BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The war with Russia hangs over the Olympic world these days as much as anywhere else. So perhaps it was fitting that the last person standing on the last event of the final day of the track and field world championships hailed from Ukraine.
And perhaps it was perfect that Yaroslava Mahuchikh closed out that event with a gold medal hanging from her neck.
Ukraine’s best high jumper, a symbol of hope to her war-torn country and defiance to those who would see it ruined, won a championship Sunday. She jumped 2.01 meters (6 feet, 7 inches) to close out a riveting evening on the track -- and in the field.
“Finally, I have my gold medal,” she said of the country's first world title since 2013, when the meet was held in Moscow. “And it's really extra important for my country right now.”
Mahuchikh's final jump of the evening came only seconds after hurdles champion Femke Bol of The Netherlands, who fell and cost her country a medal at the end of the mixed 4x400 relay on opening night, overcame a 20-meter deficit with about 80 to go to give the Dutch the win in the women’s version of the race.
Watching Bol reel in a British runner, then a Jamaican one, then cross the finish line in the lead, was easily the most outlandishly exciting 20 seconds of the nine-day meet in Budapest, which is only a short plane flight from Ukraine's capital of Kyiv.
But nothing compared to the theatre Mahuchikh delivered in her two hours on the stage. That she was here at all was a testament to her courage, persistence and the assistance she's received from far and wide.
The 21-year-old, wearing eyeliner colored the same blue and yellow as her country’s flag, was forced to leave quickly from her hometown of Dnipro when the war started. She said she saw artillery shells raining down as she road in the car on her way out.
She has trained in Germany and, most recently, in Belgium, where her mother, sister and niece are also living. Her father remains in Dnipro. Her grandma passed away in February back in Ukraine.
She has only been home once — at the beginning of this year — and hopes to go again when track season is over. Dnipro had been relatively safe at the outset of the fighting, but it has since become a target in the war.
“It's really difficult mentally,” she said. “But I have big support from my coach, fans, friends. They tell me you represent our country and you will come back to us."
Mahuchikh was one of 29 Ukrainian athletes who qualified for worlds in Hungary this week where, the night before, the stadium was bathed in yellow-and-blue light. This marked the first gold medal for Ukraine and the second overall, adding to a silver won by Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk two nights earlier in the triple jump.
Russia and Belarus are both excluded from major track events, a decision led by World Athletics President Sebastian Coe, whose sport is among the few that has taken such a stringent stance against the Russians.
“Oh, it makes me choke,” Coe said of the reality that Ukraine’s athletes have been wandering the globe, looking for places to train, and live, for the past 18 months. “I cannot imagine what it must be like for athletes from Ukraine to be dealing with this landscape.”
Mahuchikh sealed her win after jumping 2 centimeters higher than Australia’s Eleanor Patterson, who beat her last year at worlds in Eugene, Oregon. With the gold medal secure, Mahuchikh had the bar set to 2.07 to try for a personal best.
After missing twice, she waited for the end of Bol’s amazing comeback to make her last attempt. With Bol and her teammates in a dogpile celebrating on the track, Mahuchikh failed to clear.
Still, it was a win, and a few moments later, she was smiling, holding her country’s flag aloft and waiting for her medal. Her story could be among the most poignant next year at the Paris Olympics, where some sports are considering allowing Russians in — but not track.
“I don't think about the future or what might happen,” she said. “It's right now that is important.”
The rest of the day’s winners included Victor Kiplangat of Uganda in the men’s marathon; Neeraj Chopra of India in the javelin throw; Winfred Mutile Yavi of Bahrain in the women’s steeplechase; Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway in the men’s 5,000 and Mary Moraa of Kenya in the women’s, 800 where American Athing Mu finished third.
The U.S. men won the 4x400 relay to give the Americans their 29th medal of the championships, 12 of them gold.
Ukraine finished with one that everyone in the country will share.
Mahuchikh said she has friends, part of Ukraine’s extensive sports family, who have died in the war — a bracing reality that puts the real stakes of sports into perspective.
She is also well aware of the power sports can have to boost spirits in a country that needs every bit of encouragement it can get as the fighting drags past the 18-month mark.
“Now it’s more important to show the world that we will continue fighting for our independence,” she said. “We know we will win this. But what is the price we will pay?”
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