Timing Is Everything.
Heartbreak, History & Hope - The story of Ukraine and Lviv 2022
Terrence Burns ©2014
My colleague Ansley O’Neal and I were invited to Lviv, Ukraine in June 2013 to discuss the city’s bid for the 2022 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games. To be honest, we weren’t quite sure what to expect but what we found was a very pleasant surprise. A quaint city square (in 1998, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site), mobs of hip, happy and optimistic young people (the city has dozens of universities and a huge student population) and some of the most entertaining and eclectic restaurants and bars in Europe. It’s a very cool place full of very cool people.
We met Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi to discuss branding and the bid; he was a progressive man with visions of a westernized Ukraine led by the example of a Western looking and leaning Lviv – even though he was wearing a traditional Ukrainian shirt for the meeting and our photo.
In the end, we agreed to help Lviv 2022 create its brand, its key messages, a new logo and a distinct identity for the campaign. We took a lot of time explaining that the audience for an Olympic bid is an international audience, and that we were not creating a new brand for the city of Lviv, rather, a new brand for the city of Lviv’s bid for the 2022 Winter Games; different message, different target audience. For the most part I think everyone got it – even the politicians.
So we began.
We quickly found out that no one (foreigners) knew what Lviv was, or where Lviv was or even how to pronounce it (similar to the start of the Sochi bid). Then we quickly discovered a country that is quite diverse and multicultural. And, we found out that Ukrainians themselves had a hard time describing their own culture because of their fractured history. It was a pleasant exercise in discovery for all of us…like every bid. Ukraine has been generalized as either Russian-focused (eastern Ukraine) or Europe-focused (Western Ukraine). As we have seen from recent events, Ukraine is not that simple.
The Lviv 2022 bid committee is quite young compared to other bid committees with whom we’ve worked. Led by Sergej Gontcharov (he just turned 30 yet is wise beyond his years), the small team really impressed us with their passion for the Olympics and what the 2022 Winter Games could do for Ukraine. To a person, the team was well educated, intelligent (which is different from being well educated), tireless and above all, that most rare of words in that part of the world – optimistic.
I’ve worked with a lot of bid committees over the years the Lviv 2022 team was probably the most idealistic (in a good way) and willing to listen and learn. Those young, expectant faces that took endless notes and asked endless (good) questions will be Ukraine’s leaders of tomorrow. Which is why the events of this past two weeks have been so devastating.
Ukraine is a country struggling to stand and it is being pulled from every direction by every motivation imaginable. Ukraine is also a country that has truly been independent only 18 years or so of its entire history. They are building the car while they drive it, real time, in front of the world.
Watching the Ukrainian athletes march in Sochi’s Opening Ceremony under one government, then try to focus and compete while their country was falling apart back home, then march back into Closing Ceremony under another government sounds like a movie – but it wasn’t. It was real and it was raw, and it shows once again how the unique prism of the Olympic Games gives the world a window into a country’s people, its culture and history itself.
I saw members of the Lviv 2022 bid team in Sochi on the IOC Observers program. They were putting up a brave face but you could see the strain in their eyes. I saw people far too young with too much ability and hope to be struggling under the weight of their impossible burden. It was impressive and moving.
On Thursday morning the 19th of February, we sat with members of Lviv 2022, the Ukrainian NOC and the great Sergei Bubka as events in Kiev were unfolding. We were trying to help them create Tweets, posts, media statements and releases about the situation, but each time we finished a document, something new transpired.
It was a tense morning but they were not panicking or angry – they were determined that something good would come out of this turmoil for their country, for their home. One of Bubka’s Tweets was taken up by the media and flew around the world - “Dialogue is power, violence is weakness”. He meant every word.
As I write this, I have no idea what will happen in Ukraine tomorrow, or if the Lviv 2022 bid will continue. What I do know is that the members of the Lviv 2022 bid committee and all the Ukrainian athletes who were in Sochi are champions in my eyes. Ukraine is a metaphor for the battle of East and West right now, but the reality is they want to be neither, they want to be a bridge to each – and they want to be themselves.
It isn’t often we see history play out before our eyes, but it is happening in Ukraine right now. Let’s hope they find the self-determination and national identity they crave, as well as the peace that they deserve.
Godspeed my dear friends, Sergei, Sergej, Valeriy, Dima, Oleksandr, Ksenia, Ira, Serhiy, Arsen, Oleg and to those I've omitted.