WASHINGTON — President Obama canceled plans to send a presidential delegation to this Paralympic Games opening ceremony in Sochi Monday to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for Russia's recent actions in Ukraine. But a top official with the international body that organizes the games said the ones who will be most affected are the hundreds of athletes playing in the games.
"To be honest, it's more disappointing to the athletes," International Paralympic Committee spokesperson Craig Spence said in a phone interview from the Sochi Olympic village. "Because the athletes would love obviously the presidential delegation to be there to support them."
U.S. athletes will still participate in the Sochi games, but the White House canceled the presidential delegation in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine's Crimea region. Spence said the International Paralympic Committee learned of Obama's decision through press reports and didn't expect to hear from the White House about the decision. The U.S. isn't the only nation not sending a government delegation in retaliation for Russia's Ukrainian actions: On Monday, the British prime minister announced his delegation would boycott the games.
It's unrealistic to expect that politics wouldn't be a big part of this year's Paralympics, scheduled to begin on March 7 in many of the same Sochi facilities used to host the Olympic Winter Games last month. Spence said organizers of the Paralympics are hoping the games will shine through the politics.
"You will have 575 athletes here who have been training for four years and this is the pinnacle of their careers," he said. "We want the story here in Sochi to be about the sport and currently that's not the case. But hopefully once the action starts on Saturday, we'll start readjusting the balance."
The Ukrainian team is already on the ground in Sochi, adding another connection between the escalating international crisis and the Paralympic games. But Spence speculated that many of the athletes aren't paying much attention to the world outside of Sochi.
"To be honest, the athletes in the mountains are probably unaware of what's going on because they're here and their focus is on winning medals and their focus is sports, not politics," he said.
Spence said it's still possible for the Sochi Paralympic games to be successful. They just need to get underway.
"We'll let the politicians do the politics," he said. "Obviously, we are disappointed that at the moment the politics is overshadowing what is a fantastic sporting event that can change the perceptions and attitudes toward disabled people around the world."