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Highs and lows of Ukraine sports in 2016

UNIAN offers its exclusive ranking of the most significant events for the national sports in the past year.

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The year of 2016 was really rich on global sports events. Olympic Games in Rio and Euro 2016 were complimented by traditional annual Grand Slam tennis tournaments, UEFA’s Champions League and League Europa, prestigious cycling stage races, Formula-1 stages, and qualification stages of EuroBasket and European Volleyball Cup to be held in 2017, as well as of the football World Cup 2018.

Ukrainians were active participants at almost each of these events (perhaps, with the exception of Formula-1). And though they didn’t manage to do their best in all of them, Ukraine did boast of certain successes, some of them – very bright.

UNIAN drew up its own rating of sports events this year, noting both the success of our Olympians in Rio and professional boxers in the fights for the most prestigious world titles, as well as failures, which are more relevant to our football teams - the National Team Ukraine and Ukraine’s premier league champion Dynamo Kyiv.

1. Oleh Verniaiev - Olympic champion and silver medalist of the 2016 Games in Rio

Oleh Verniaiev was coming to Rio with a specific goal, ranking among the favorites. During the last Olympic cycle, which is four years, he won gold in uneven bars at World and European championships in 2014, took gold in the first ever European Games-2015 in Baku in the all-around and vault, and, finally, three gold medals in all-around, lift jump, and bars in 2015 Europe championship in Montpellier, France. However, in the World Cup-2015 in Glasgow, Scotland, he won silver on the bars, which gave some preference to his opponents on the eve of the Rio Games.

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However, the competition in Rio showed that the Ukrainian athlete was in great shape as he seemed almost unstoppable. He was perfect throughout almost all his all-around program, where he was overtaken at the finish by a clear favorite of the tournament, Japan’s Kohei Uchimura. And in his top notch exercise on parallel bars, Oleh Verniaiev won with a clear advantage. He was ahead of Danell Leyva by 0.141 points and 0.268 points ahead of Russia’s David Belyavsky.

With his gold and silver, Verniaiev performed best among the Ukrainian athletes at 2016 Olympics.

2. Yuriy Cheban - Olympic champion 2016

Cheban won the second and last gold medal of the Ukrainian Olympic Team at the Games in Brazil. At the same time, the way our rower struggled to "win" his place in the finals of the individual race, is worth a detective novel to be written.

The event organizers have made a huge blunder, which nearly cost the Ukrainian rower his place in the finals. The thing is that the decisive race was supposed to include two of the best rowers from each semi-final and two third places with the best time. At the same time, the judges mistakenly counted the 3rd and 4th places in one of the semifinals as the ones to qualify for the finals. As the blunder was revealed, almost none of the representatives of the Ukrainian delegation were present at the site. So the athlete, himself, had to submit a written protest demanding a judicial commission to investigate the situation. Fortunately, the judges were quick in their reassessment, and our athlete found his place in the final race. And the next day he won the 200 meters, becoming the Olympic champion in the sprint for the second time in a row.

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Cheban repeated his success in a 200-meter race four years ago in London 2012 Olympics. In general, it was the third award in the athlete’s Olympic career. In Beijing 2008, the Ukrainian won the bronze in a 500-meter race. In addition, Cheban won two world championship golds in a 200-meter race in 2007 and 2014.

3. Oleksandr Usyk is a WBO world champion in cruiserweight

Another Olympic champion of London 2012 has four years later won his first world title in professional sports.

While Ukrainian athletes battled for medals of the world’s main sports event of this year in Rio, Usyk was preparing for his first fight for a world title in professional boxing. Over the four years between London and Rio, the boxer from the Ukrainian Crimea’s Simferopol managed to say goodbye to the amateur (or, as it is also called, Olympic boxing), sign his first professional contract with the Klitschko brothers’ promotion company, hold a series of rating fights, win the title of a WBO Intercontinental champion, defend his title several times, and come close to the title fight for the world title.

Photo from UNIAN

The moment of truth was on September 17, 2016, when Usyk fought cruiserweight WBO world champion, Poland’s Krzysztof Glowacki, who had seen no defeats previously. Throughout most of the fight, Glowacki was attacking, trying to put pressure on the opponent while Usyk went for counterattacks. The Pole boosted the tempo with each round but he failed to catch and lock his opponent at the ropes. The Ukrainian boxer met Glowacki with great jabs, evading attacks with his footwork. In general, Usyk was significantly faster and more accurate in his blows. The fight lasted 12 rounds, and the judges unanimously voted in favor of the Ukrainian. The official score was 119-109 and 117-111 (twice).

