Figures from Russia have reacted to the news that Ukraine's sports minister advised athletes not to be pictured with Russian rivals at the Beijing Olympics
Officials in Russia have reacted with dismay to the news that Ukraine's sports minister has told the nation's athletes not to be photographed with Russian rivals at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Sports Minister Vadim Gutzeit told Ukrainian Olympians in a pre-Games online meeting that they should avoid "provocations" from Russian competitors next month in China.
"All athletes are aware, they know how to behave in such situations. They should not stand together when athletes from Russia stand with a flag, so they aren't together," Gutzeit said, according to Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne.
The step comes amid heightened tensions between the two neighbors - and follows a scandal at last year's Summer Games in Tokyo when Ukrainian high jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh was heavily censured in her homeland for being pictured alongside Russian gold medal winner Mariya Lasitskene.
If Gutzeit gets his way, there will be no such scenes of sporting unity in Beijing - something which has caused anger and disappointment in Russia.
"I'm extremely skeptical about this. The Olympic principle of togetherness is completely violated here," said Svetlana Zhurova, a former Olympic speed-skating champion and now a Russian State Duma deputy.
"But Ukrainian athletes have been warned so that it doesn't work out like with Yaroslava Mahuchikh.
"It's clear that Ukrainian officials want to protect their athletes from the attacks of their fans and forbid them to approach the Russians.
"There can be no provocations on our part, except for friendship. And is that really a provocation?" added the 50-year-old.
"On the other hand, during a pandemic, other athletes will not publicly demonstrate hugs anyway, but the Ukrainian side decided to make a special political initiative here as well.
"Is it additional propaganda of Covid restrictions? Apparently, officials don't want Ukrainian athletes to become infected with 'Russianism.'"
Zhurova criticized the advice from Ukraine to its athletes. Sputnik
Former heavyweight boxing giant Nikolai Valuev - also now a member of the State Duma - said he felt sorry for Ukrainian athletes for being put on the spot.
"I won't answer for the Ukrainians, whether they will pursue their athletes there or not," said the former heavyweight champion.
"How do I feel about it? There are a million options for them to be next to Russian athletes, this is the Olympics.
"I feel sorry for them. This is a question for their politicians, who should think with their heads."
Former boxer Valuev also weighed in. Sputnik
Elsewhere, Russian figure skating legend-turned-politician Irina Rodnina called the Ukrainian decision "stupidity."
"It breaches all the Olympic principles. It would be better for them not to participate at the Olympics... I hope we really won't stand next to each other on the podium," said the three-time Olympic gold medalist.
Honorary International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Vitaly Smirnov said Ukrainian athletes were being forced into taking a political stance, which violates the Olympic Charter.
"This is real blackmail, the coercion of athletes to carry out a political order," Smirnov told TASS.
"How can you forbid [an athlete] from greeting another athlete? The very spirit of the Olympics is violated.
"This is for show, the gentlemen from the [Ukrainian sports] ministry are trying to curry favor with their superiors, to show how tough they are. It can't be described otherwise."
The Beijing Games get underway on February 4 and run until February 20. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to attend the Opening Ceremony at the invitation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.