KYIV—Yelena Handei sometimes thinks it’s better not to watch her son’s biggest races live on TV. “My heart might stop during those 40 seconds,” she tells The Daily Beast. “It’s better for me to watch a replay.”
It’s not the only thing she has to worry about.
While Oleh Handei is in Beijing for the Olympics—to compete in the short track speed skating for Ukraine—his family back home is braced for an invasion by President Putin’s Russian army.
The Handeis know the carnage that could be wrought if Russian forces surge over the border, as members of the family have already suffered. “My cousin had to escape from eastern Ukraine, when the war began in 2014; her parents are still there and their lives are torn apart,” Yelena says, after inviting The Daily Beast into the family’s home.
Western governments fear Putin is on the verge of following up the 2014 incursion in East Ukraine with a full invasion, which could see Russian troops reach Kyiv—where Yelena and her 13 children live—within days of an aerial bombardment on the border lands.
Oleh Handei, 22, told The Daily Beast that he couldn’t escape the shadow of war as he arrived in Beijing to prepare for the biggest race of his life.
He was briefly confronted about the brewing conflict by several Russians at the Olympics. “A group of men came up to me, I am not sure which sport they represented, they had Russian Olympic uniforms on and they asked me some weird questions, like why I was even in Beijing, when my country was so poor and when the war was about to start,” Oleh told The Daily Beast, over the phone. “I answered them with dignity: ‘Let’s talk about these issues some other time, guys,’ I said, since I did not want any provocations. Besides, one can achieve victory through dignity.”
The conflict creeps into every sphere of life for people who live on both sides of the border.
Fear of impending war reached boiling point on Friday just as Oleh was preparing to compete in heat 3 of the 500 meters.
“My heart is in pain when I read the news,” he said. “But it’s impossible to stop.”
In the end, Oleh came fourth in his heat, failing to qualify for the later stages, but he said he had felt “overwhelmed with pride” for being able to feature in the Opening Ceremony under the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag: “At the time when the entire world talks about the threat of war hanging over my country, our relations with Moscow, we, Ukraine’s best athletes marched before cameras under our country’s flag—that was by far the biggest highlight of my life.”
He said he could picture every single smiling face of his family gathered in front of TV sets as he made his way around the Bird’s Nest stadium.
Back in the southwestern suburbs of Kyiv—despite the threats from Russia—the Handei home is a joyful place. Oleh’s three little sisters—Zarina, 7 Alisa, 6, and Dina, 4—are dancing in their spacious kitchen as their white cat Leo watches on. Oleh’s older brother, Yaroslav, 23, who is also an athlete and a champion of multiple international competitions, was back home and hugging a large Labrador called Sindy.
Yelena sat down to talk for a moment on a long couch, which stretches under a gallery of portraits of her seven biological children and the six others who were adopted.
“Nearly every child I have, including our 4-year-old Dina, can skate and has brought us medals,” said Yelena, pointing at a wall covered in hundreds of medals and trophies. “This important place in our home shows you how much work my children and we, their parents, have devoted to winning for Ukraine.”
She said seven years of conflict with Russia had taken a toll on sporting facilities within Ukraine. “Sport should be a peaceful place but the war has robbed it of its essences and resources, even at the Olympic team level. When my son goes to train in Kazakhstan, he can see how smooth and perfect the ice is there for short track skaters. Before the war, we had much better quality facilities,” she said.
Two of her other sons, who are also top athletes, moved to Spain and Poland, so she was happy that Oleh continued to perform under the Ukrainian flag in Beijing.
Yaroslav, who also competes for his country, said: “Our victories would have never happened if not for our mother, who was always pushing, teaching us discipline, motivating us… In our family we believe that sport is apolitical.”
As Yelena put on her coat to go and collect one of her daughters from dance class, she said she could not bear the idea of full-scale war coming to Kyiv. “I cannot even think about it—I am a mother of 13 children,” she said.
Oleh, who will be back in Kyiv this week, certainly is thinking about it. He says “if the trouble comes,” and Russian troops cross into his beloved Ukraine there is only one place he will be, “on the frontlines.”