Ukraine’s karatekas end difficult year with three medals at World Championships

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Andrii Zaplitnyi, Valerii Chobotar, and Olympic runner-up Anzhelika Terliuga each won bronze at karate’s biggest event of 2023, though their victory was mired in controversy due to judging decisions and the participation of so-called “neutral” athletes.

By Lee Reaney and Alla Vaskovska

Ukraine took home three bronze medals at the 2023 World Karate Federation (WKF) World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in October, representing more than a decade of hard work by the team at the Ukrainian Karate Federation (UKF) – yet irregularities in the competition may have robbed Ukraine of a larger prize.

“We have gone from having no results until 2012 to improving year to year”, UKF President Ivan Dutchak told NV.

After winning two medals from six events at Tokyo 2020 and three medals from ten events at the last WKF World Championships in 2021, the team set its sights on a higher goal in 2023.

“This time we were really hoping for gold,” Dutchak said.

"We had chances in many categories who, at least, could have won. Not everything happened the way we wanted.”

Read also: Ukrainian karate athlete denies Russia medal at World Championships in hard-fought win

The team believed they had chances to win medals in virtually all 10 kumite weight classes, as well as both team events, and had eyed a Top 5 finish at the event.

Instead, Ukraine's three bronze medals gave the team an 18th place finish on the medal table.

Ukraine’s athletes had their own mixed feelings about their victories – and losses.

“Some days were better, some days were worse,” said Dutchak.

“This championship for us was full of emotional swings.”

WKF’s decision to admit Russian and Belarusian athletes

Difficulties for the Ukrainian national karate team began even before their arrival in Budapest.

Read also: Ukrainian karate champion Serhiy Bereznyak dies fighting for Ukraine

The WKF had, for the first tournament since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, invited so-called “neutral” athletes to the 2023 World Championships in Budapest. These competitors were, in fact, citizens of the Russian Federation and Belarus. They posed an entirely unique challenge for the Ukrainian side, who had been informed that Russian and Belarusian citizens would be participating only two weeks before the competition began.

“Of course, we were unpleasantly surprised,” Olympic bronze medalist and WKF Athletes Commission member Stanislav Horuna told NV.

The team protested the decision, providing evidence that at least two of the “neutral” athletes should not have been eligible.

“The UKF, together with, conducted an investigation that showed that one of the Russian athletes is a soldier of the Central Army Sports Club,” said Horuna.

“And one Belarusian works in the security service of Belarus.”

The UKF shared photos of Russia’s Ernest Sharafutdinov and Belarus’ Aliksei Furyk in their military uniforms on social media.

“These two persons are related to power structures and therefore cannot be considered neutral athletes,” insisted Horuna.

“Regardless, all our protests remained ignored.”

The WKF refused to comment on how these Russian-and-Belarusian military-linked athletes were provided with a “neutral” status, and offered only a written statement claiming that the decision was made by the WKF Executive Committee after the athletes were asked to sign a declaration that they are not taking part in the conflict and will “refrain from any activity” associated with the state symbols of Russia or Belarus.

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The WKF also dismissed the Ukrainian accusations as hearsay.

“We do not usually comment on rumors or issues that are not proven facts,” the organization claimed in an email responding to the statement.

Overcoming emotions – channeling rage into success

2023 has been a difficult year for Ukraine’s karate community.

In April, 22-year-old Mykola Yaremchuk (call sign ‘Yar’) was killed in the line of duty while serving as a sapper and platoon commander in the 80th Separate Amphibious Assault Brigade. He had previously won silver at the junior national championships and was a candidate for Master of Sports, a Ukrainian national designation for top athletes.

In August, former Ukrainian champion Serhiy Bereznyak was killed in battle, leaving behind a pregnant wife and two young children. An accomplished fighter, he worked to train Ukraine’s next generation of karate stars and was close with many members of the national team competing in Budapest.

Countless Russian missile salvos also played havoc with the Ukrainian team’s training schedules. Fighters must postpone their trainings, sometimes for hours, until air raid sirens end. Even when the Russian military fails to create civilian victims, destroyed infrastructure takes its own toll on Ukrainian athletes and citizens.

In June, just days before Olympic star Anzhelika Terliuga won gold at the European Games in Poland, her former gym and university were destroyed in a Russian missile strike on Odesa. In July, just days after returning home from the European Games, former world championship bronze medallist Kateryna Kryva’s gym was damaged in a Russian strike on Lviv.

“This was a karate gym!,” an irate Terliuga wrote on social media following the strike, sharing photos of her destroyed gym.

“It was the gym of my club Royal Karate Team. Many kids had karate trainings here every day. Does this look like a military facility?”

On top of dealing with the loss of friends and facilities, Ukrainian athletes were now, thanks to the WFK’s decision, being made to interact with members of the enemy military and security forces – at the risk of losing their chance to prove their skills at the biggest karate tournament in the world. UKF President

sat down with the team at the training camp to discuss possible scenarios and expectations.

