MAMALLAPURAM: If there’s a poll done at the 44th Chess Olympiad on which team is the crowd favorite, Ukraine will win it hands down. Being a part of the former Soviet bloc, they are a strong team, but the emotional connection with this team is about the war that Ukraine has been subjected to since February due to the Russian invasion.
“When our team took on Argentina in the sixth round, their captain Robert Hungaski came to the match wearing the ‘I support Ukraine’ T-shirt which was really touching. We are overwhelmed by the support for our country from every team in the competition,” Oleksandr Sulypa, captain of Ukraine open team, told TOI.
Sulypa, in the lead-up to the Olympiad, was part of the Ukrainian army, defending the city of Lviv in the western part of the country, against Russian spies. “My job was to stop and search vehicles that pass by and spot spies,” Sulypa, who had posted a picture of himself with a gun in February, said.
It’s been a mixed bag for Ukraine in the first half of the tournament. The open team is 18th while the women’s team has fared better to be placed fifth. “Some of our players have had stomach upsets in the first few days of the tournament. But you will see the open team putting up a much-improved show in the coming games. We have an experienced line-up of players who have the ability to deliver at the crunch,” said the 50-year-old.
Despite featuring in a high-pressure tournament, players in the Ukrainian teams — not surprisingly — have kept an eye on what’s happening back home. “It is natural for our players to be glued to what’s happening in Ukraine. This is easily one of the toughest-ever Olympiads for us. It has taken a lot out of us mentally to be playing in the tournament,” said Sulypa.
The run up to the tournament could not have been more challenging for members of the open team. Anton Korobov, the highest-rated player in the line-up, escaped to the Czech Republic with family after his two houses in Kharkiv — the second-largest city in Ukraine — were destroyed. The ongoing war saw Andrei Volokotin move base to Poland. Yuriy Kuzubov too left Ukraine after his home was bombed and is now based out of Bilbao, Spain. Kirill Shevchenko too remains homeless and travels for events across Europe.
While other teams had extensive camps ahead of the Olympiad, Ukrainian players only managed a few online sessions. “We got together for sessions online but there was no physical camp. The squad assembled in Poland before leaving for Chennai. The aim for me in the tournament is to help players stay mentally agile,” mentioned Sulypa.
They may be battling numerous odds at the moment, but the Ukraine teams — much like their army back home — are hanging in there.