A Ukrainian gymnast carried the Paris Olympic torch with an EU team, in a sign of support

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MARSEILLE, France — Ukrainian gymnast Mariia Vysochanska led a group of European athletes carrying the torch for the Paris Olympics through the Mediterranean city of Marseille on Thursday, in an important symbolic moment for her war-ravaged country.

The torch relay in Marseille marked the start of an 11-week journey across France ahead of the Olympics opening ceremony on July 26. The ambiance was electric as crowded Marseille streets cheered the relay of torchbearers that included athletes like basketball player Tony Parker or former soccer player Basile Boli.

The big moment for Ukraine came at midday, when a collective of 27 athletes and para-athletes from each EU country took the torch and joined the relay in celebration of Europe Day on May 9. They formed a guard of honor to welcome Vysochanska, who won two gold medals at the 2020 European Championships and competed at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021.

"It is very hard to put all the emotions I experience into words,'' said the 21-year-old athlete. ''I feel pride and incredible happiness that Ukraine became the 28th country (to carry the flame with EU countries), and that the captain has honoured me by letting me carry the Olympic flame."

Ukraine's deputy sports minister, Viktoriia Riasna, also expressed her delight and gratitude.

"Ukraine is Europe. Ukraine today became the captain of the torch relay with 27 other representatives from EU countries. It means a lot to us. And I really hope it means a lot to (the) EU, " Riasna told reporters.

After handing off to the next torchbearer, the European collective was greeted by French Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra.

The French government, which has been an increasingly vocal supporter of Ukraine, invited Vysochanska to join the event. The war has deeply complicated the efforts of Ukrainian athletes to prepare for the Olympics.

"It's a way to really insist on our solidarity towards Ukraine,'' Oudéa-Castéra said earlier Thursday. "We are doing a lot to make sure that they (Ukrainian athletes) can prepare in the best possible conditions at a time where they face that terrible war of aggression, and we want to really express that we support them the best we can."

Vysochanska's participation holds personal significance: Her father has been fighting since 2015, a year after Russia's aggression first started with the illegal annexation of Crimea and was followed by armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Her father participated in the 242-day-long battle for Donetsk airport, where he received a head injury. Soldiers who defended the airport in the currently Russian-occupied city of Donetsk were dubbed ''cyborgs'' in Ukraine for holding the position for such a long time.

Her involvement also reflects Ukraine's efforts to join the European Union, which agreed last year for accelerated talks on accession.

The International Olympic Committee announced in March that Russian and Belarusian athletes will not participate in the Paris Olympics' opening ceremony because of the war that Russian President Vladimir Putin launched in Ukraine. Any athletes from these countries must go through a two-step vetting process to compete under a neutral banner.


Nouvian reported from Paris. Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv contributed.


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