Russia Paralympics under shadow of Ukraine

Russia is set to open its first ever Paralympic Games in Sochi, but it's already in danger of being shadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.

Russia on Friday will open its first ever Paralympic Games, in Sochi, a chance to lift the stigma against people with disabilities in the country but already shadowed by Moscow's intervention in neighbouring Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to travel to Sochi to oversee the opening ceremony of the Winter Paralympic Games on Friday evening in the Black Sea host city.

Russia topped the medals table at the Winter Olympic Games last month, and the event was widely seen as a triumph. International praise of the impressive ceremonies were a boost to Putin's attempt to showcase Russia as a modern and successful country.

However the backdrop to the celebration of sport will be very different after Putin supported the seizure by pro-Moscow armed forces of Ukraine's region of Crimea, northwest of Sochi across the Black Sea.

The controversy caused shocked Western countries to cancel their planned Sochi delegations just days before the Games were due to start.

The United States on Monday said it would not be sending a presidential delegation, following a similar announcement by the British government.

"I believe it would be wrong for UK Ministers to attend the Sochi Paralympics," Prime Minister David Cameron said on Twitter. American and British athletes are still set to compete in events.

Putin on Tuesday denounced the reactions.

"I think it would be the height of cynicism to threaten the realisation of the Paralympic Games," he told journalists.

This is an international sports forum, where people with disabilities can "prove to themselves and the world that they are people without limitations", he said.

"If someone tries to ruin them... that means that nothing is sacred for the people who make such attempts."

Ukrainian athletes, training with heavy hearts in Sochi and ready to compete, are nevertheless going to say goodbye to their Olympic dreams if Russia does not pull out its troops, a spokeswoman for the team told AFP on Tuesday.

If that does not happen, "we will boycott despite years of preparation", spokeswoman Natalia Garach said. "We cannot participate in the games hosted by the country that attacked our country."

The 2014 event will be the first Paralympic Games in Russia. Disabled athletes were never sent from the Soviet Union until 1988 in the perestroika period, and people with disabilities were generally stigmatised in Soviet society, frequently kept in special homes.

Wheelchair-bound people living in cities are still often kept prisoner in their own houses by the lack of suitable elevators and ramps. The city of Moscow only last year began to equip some city crosswalks with sound signals for people with visual impairments.

Rights of people with disabilities to equal access are still a long way from being recognised in modern Russia, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report, but the Paralympic Games are an opportunity to secure commitment from authorities on the issue.

People "still face many obstacles to enjoying access to many elements of daily life", the organisation said after interviewing over 100 people from across Russia.

The games will close on March 16.

Source AAP

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