SOCHI, Russia — His eyes welling with tears and voice choking with emotion, Ukrainian pole vault great Sergei Bubka appealed Wednesday to both sides in his homeland’s political crisis to halt the violence that has claimed dozens of lives and brought the country "to the brink of catastrophe."
Bubka, who heads Ukraine’s national Olympic committee, issued his call after clashes between riot police and anti-government protesters in Kyiv on Tuesday left at least 25 dead and hundreds injured in the worst violence in its post-Soviet history.
Bubka said he was "shocked" by the bloodshed and offered to do "everything I can" to help bring calm and political dialogue.
"I pray and I appeal to both parties: stop violence, try to find the peace, keep us together to live in peace," he said.
The former Olympic pole vault champion, who still holds the outdoor world record in the event, is one of Ukraine’s greatest sportsmen and famous personalities. He is in Sochi as an executive board member of the International Olympic Committee and Ukraine’s top Olympic official, overseeing a team of 43 athletes.
"All of us, we have families at home," Bubka said. "This last night was very tough because we follow what happened. … Everyone is really worried. Everyone is really under pressure. But they would like to continue to compete to send a message home to bring dialogue to all parties."
Bubka said none of his athletes had asked to return to Ukraine or were under political pressure to leave Sochi.
"Our athletes said they would like to compete in Olympic Games," he said. "They would like to bring glory to the nation and they would like to raise the flag of the nation."
Bubka said Ukrainian athletes wanted to wear black armbands to honour those killed, but the request was turned down by the IOC, citing the Olympic Charter. The IOC previously warned Norwegian athletes about wearing black arms bands in tribute to an athlete’s brother who died before the games.
Bubka said he thought the political process had been moving in the right direction in Ukraine in recent weeks and never expected the situation to take such a dramatic turn.
"I never, ever thought it could happen in my country," he said.
Bubka said he was especially sad the violence had occurred during the Olympics, "the world’s most peaceful and democratic event."
He is a former member of Parliament in Ukraine and served as an adviser to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is accused by protesters of ignoring their demands for constitutional reforms that would limit his powers.
Bubka said that, since becoming president of the national Olympic body, he is "no longer involved in politics."
"Anything what I can do, I offer my help, but of course I’m not involved in politics," he said.
Earlier, in a statement, Bubka appealed to all sides to resume negotiations.
"I am once again urging all parties to stop the violence, which puts our country on the brink of catastrophe," Bubka said. "There is no ‘their’ Ukraine, or ‘your’ Ukraine. It is our Ukraine."
IOC President Thomas Bach offered condolences to victims of the violence and praised Ukrainian athletes still competing in Sochi.
"The way they have continued to represent their nation with great dignity is a credit to them and their country," he said.
The violence comes as Ukraine pursues a bid to host the 2022 Winter Games. The bid from Lviv, in western Ukraine, is competing against Beijing; Oslo; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and Krakow, Poland.
The IOC executive board will select a short list of finalists in July.
Bubka said now was not the right to talk about the bid, but "of course, the situation does not help."
The CEO of the Lviv bid, Sergej Gontcharov, acknowledged the challenge.
"It is hard to focus on our bid operations under such circumstances," he said. "Events at home right now are of course our most important concern. Obviously, the conflict needs to be resolved before we can seriously be considered as hosts of the Winter Games."