“Our emotions were very intense,” he told NV.

“Before the championship, the athletes spoke only about this. They could not think about anything else. The (WKF decision) also slightly upset the psychological mood of the team.”

This sentiment was echoed by Horuna.

“We absolutely do not communicate with them,” the bronze medalist stated.

“We try to distance ourselves from them. If someone comes into view somewhere, I personally just look at them all with disdain.”

After considering the situation, the UKF provided guidance to the athletes about how to respond to their Russian opponents when interaction was unavoidable, such as during a match.

“Our team was instructed not to bow to Russian or Belarusian athletes, nor to shake hands or hug them,” Dutchak explained.

“World Karate was made aware of our position beforehand.”

The precaution proved useful, as all three of Ukraine’s medallists in Budapest had official interactions with Russian athletes.

Captain Chobatar denies Russia a medal

Perhaps no one felt the pressure more than Ukraine's team captain, Valerii Chobotar, who was looking for his first World Championship medal since winning silver in 2018.

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This was especially true after he was forced to fight Russia’s Eduard Gasparian for bronze.

Chobotar pulled out a win and said that he had drawn inspiration from the strength of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.

“We respect our military so much; they protect our country,” Chobotar explained to NV.

"So, we must stand up here and show that Ukrainians really are the strongest. But I understand that the soldiers somewhere in the war have a far more difficult time than me”.

He admitted that the situation back home was dominating his thoughts ahead of the fight.

“I have a lot of acquaintances, our trainers are on the frontline,” the team captain admitted.

"One of them, unfortunately, died – a good friend of mine whom I knew well, and also a karateka. I understand that it is much more difficult for them than for me here … I understood that it is extremely important for the whole country. Because the whole country is supporting me, and I understood that this victory was more important than even gold.”

In fact, Chobotar’s bronze medal fight against Russia put stress on the entire team.

“We all understood that we needed this victory,” said Horuna.

“Even more than just a victory and a medal.”

Shortly before his ‘ring walk’, Chobotar was informed that there was an air raid alert across Ukraine.

“While warming up, our doctor told us that we are now under air alarm in Ukraine, that rockets are flying,” he recalled.

“I imagined the state of people (in Ukraine) in my head. I understood how disturbing it is, and I realized that it is much easier for me here than they have it back home.”

He said that the thought calmed him down, helping score a 1-0 win against the Russian – blocking his opponent from taking a place at the podium.

“It was the most emotional fight of the day,” head coach Mykola Sirakovskyi told NV.

“He fully understood the importance of this fight and that he had to win – this victory was fundamentally necessary.”

Zaplitnyi snubs controversial athlete on the podium

While Ukrainian karateka Andrii Zaplitnyi didn’t have to deal with the same psychological stress as his captain, his bronze medal win was also dramatic.

An entertaining back-and-forth affair saw Zaplitnyi score in the final seconds to secure a nail-biting bronze medal over the USA’s Thomas Scott.

Yet the Ukrainian was subject to even more stress as he was forced to share the bronze podium with Russia’s Sharafutdinov – one of the athletes Ukraine had called on the WKF to disqualify based on his ties to the Russian military.

Foreshadowing what the Paris 2024 Olympic Games can expect should Russian and Belarusian athletes be allowed to compete, Zaplitnyi stood with his back turned to the Russian athlete as they received their bronze medals. He swapped over to the other side of the podium – as far from the Russian athlete as possible – for the post-ceremony photos.

Still, the whole experience frustrated UKF president Dutchak.

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“There were a number of requests that were related to minimizing both the threat and any unpleasant encounters between our athletes and the Russians in order to avoid conflict”, he said, without elaborating on any specific requests.

Despite the presence of the Russians, winning his first medal at the world championship pleased Zaplitnyi.

“It’s such a good way to end the season, as I had already won gold at the European Championships and European Games,” he explained.

“And here, I managed to beat the Pan American champion for bronze.”

Terligua robbed by timekeeping error

Still, the tournament’s most controversial moment happened in the women’s ~55 kg semi-final – a rematch of the Olympic final between Terliuga and Bulgaria’s Ivet Goranova.

Expectations were high for Terliuga going into Budapest, where she was looking for her first – and Ukraine’s first-ever – world championship gold medal.

She had just been named the WKF Grand Winner for the third straight time after winning three of four Premier League events in 2023, to go along with gold medals at the European Championships and European Games – the latter just days after a Russian missile destroyed her former karate club in Odesa.

But that wasn’t the first moment of drama for Terliuga, who has handily won her spot as Ukraine’s most successful karate fighter of the past three years. The destruction of her old gym was on her mind ahead of an emotional Round of 32 encounter with Russia’s Anna Chernysheva.

“Before the match I was stressed, of course,” she told NV.

“Because I didn’t want to lose.”

The tense 1-0 win kept her world championship hopes alive and a refusal to bow or shake hands after the fight was reminiscent of Olha Kharlan’s famous handshake refusal at the Fencing World Championships earlier in the year.

