My Olympic country is Azerbaijan

Why are two Ukrainian triathletes competing for Azerbaijan to achieve their Olympic dream and how does the ITU Olympic qualification system contribute to this happening? Rostyslav and Kseniia tell us

By Alberto Trillo | Photos: Jairo Iglesias | Rostyslav


“The political problem [in Ukraine] came after our decision; we went because it was difficult there for us to achieve our objectives due to the lack of sponsors,” explains Kseniia Levokvska, who is hoping to make the leap to the WTS.

Azerbaijan offered Rostyslav Petvsov, currently 31st in the ITU points ranking and 11th in the last WTS in London, and Kseniia, his partner, optimum conditions to develop their sporting career with a plan leading up to Rio 2015. 

“Azerbaijan offers us better pay and working conditions. They’re also paying for our travel, and that resolves the financial side so that we can focus on training, competing and qualifying for the Olympics because we’re able to take part in all the necessary races,” they tell us.

Objectives: Baku European Games

 “[In Azerbaijan] they didn’t set us specific objectives to qualify for the Games, though they do want us to, but the aim is to compete as well as possible and get results,” Kseniia explains.

However, “it’s very important to them that we perform as well as possible in the Baku European Games,” says Rostyslav.

With the European Games in Baku, the country’s capital, as a backdrop, the Azerbaijani Government “is investing in sport,” they say. Without the structure to win medals in the short term with people native to the country, the Azerbaijani Government is investing in foreign athletes who agree to represent their country. Sources in the Azerbaijani administration told Pontoon that, in the 2012 Olympic Games, 25 of the 50 athletes representing the Caucasian nation were nationalised in order to compete for the country. 

Like Turkey and other countries of the Persian Gulf such as Qatar and Bahrain, Azerbaijan is using sport as a unifying force for the nation and for its symbolic value within the international community, as the USA and USSR did during the Cold War, or Hitler’s Germany did at Berlin 1936, to name two iconic examples.

This marriage of convenience is a win-win situation. Meanwhile, the athletes and the country give flags in sport the value of a souvenir.

Feelings

The couple have been given Azerbaijani citizenship, though they still describe themselves as Ukrainians. They admit it unashamedly while repeating several times that “we have to make a living.” 

The feeling of national pride that we often see on the WTS podiums vanishes for Rostystlav and Kseniia. 

- What do you prefer, waving your country’s and feeling proud to represent it or having support that enables you to focus on triathlon?

- “It’s more important to have support. We’re loyal to the country’s attitude,” they reply.

Back to Ukraine?

Asked whether they might compete for Ukraine again, doubts pour into the space opened up by nostalgia. “Back to Ukraine...” They think and talk among themselves for a while. “If they offered us something very, very good, we’d compete for our country again. But we have to make a living...” Their faces change when they remember the hand that feeds them. “The Azerbaijani Federation’s attitude is incredible, we love the people, how they treat us, and competing for our new country. We’re very happy,” says Kseniia.

Funding

Rostyslav and Kseniia’s lack of resources and change of country is closely linked to the ITU competition system, which revolves around the federations, with very few private sponsors. The lack of visibility discourages private investment in triathlon, which focuses on specific triathletes who sometimes even struggle to display their sponsors in races due to the reluctance of their federations or conflicts of interest with them, as was Gómez Noya’s case.

This system makes life difficult for triathletes like Rostystlav and Kseniia, who lack public support in a system that is centred precisely on that. “In our country we’d be like State civil servants and though we’d earn something from sponsors, our main income would be what we earn from the State, which doesn’t offer travel subsidies,” says Kseniia discussing the ITU competition system.

Prize money from races is also insufficient to fund the athletes. “It’s only possible to earn a living from prizes if you’re right at the top in World Cups and the WTS,” says Kseniia.

Although the ITU has introduced development programmes for triathletes in countries that lack the necessary federation structure, its competition systems, like Olympic qualification, still involve extremely high costs and require funding that not all countries can afford. Even some triathlon superpowers like Spain now lack the resources needed to support their triathletes. But if the triathletes always compete for their countries, the question of who funds their participation is fundamental.

For Rostyslav and Kseniia, France, which outside the World Series has the highest standard of triathlon with drafting, is the closest thing to a private circuit with teams, in which what matters is the private structure of the team that the athletes competes with, not their country of origin. They both admit that the idea of a worldwide private circuit would be “interesting”.

Lifestyle

And between their two countries, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, lies Cyprus. For over half of the year they live on this Mediterranean island to have optimum training conditions. “At the most, we spend five days or a week at home, to take care of various matters, but then we return”. They train with one of the two Russian groups that have based themselves there. Sergey Yavtsenko is the group’s coach. 

In the summer they move to Spain or France depending on what competitions they have. 

- Is it tough being away from home so long?

- “We do it because we like it.”

Rostystlav Pevstsov and Kseniia Levkovska decided that sport is something that goes beyond flags and patriotic feeling, as the ITU system and the Olympic Code seem to suggest. However, their change of country reinforces the political role of sport by serving such purposes in their new nation. A change that enables them to develop their sporting career and live the life they’ve always dreamed of.