Croatia's Sports Lesson for Ukraine

Ukraine, with its population of 45 million people, has much to learn from Croatia, population just over 4 million, in terms of organizing affordable and accessible sports activities for children.

This is one of the conclusions that Denis Oleinikov, a Ukrainian businessman who lives in Croatia with his wife and two children, has recently shared in a Facebook post [ru] comparing the attitudes towards sports in Ukraine and in Croatia. Oleinikov received political asylum in Croatia – which he now calls his “new, cozy and friendly home” – following the 2011 crackdown on his goods-on-demand company that had been printing t-shirts with slogans mocking the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

First, Oleinikov compared the demographics and financial resources of the two countries:

[…] Ukraine has a much higher level of urbanization. We live predominantly in large cities – which means that it is possible to build [sports facilities] that would accommodate […] hundreds of thousands of people. […]

In Croatia, people live mainly in small towns. […] Our town's population is 10,000 people. There are only about 30 kids my son's age there – [in Kyiv], there'd be more kids his age in just two streets [of any given neighborhood].

In Ukraine, there are [large industrial corporations] that fund not just professional clubs, but also “corporate” sports facilities of a rather high quality. My daughter [played tennis] a couple of times at the gym that belongs to the [Odessa-based] Shustov Cognac Factory – they have tennis courts and a swimming pool there, and all is up to the mark. The whole Croatian region doesn't have a swimming pool [that could compete with Shustov's].

Local [Croatian] oligarchs are poor beggars compared to their Ukrainian counterparts. […]

Next, he did a quick assessment of how the two countries fare against each other in sports:

[…] Football, FIFA rankings: Croatia – 9, Ukraine – 48.
Basketball, men: Croatia – 16, Ukraine – 50.
Basketball, women: Croatia – 21, Ukraine – 61 (shares this position with Rwanda and Madagascar).
Handball, men: Croatia – 10, Ukraine – 28.
Handball, women: Croatia – 18, Ukraine – 22.

Ukraine is ahead of Croatia only in winter sports, which isn't surprising as much of Croatia lies in the subtropics :). And not in all winter sports, too – Croats are ahead of us in alpine skiing. […]

Croatia wins bronze medal at Handball World Championships. Photo by Pau Barrena, copyright © Demotix (26/01/13).

Croatia wins bronze medal at Handball World Championships. Photo by Pau Barrena, copyright © Demotix (26/01/13).

Oleinikov kept wondering about Croatia's enviable athletic achievements. Then, when his little son got a chance to spend a week at a free-of-charge sports camp organized by his school during spring break, he understood what the key to Croatia's success must have been:

[…] We would drop our son off at 8 AM and pick him up at 3 PM.

The city provided sports facilities and lunch […]. Sports federations provided the coaches […]. A children's sports psychologist was invited from [Croatia's capital] Zagreb.

And FOR A WHOLE WEEK the kids have been joyfully trying different types of sports, for free: football, basketball, volleyball, handball, tennis, ping-pong, karate, fencing (!!!), yachting (!!!), bocce… that's it, I guess.


In our “village” (by Ukrainian standards, it wouldn't even be the biggest one), 100 percent of children are involved in extracurricular sports activities. […]

Oleinikov sees a lesson for Ukraine here – and for Ukraine's opposition politicians, too:

[…] It shouldn't cost too much to reproduce it all in Ukraine. […] Schools and some municipal organizations could provide gyms. Dinners can be organized somehow as well.

What's needed is that someone has the need to do this. Even if the state doesn't give a damn.

Enthusiasts, volunteers, activists.

Finally, one camp like this would bring five times more loyal supporters (from the parents’ ranks) to the respected opposition politicians than ten protest rallies would. Only this camp has to be organized every six months for five years in a row – and not just once three months before the election […].

Some of Oleinikov's readers (and he has over 2,750 Facebook friends and followers) weighed in on the situation with sports in Ukraine – showing little or no optimism, however.

Aleksandr Yaremenko wrote [ru]:

Denis, children's sports barely exists in our country now. It is either the “elite” types of sports that parents pay huge amounts of money for […], or it's pure enthusiasm of [state-funded] coaches who survive on peanuts from the not-so-rich parents.

Alex Gureev wrote [ru]:

People in the well-to-do Europe tend to forget the Ukrainian realities a bit too quickly. Here, people are busy just trying to SURVIVE! They cannot be bothered with sports and other attributes of the well-to-do West… We've had more than one attempt to apply the [theory of “small deeds”] – and, in most cases, these attempts failed after just a couple of months… ((

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