Daniela Batrona is currently one of the youngest athletes in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). At 15 years old, the 2022 gymnastics season marks her senior debut and the past two weeks was supposed to be something of a redemption arc for Batrona. For gymnasts born in 2006 like Batrona was, the Covid-19 Pandemic has been particularly unfair for them. Whereas most of the senior events were merely delayed or postponed, the bulk of the junior competitions were outright cancelled, including the Junior World Championships.
The 2022 season was the year things were finally supposed to go Daniela Batrona’s way after spending the past year and a half dealing with the misfortune of belonging to a generation of juniors sidetracked by a global pandemic. Upon Daniela’s arrival as a senior in 2022, she was expected to garner some attention for herself, but not like this.
All eyes are on Daniela Batrona because she is competing at the World Cup right as her country has come under Russian invasion. The day Vladimir Putin launched his illegal invasion was the exact same day the Cottbus World Cup began competition (February 24th, 2022). This is where Batrona was located when it became apparent that a full scale war had broken out in her homeland. It would be difficult for any 15 year old to comprehend what was happening to her country and how to channel those emotions.
But Daniela Batrona had to do it with a growing spotlight on her as she was the lone Ukrainian WAG in Cottbus, representing a country that was now on the minds of everyone. Daniela’s mere presence now became a symbol of something much larger than herself and had little to do with gymnastics. The gymnast who only days prior had been a 1st-year senior from a low ranking WAG program, who wasn’t expected to rise to become a top headliner of the sport, and treated as not all that different from any other gymnast had suddenly become Cottbus’ most important WAG in attendance.
Daniela recorded a 4th place finish on vault and then won a gold medal on beam. The commentator Olly Hogben said it best when on the livestream world feed he stated:
“To win any gold medal in a World Cup is a superb accomplishment. To win it at 15 is that little bit more. To win it as a Ukrainian gymnast, under these circumstances, there are not words for that. Congratulations beyond congratulations for Daniela Batrona of Ukraine.”
But Daniela Batrona wasn’t done. Her next stop was to travel to Doha and compete in another World Cup. But this time, she would be competing directly against Russian gymnasts. It was not a coincidence there were no Russian gymnasts in Cottbus. In an example of Putin’s deranged behavior, he had emphasized Russian-made vaccines for Russian citizens in order to present an image that the country could solve Covid-19 on its own and without the assistance of Western nations.
This led to extra Covid-19 related travel restrictions in Western countries for Russian athletes. The consequence of using an alternative vaccine that did not have the same levels of recognition compared to the more predominate European vaccines. This caused Russia’s absence from Cottbus World Cup which is located in Germany. But the same problem did not arise in Doha allowing Russia to send a relatively strong team led by Viktoria Listunova, Vladislava Urazova, Maria Minaeva, and Arina Semukhina. All of which are strong candidates for Russia’s 2022 World Championships lineup.
For Ukraine the presence of Russian gymnasts in Doha would be difficult to come to terms with. After internal debate and with a Ukrainian withdrawal being strongly considered, the program decided to press ahead and compete. For Daniela Batrona, this meant she would be competing in the uneven bars final against a pair of Russian gymnasts. During the qualification stage Daniela qualified in the #2 spot while Russian gymnasts took spots #1 and #3. There was also Anastasia Smantsar of Belarus located in the #4 spot.
Belarus has been equally as guilty as Russia of facilitating the invasion of Ukraine. Like Russia, Belarus has also been subjected to many of the same sanctions Russia has. The presence of Smantsar meant that Batrona was going to compete under circumstances where nearly half of the gymnasts she was facing in an apparatus finals were representing countries that bore responsibility for the suffering plaguing her country. Furthermore, there was a high degree of likelihood that those gymnasts would join her on the podium if Daniela were to medal.
That is exactly what occurred as Daniela Batrona took bronze while the two Russian gymnasts took the gold and silver. But what happened next was an unusual medal ceremony, if not one that was completely unprecedented in gymnastics history where the Ukrainian and Russian gymnasts were kept segregated.
Daniela Batrona walked out to collect her medal while draped in a Ukrainian flag. She stood on the podium in the bronze medal placement while she took her victory celebration. Daniela then walked off the podium after mounting it alone and disappeared from the ceremony. Only then could the two Russian gymnasts enter and accept their medals. The iconic moment where three competitors would all embrace on the top of the podium and pose for photos would not occur in uneven bars finals at 2022-Doha.
Note: The medal ceremony can be found here on one of my favorite YouTube channels which features some of Daniela Batrona’s Cottbus routines.
Many gymnastics fans remember the camaraderie that existed between Russian and Ukrainian athletes prior to February 24th, 2022. The examples of friendship and happy coexistence where despite competing against each other for medals, these WAGs always supported each other, empowered each other, and genuinely seemed to like each other.
Those same gymnastics fans would rightly point out that Listunova, Urazova, Minaeva, and Semukhina have always demonstrated the proper kindness, etiquette, and respect for their fellow competitors. That they are more than capable of treating Daniela Batrona with the empathy, respect and care she deserves in such a difficult time. Even their ages with Daniela being 15 years old while the Russian quartet features three 16 year olds and one 17 year old could break the political gridlock. The fact that all of the Russian and Ukrainian gymnasts are teenage girls would makes them far more innocent to the topic of geopolitics than an adult athlete.
Perhaps there could even be a way for them to come together in Doha and let the gymnasts of the two delegations produce a symbol representing peace, or at the very least empathy for the deaths occurring in Ukraine.
But we are far beyond that.
Vera Caslavska’s famed 1968 podium protest after she took the podium with two Soviet gymnasts in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union invading her country is one of the most memorable moments in WAG history. But that situation simply does not compare to 2022.
The scale of the 2022 Russian-Ukrainian War is so vast that it kills as many people in any given hour as the total number of violent deaths that occurred in the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia from beginning to end. This from a 2022 conflict that has already experienced nine days of fighting and could go on for months.
No kind words from a Russian gymnast, no hug or pat on the shoulder comes close to atoning for how much rage any Ukrainian athlete must feel to have a Russian gymnast in her presence. No matter how respectfully a Russian gymnast conducts herself, there is nothing she can do that will offset that through no fault of her own, her presence is a hurtful reminder of the catastrophe that has occurred.
If there is any confusion as to why this bizarre medal ceremony was set up in the way that it was, it was because anything else would have been an insult. It was set up so that no Ukrainian athlete would have to stand together with a Russian. While the Russian athletes are more than capable of handling an interaction appropriately, the Ukrainian athletes are in far too much pain to stomach any interaction at all. Especially during a moment as public as a medal ceremony.
This is the resiliency of Daniela Batrona. Who won medals in two different competitions as the destructive and deadly invasion of her country commenced. Winning those medals on two different continents. She is a young gymnast who was thrust into a role far greater than she could ever imagine, in the most painful context no one could have previously comprehended, on the very day her senior international career was set to begin. Batrona then rose to the formidable task of competing against those from the country that has upended her life and endangered all that Daniela holds dear. But not once did Batrona let the Belarusian and Russian presence cause her to falter or lose her cool.
Instead Daniela Batrona gave the strongest performance of her career and made Ukraine proud.
Update: This article was written at the halfway point of the 2022 Doha World Cup. After this article was published Daniela Batrona won another medal (silver on floor) in Doha. This makes her final tally being three total medals won over a 10-day window. One in Cottbus and two in Doha.