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Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

Under the lingering cloud of the COVID pandemic, darker clouds of war now hang over the world as the 2022 Winter Paralympics prepare to open March 4 in Beijing.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown a chill over the winter games, an international multi-sport event where top athletes with physical disabilities compete in snow and ice sports.

Indigenous athletes from North America are not believed to be represented at this year's Winter Games, although many countries, including the U.S., do not track Indigeneity. More than a dozen Indigenous athletes from around the world competed in the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo in 2021.

Leading Team USA is Ukrainian-born skier Oksana Masters, a six-time Paralympian who will be on the hunt for her fifth Olympic gold, this time in Nordic skiing. Masters is the most-decorated athlete on the U.S. roster, with 10 Paralympic medals in both winter and summer games, including four gold medals in Nordic skiing, cycling and rowing.

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This will be her fifth Paralympics. She won a bronze medal in rowing in the 2012 Paralympics in London; bronze and silver in para cross-country skiing in Sochi, Russia, in 2014; five medals in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, including two golds, two silvers and one bronze in cross-country skiing and para biathlon; and two gold medals at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021 in para cycling.

The games will begin Friday, March 4, Eastern Time, and continue through March 13. The motto for this year's games is "Together for a Shared Future." 

From Chernobyl to champion

Masters, of Louisville, Kentucky, was born in Ukraine in 1989 in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which had melted down three years before she was born.

The exposure to radiation resulted in numerous physical defects, forcing amputation of her legs and ongoing health challenges. She spent years in  orphanages, where she experienced physical and sexual abuse until the age of 7, when she was adopted by Gay Masters, who raised her in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Louisville, Kentucky.

In her autobiography, “The Hard Parts: From Chernobyl to Paralympic Champion,” Masters thanked her mother for her success.

“My mom, who fought for two years — for two years!! — to get me out of Ukraine,” she wrote. “My mom, who adopted me and then raised me, by herself, as a single parent. My mom, who pestered me and didn’t let up until I agreed to give this adaptive rowing program a try. My mom, who’s taught me how to become a rememberer and a forgetter. My mom who has opened up so many of life’s doors for me — so that I could walk through them and fall in love with the world. My mom, who is the reason I’m here.”

In an abrupt move Thursday, March 3, one day before the Paralympics are set to begin, the International Paralympic and Olympic Committee announced that Russian and Belarusian athletes would be banned from the Winter Games for their countries' roles in the invasion of Ukraine.

The stunning reversal came one day after the committee announced the athletes would be allowed to compete, but only as neutral athletes with colors, flags and other national symbols removed.

Although Russian participation at several international sporting events has been denied, Russian athletes were allowed to compete in the Winter Olympics earlier this year but not under the Russian flag. Those restrictions were related to Russian doping in past Olympics and international competitions, not the invasion of Ukraine.

Ready to begin

The Paralympic games this year feature five sports, including wheelchair curling, para ice hockey, para Alpine skiing, para snowboard, and para Nordic skiing, which is divided into 2 competitions – para biathlon and para cross-country skiing.

A maximum of 748 athletes can qualify for the Paralympic games, competing in up to 82 medal events, which is two more than the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Although the participation of women in the Paralympics has increased, there are only 234 slots available for women to compete at these games.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced on Feb. 21 that the 67-member team includes two guides for visually impaired athletes.

“We have an incredible group of 67 talented athletes ready to make their mark at the Paralympic Winter Games,” U.S. Olympic and Paralympic CEO Sarah Hirsch said in a statement at the time. “Thanks to countless years of preparation, unparalleled coverage and support from our partners, Team USA is ready to showcase to the world that the 2022 games will be an event they don't want to miss.”

Ukraine is sending 20 athletes and seven support athletes to the games.

On the ice, the U.S. Men’s Para Ice Hockey team will be looking to complete the quad and win their 4th gold medal in a row.

NBC will present primetime coverage of the Paralympic Winter Games for the first time and will include partner channels USA Network and the Olympic Channel as well as streaming on Peacock.

*Update: This story has been updated to include an announcement on Thursday, March 3, by the International Paralympic and Olympic Committee that Russian and Belarusian athletes have been banned from participating in the Paralympics because of their countries' roles in invading Ukraine. 

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