“After the match, I didn’t celebrate,” she said.

“Because I wanted to focus on what I still needed to do.”

Terliuga scored a memorable 14-11 semi-final win over her Olympic nemesis in a fight that featured several Ippons (3-point head kicks) and had the stadium buzzing. Yet her elation at her victory was short-lived, as the Bulgarians lodged a protest over an alleged timekeeping issue.

“I let out a scream because I was so emotional – I had put in so much time and effort into this”, she said in post-fight comments before being interrupted by coach Syrakovskyi, who informed her of the protest.

“Yes, the Bulgarian team filed a protest due to an error with the clock,” the WKF explained to NV.

“The protest was accepted and following the rules, the bout had to be restarted from the point when the error occurred.”

Yet the WKF did not respond to questions asking why a Bulgarian national was part of the officiating crew for the match, or how such a basic mistake could happen during one of the event’s marquis matchups.

The fight was restarted with 1:14 left on the clock and saw Terliuga’s victory reversed – with Goranova winning 5-4.

Unlike Terliuga's initial victory bout, where a wild final 75 seconds saw the fighters combine for 16 points, Goranova didn’t engage in the replay.

The Ukrainian champion took issue with the sportsmanship showed by her Bulgarian opponent, voicing her belief that the Bulgarians behavior was unsportsmanlike.

“That is, they were silent the whole match and at the end, when they lost, they decided to use the situation with the clock,” she pointed out, noting that no protest was made at the initial time of the timekeeping error.

“When they returned to the fight, (Ivet Goranova) ran away to the corners and refused to fight. You have to live with it, Ivet. Is this how you wanted to go to the final of the World Championship?”

This controversial result didn’t just end in Terliuga’s – and Ukraine’s – loss, but may have provided yet another reason to keep karate off the Olympic program.

“Now you don’t have to think about why karate is no longer an Olympic sport,” a frustrated Terliuga said after the fight.

“Because where else can such a situation happen!”

Terliuga was awarded bronze after her Iranian opponent in the final was forced to withdraw due to injury.

Though the three medals equalled Ukraine’s best showing at the WKF World Championships, the Ukrainian side had little to celebrate, and Terliuga’s seemingly unearned loss led to bitter feelings from the team.

“Let’s hope that Angelica has one more world championship left in her, to prove her leadership. She is definitely the best athlete in the world. We know that,” Dutchak said.

“You all saw what happened – when the victory was literally taken away from her, simply by abusing what’s right and manipulating the rules.”

A devastated Terliuga was vocal about her mistreatment.

“I’m unhappy that sometimes people don’t see what’s happening in Ukraine. They are starting to close their eyes to some things”, she said.

“I’m just an athlete and my work is fighting. And I have to win. And that day, I did my work at 100%.”

Ukrainian karate – Looking forward

Despite the setbacks at Budapest, Ukraine’s karate program has never looked stronger.

Had Terliuga ended up with gold, Ukraine would have finished 7th on the medal table – just short of the goal of 5th – and accomplished another objective: Ukraine’s first-ever WKF World Championship gold medal.

In addition to the three bronze medals, Lviv’s Airapetian (Karyna) Kinarik won a Para Karate World Championship silver medal.

Airapetian Kinarik <span class="copyright">Alla Vaskovska (Lviv Today)</span>
Airapetian Kinarik Alla Vaskovska (Lviv Today)

Nor is Ukraine content to rest on its laurels or abandon its original goals.

“The price of a medal is very high,” Dutchak said while reflecting on Budapest.

“We have been going at it for more than 10 years, to win a gold medal. Unfortunately, we did not reach it this time, although we really wanted to. That’s why we cheer on. For our karate, for our national team. I think that everything will be better in the future.”

He noted how it took Horuna over 10 years to become European champion, and how Zaplitnyi was able to accomplish the feat in a single year.

He also noted how the war has strengthened the psychology of Ukraine’s athletes.

“The question is not that we have a better or higher result … No matter what, we can say that we have become stronger,” Dutchak said.

“Due to the context of constant stress in Ukraine, the athletes have become more stress-resistant, more goal-oriented. They are ready – not only Anzhelika (Terliuga), not only Stas (Horuna) – but our entire national team are ready to feel worthy, to be leaders. Not one of the leaders – but the leaders of the sport.”

As for the athletes, they know their role is to continue to train as best they can when there are no air raid alerts, to continue to achieve results on the international stage, and to continue to shine a light on what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

Horuna actively uses his platform on the Athletes Commission to provide context into Russia’s war against Ukraine.

“Everyone knows who is who, and everyone understands that in Russia – athletes are a tool of propaganda”, he told NV.

“Allowing athletes, even with good intentions, still helps Russia promote its terrorism.”

Meanwhile, UFK president Dutchak shared his pride in Ukraine’s efforts, even when the odds are stacked against them.

“The year was difficult. It continues to be difficult,” Dutchak stated.

“We are very happy that our athletes performed well. They opposed not only the opponents, but also often the judges.”

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