03/04/2014 02:50 EST | Updated 05/04/2014 05:59 EDT

Paralympics organizers fear Crimea unrest will overshadow Games

With the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi just three days away, organizers are adamant they won't let Russia's recent military action in Crimea disrupt the sporting event.

"We're quite happy to leave the politics to the politicians; we're competing as we planned," said Craig Spence, head of communications for the International Paralympic Committee, from Sochi. 

"This has been seven years in planning, and we don't want global politics to overshadow what we hope will be a fantastic sporting event."

Spence said the committee is monitoring the evolving situation in Ukraine and has spoken to the Russian organizers of the Games to ensure security in Sochi won't be compromised because of Russia's military action on the Crimean peninsula, which is about 500 kilometres west of the coastal town as the crow flies.

"We are probably in the safest place currently in Russia," Spence said. "The level of security here is exactly the same as it was for the Olympics. I don't think any of us feel threatened."  

Athletes' focus on Games, not politics

Spence said that on Tuesday when he visited the mountains where some alpine events will take place, none of the athletes brought up the current conflict in Crimea.

"They've been trainingfor this for four years, and their focus now is pretty much on the Paralympic Winter Games," he said.

That's not to say organizers are ignoring the situation.

"We've obviously expressed our disappointment with what's going on in the political situation, but at the end of the day, we're not here to do politics. We're here to organize a sporting event," Spence said. 

About 41 of the 45 countries that will be participating in the Paralympics had arrived as of Tuesday, Spence said, and that included the Ukrainian delegation. About 575 athletes will be competing in the Games, which begin with the opening ceremony on Friday. ​

A spokeswoman for Canada's national paralympic committee said it won't be commenting on the Crimean situation beyond what it has already said in the media — which is that it is monitoring events and making the safety of athletes a top priority.

"We are announcing our flag-bearer tomorrow so are turning our focus back to sport," said spokesperson Alison Korn on Tuesday in an email to

Crimea is no Afghanistan

It's unusual for a host country to be actively engaged in military action during the Games, although in 1980, it was Russia's invasion of Afghanistan months before the Winter Games in Moscow that prompted dozens of countries to boycott the event.

So far, no athletes have said they would be boycotting the Games.So far, Russia's actions in Crimea are not at the level of the Afghan invasion, which set off a nine-year war, but they have nevertheless prompted some countries to hold back the political delegations they had been planning to send to Sochi. Earlier this week, the U.S., U.K. and Canada all said they won't be sending ministerial or presidential delegations as a sign of protest over Russia's incursion into Crimea.

During the Olympics last month, a few Ukrainian athletes withdrew from their events after a violent crackdown on opponents of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. The U.S. also made a quiet protest — showing its opposition to a homophobic, discriminatory law Russia passed leading up to the Olympics by including two openly gay athletes in its presidential delegation to the Games.

Although tensions in Crimea continued to escalate Tuesday, Spence said he hopes the world's attention will again shift to Sochi once competition begins.

"We are disappointed that the politics is currently overshadowing the start of the Games, and we want our athletes to be centre stage and getting the publicity they deserve," he said. "Hopefully, when the sport starts on Saturday, we can start redressing the balance."