors, heads of our organizations and military administrations to get involved in sports.
- Is interest in sports returning in Ukraine despite the ongoing war?
- This is a difficult and challenging time for the whole country. That year, after the full-scale invasion began, many people did not understand where to go next, they went abroad, children stopped playing sports and some children's and youth sports schools did not work. In Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia regions, rockets were smashing buildings every day, but eventually everyone returned, all our centers are now working and developing the Olympic movement in the regions, for which I am very grateful.
- Is it more important for us now that athletes return to train in Ukraine or train safely abroad, if possible?
- It's up to the coaches of the national teams of Ukraine to decide, they look at the situation and see if they have the conditions. If we have the opportunity to train in Kyiv or at our Olympic bases, why not do it there or in other regions - in Western Ukraine, for example, in Lviv? Where there is a real material and technical base and where our athletes can train and feel relatively safe. Because, of course, there is no place in Ukraine where we would feel completely safe. But we still need to fulfill all the conditions that we have developed in the Ministry.
There are athletes who go abroad to train, like freestyle skaters, for example. And they show very good results at the Olympic Games, world championships and world cups. They have a galaxy of young athletes thanks to the work of the federation and the head coach of the national team, Enver Ablayev, whom I respect very much. He is such a talented and humble person who just does his job. And thanks to such coaches, we have results.
Thanks to the work of Enver Ablaev, Svetlana Saidova in artistic swimming, and the young diving specialist Ilya Tselutin, we will always have hope for a better result. Of course, everything happens with the support of the federation. And in many sports where there is such a combination - strong support from the federation and a strong head coach - there are good results. So we will see.
For example, artistic swimming was based in Kyiv, and six months ago they moved to Kharkiv and are now training there. They chose their hometown, which is right next to the border with Russia, where air raid warnings are sounded every day. And in such conditions they are working to obtain a license for the Olympic Games.
- What do you see as the peculiarities of cooperation between the Ministry and the NOCs at the present stage? Especially in the context of preparations for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
- It's the same as before: we have the same goal - to develop sports in the country and successfully compete in the international arena. When I combined these two positions for a year, everyone realized how we could work as a family. We did everything possible as a family and moved forward quickly. I believe that this is the way we should continue to work, there is no other way. The NOC works for the Olympic Movement and our athletes, both in Ukraine and internationally. Therefore, we need to work together and make all the difficult decisions together.
Of course, if we, God willing, participate in the Olympic Games, the Executive Committee will approve the team. We are already preparing the logistics, employees of the Ministry and the NOC went to Paris and inspected the bases where we could train, as the French Minister of Sports, Ms. Amelie Oudea-Castera, gave Ukrainian athletes the opportunity to hold training camps there for a million euros.
I would like to finally introduce the club system in sports, which I submitted a bill to the Verkhovna Rada a few years ago. But it hasn't been considered yet.
- I would also like to pay attention to university sports...
- Now Anton Nikulin has begun to work very hard on the Student League in Lviv. He is a creative leader at the local level who launched this program at the national level.
We know that in the United States, the student league is generally the base of the highest achievement sports. There is no state support for children's and youth sports schools there, no state-owned clubs, everything is private. That is, all children pay money for training, then go to university, and if you are a powerful athlete, you have free education in the most prestigious institutions. Then you have the opportunity to go to the Olympic Games, the World Championships, and the European Championships, because there is no other way in the United States. By the way, Mikhail Brodsky once introduced a student league in basketball. So we need to raise student sports and introduce it in every region.
- What would be considered a successful performance at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Paris? Do you have any minimum plans?
- The first and foremost thing is Ukraine's presence at the Olympics. The fact that our team will be present with its flag during the war is already important in the political light. The Olympic Games are a political competition. When the whole world sees that Ukraine has arrived, is present at the opening ceremony and the Ukrainian flag is shown on TV, it will be very important.
Some people called our performance at the last Summer Olympics in Tokyo 2020 a failure, but you need to compare it with Rio de Janeiro 2016. Brazil won 11 medals and Japan won 19. You can call it black and white, but facts are facts. So, of course, we want more of our athletes to be competitive and compete for awards.
I understand that it may be difficult to repeat this result, but we will be rooting for every athlete and every coach. I am sure that all those athletes who will receive a license will give everything to go to Paris and fight for the award. But whether they succeed or not, we'll see.
- What is the current attitude towards Ukraine in the sports world? Some people abroad recognize where you are from, rejoice, sympathize and want to support you, while others, it seems to me, already have some kind of fatigue written on their faces.
- No one says they are tired to your face. But we understand this: everyone is in solidarity with us, everyone is trying to help us, but everyone has their own life. You know what my mom used to say: "Son, you have to understand that it's the other person's fault." In other words, everyone will sympathize and go home, but you will still have the problem. That's how it is with us.
There is a full-scale war going on in Ukraine, and of course they all support us and express solidarity. But when I talk to my international partners - NOCs or the IOC - and they all urge me to participate in competitions where there are Russians, I tell them that they just need to understand what is happening here. When you wake up in the morning and the air raid is sounding, children are sitting in bomb shelters and cities are collapsing because everything stops, and we wait and thank our defenders who protect us and our children at an incredible cost.
Those people who are abroad and don't see this, wake up in the morning, drink their coffee peacefully, talk to Gutzeit about solidarity and help, and calmly plan their day. That's why it's hard for you to understand us, but we still remind you of ourselves and will continue to do so until this war is over. We will continue to work. And we still have reliable partners who still support Ukraine and help us.
I am now in touch with many of our ambassadors in other countries. And when they call me and tell me that they met with some president of an international federation and he spoke very highly of the work of our Olympic Committee, I am very pleased.
The IOC is headquartered in Lausanne, as are many other federations. And the ambassador of Ukraine to Switzerland is now Iryna Venediktova, the former Prosecutor General of Ukraine. We communicate with her a lot because she meets with the president of one or another federation every week, and she held a joint meeting with the IOC with my participation. And when she calls after she has talked to someone and sends her greetings, we understand that this person remembers us and continues to support Ukraine, and this is our job.
- What is your goal as president of the NOC?
- You know, this is such a complex issue. But first and foremost, my goal is to make Ukrainian sports better, more accessible, and to make us proud of our athletes.
- Do you have time to watch sports? And what kinds of sports do you watch most often?
- I watch everything. You know, when I was practicing fencing and was hungry for it, I watched only fencing. And when I became responsible for all sports, of course, I receive a daily report on each sport, who won and lost where. When you are a manager, you have to understand everything and know what is happening and where, because someone may ask a question that you do not expect.
That's why I communicate with all the presidents of the federations, coaches and athletes, and if there is a problem, I try to dive into it myself and help solve it. I try to be useful to everyone because I have experience and a desire to do something better.
- But just as a fan, do you sit down and let your emotions flow?
- Well, not so long ago I was rooting for the men's national football team of Ukraine, and I wanted our team to go directly to Euro 2024 under the leadership of Serhiy Rebrov. Since we are friends, I really want him to succeed. You know, he is such a powerful, smart specialist and I really want the team he leads to show results.
I watch handball and basketball competitions, and the biathlon season has recently started. I understand what is happening and where. Of course, I follow fencing to see who has a chance to make it to the Olympics. But since I'm responsible for all sports, I need to be tolerant of every sport.
- We are all adults, but we still have desires and dreams. What will you ask for under the Christmas tree?
- Victory. And only victory. I am sure that this is the only wish of every Ukrainian now.