December 17 the Ukrainian held his first title defense with a landslide victory over South Africa’s Thabiso Mchunu. The opponent was knocked down twice, in the 6th and 9th rounds.

The Ukrainian star boxer says that in the near future he intends to collect all belts in all most prestigious versions of professional boxing and move to heavyweight.

4. Elina Svitolina reached her WTA career high ranking of 14 this year, which is a record for Ukrainian women's tennis

In 2016, Elina Svitolina set a national record in the Ukrainian women's tennis and now wants to rank highest among all Ukrainian tennis players ever.

In the Olympic Rio, Elina Svitolina became one of the major sensations. In 1/8, the Ukrainian beat the world’s No.1 Serena Williams. However, in quarterfinals, Svitolina lost to Czech’s Petra Kvitova and failed to further compete for the medals, although leaving a bright trace in the Olympic tournament.

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The biggest success of the season for Elina Svitolina was her victory in the BMW Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur. She also reached the final of WTA Elite Trophy, where she also lost to Kvitova.

“Now my goal is of course to beat Andrei (Medvedev, world’s former fourth-ranking Ukrainian tennis player, who once even got into the final of Grand Slam tournament in singles),” Elina said in an interview with The Courier-Mail (Australia). “I’m working on it.”

“There are lots of young women playing really well. I think we need some more time, some of us,” she said.

Asked if she liked the idea of Ukrainians being happy at her tennis achievements, Svitolina said: “Sure, it shows the young people that everyone has the opportunity to do well if you work hard and if you get a bit lucky as well. It shows them there’s still things that can happen.

“To win that match at the Olympics (before a quarter-final exit) was very special, to win for my country. I’m happy I’m part of all this Ukraine success in sport,” she said.

“I’m keen to be in Brisbane and getting practice. My goal is always high when I come to this tournament,’’ she added.

WTA Premier tournament in Brisbane starts on January 1, 2017.

5. Ukraine National Basketball Team qualifies for Eurobasket 2017

National Team Ukraine for the fourth time in a row has made it to the final stage of the European Championship. At the same time, this qualifying tournament was perhaps the most difficult one over the years. Ukraine lost to Slovenia in the last match of the qualifiers and almost lost its chances to proceed to EuroBasket. However, the team got to the final stage anyway.

Chief coach Murzin / Photo from UNIAN

Chief coach Yevgeny Murzin after the qualifying stage has said in an interview with UNIAN: "The second place allowed us to be involved in the selection, among other teams, who failed to win a group stage and get directly to Eurobasket. We had not the best difference in results with the first and the third team. Nevertheless, I believe that the guys with their work, persistence and struggle have rightfully won the trip [to Eurobasket].”

In the course of the qualifying tournament, the team played good games against Kosovo and Bulgaria. And, despite the defeat, they played a rather good final match against Slovenia, fighting for the victory. However, the result was affected by various circumstances – Fesenko’s injury and fouls, which did not allow showing a better result.

In the final group stage of EuroBasket, Team Ukraine will play Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Georgia and Germany. The matches will be held in Tel Aviv.

6. Ukraine Women’s National Volleyball Team qualified for the European Championship 2017

Unlike male basketball players, women's national volleyball team is not a frequent guest at volleyball Euro championships. Suffice it to say that after the 2003 tournament, the team has only once participated in such an event. In 2011, the team finished the tournament at 15th spot.

At the beginning of qualification, Ukraine lost twice to Italy and ended up in the play-offs, where they had previously lost in four similar cycles. This time, they lost their home game to Spain, however later managing to take a convincing revenge in the away game and get to the final stage.

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“Previous play-offs against France and Belarus were played against the backdrop of crumpled training, as the girls had no conditions. In fact, no one cared about the team’s problems at the time. And it was on the eve of the decisive qualifying matches. Moreover, even in such conditions, we were able to seriously resist the French team, with whom we exchanged victories at 3:1 and 2:3 and lost only the "golden set", where, again, we had our break points. In another qualifying cycle, upon the agreement with our rivals, we played both games in Belarus, which gave our opponents a priori a much better chance. This, of course, could not contribute to the girls’ mood… Now it is different. We held a full-fledged training cycle in Yuzhne (Odesa region), where we were provided all necessary conditions. The team was systematically preparing for the tournament and got into a perfect shape ahead of it. Plus, this time the playoffs were held immediately after the qualifying tournament, not in a year-term, as it was before. The team played six games of the group stage and this consolidated them. In general, we had all the prerequisites for a successful playoff," head coach Gary Yegiazarov said in an interview with UNIAN after the completion of the qualifying tournament.

7. Paralympics 2016 saw the most successful performance of the Ukrainian team in its history

Talking about 2016, we cannot but recall the Paralympics. The performance of Ukrainian Paralympic athletes has become the most successful throughout all the years of independence - both in terms of the medal count, and the team’s overall place.

Back in 1996, at the first Summer Games in Atlanta, the Ukrainians won a gold medal, two silvers and four bronze medals – a total of seven medals, ranking 44th. 20 years on, in Rio 2016, the results are completely different - 41 gold medals, 37 silvers and 39 bronze medals – a total of 117 medals and an astonishing 3rd place.

National Paralympic Committee of Ukraine

Maksym Kripak from Kharkiv became the main hero of the Ukrainian Paralympic Games in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro. He won five golds and three silvers in swimming, finishing second in the individual medal count among all participants in all sports. In addition, he helped the national team of Ukraine greatly to win its third place in overall team standings.

8. Champions League 2018 final in Kyiv

Kyiv’s victory in the contest for choosing the host of the UEFA Champions League final in 2018 has become the most striking sports event of the year behind the scenes and beyond the arenas. Earlier, the events of this magnitude were only Ukraine’s victory in a competition to host Euro 2012 and the Eurobasket 2015. However, the basketball championship never took place in Ukraine.

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The decision to hold the final game of the main European competition in Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium in May 2018 was taken September 15. This will be the second most important game in the stadium’s modern history after the Euro 2012 final.

Kyiv will also host the final of the women's Champions League, which will be held at Dynamo home arena named after Valeriy Lobanovsky.

9. National Football Team Ukraine at Euro 2016 - failure of the year

In June and July, France hosted the second major world sports event after the Olympics - the European Football Championship. Team Ukraine was among the 24 strongest teams of the Old World, but it was clearly an outcast in the end.

The Ukrainians have lost all three group stage games without scoring a single goal, becoming the first team to lose chances to proceed to playoffs ahead of schedule.

Photo from UNIAN

But then, after Andriy Shevchenko, former superstar, now head coach, took over the team, this noticeably changed the company’s game in World Cup 2018 qualifiers, showing a completely different football. While previous coach Mikhail Fomenko’s  feature was a super reliable defense, Andriy Shevchenko has chosen a different tactic, betting on offensive-oriented midfielders. The play has become more dynamic, sharp, and more spectacular.

Currently, the Ukrainian team stands second in the group of six, winning eight points in four games. The next game in March is against Croatia, the group leader with 10 points. If the Ukrainians win this game, they will top the group after the first round of qualifiers.

10. Dynamo going through crisis in Champions League, Ukraine’s Premier League

Another negative spot this year was Dynamo Kyiv’s performance. While the autumn part of the season 2015/2016 was full of positive signs, bringing the team to the Champions League playoffs for the first time in a decade, the team started failing in spring. The defeat in the first round of the playoffs to the formidable Manchester City was quite understandable. But the second defeat in a row to Shakhtar Donetsk with a disgraceful 0:3 score (although this match did not prevent Dynamo Kyiv from becoming Ukraine’s champion) should have alarmed the team.

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As the summer passed, in the new season 2016/17, Dynamo crisis only worsened. The team apparently failed the Champions League group stage and didn’t reach the playoffs. Five points in the group stage and just one win (6:0 over Besiktas) is clearly not the result that the fans expected.

In Ukraine’s Premier League, Dynamo lost three games and secured four draws. The latest defeat to Shakhtar (3:4) has actually deprived Kyiv of hopes to compete for championship in spring as they are 13 points behind Shakhtar.

Curiously, while the majority of Ukrainian teams dramatically drop the level of their game for quite objective reasons as the financial crisis or the massive outflow of players, Dynamo has no such problems. But the internal climate in the team is clearly not up to par. It is no wonder that after the final game of 2016 with Shakhtar (3: 4), head coach Serhiy Rebrov said: "I will not change my requirements. We demand from the players the same as we did before. I will not deviate from this path. The guys need to understand: to go forward, they have to sacrifice something. If they are not ready, they should sit down and talk with the president about their future."

In turn, club president Ihor Surkis has full confidence in the head coach and the question of his resignation is not on the agenda.

Kyrylo Stadnichenko

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