Russian Olympians visit Moscow's airbase in Syria

Russian Olympians visit Moscow's airbase in Syria
Russian athletes including women's pole vault world record holder, Yelena Isinbayeva, have visited an air base in Syria that Russia uses to wage its air campaign in support of Assad.
2 min read
29 August, 2016
Yelena Isinbayeva led a group of Russian Olympians at Moscow's airbase in Syria [Getty]

A group of Russian Olympians has visited a Russian airbase in war-torn Syria, where Moscow has been targeting Islamic State fighters but also Syrian rebels in support of the Assad regime for nearly a year.

Russian television on Monday showed footage of the seven athletes, including the women's pole vault world record holder Yelena Isinbayeva, doing group exercises with the soldiers and planting trees at Moscow's Hmeimim airbase outside the coastal Syrian city of Latakia.

The television footage showed Isinbayeva do sit-ups together with the troops and climb a rope.

Isinbayeva, who won gold at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics but like all Russian track and field athletes was banned from competing in Rio over doping allegations, said she was proud to be at the base to boost the troops' morale.

"We understood that we were flying to see our heroes, our defenders," she said.

"Everything here fills me with patriotism and pride."

The 34-year-old pole vaulter, who this month retired from competition and won election to the International Olympic Committee as an athletes' representative, said she and other athletes were not disturbed by the roar of Russian jets taking off from the base on bombing missions, many of which routinely kill Syrian civilians.

"Every time a fighter jet took off, it was like a lullaby we had been waiting for to put us to sleep," she said.

Fencers Sofia Velikaya, Timur Safin, Artur Akhmatkhuzin, Alexei Cheremisinov, as well as westler Soslan Ramonov, who all won gold in team events in Rio, were among the group.

Every time a fighter jet took off, it was like a lullaby we had been waiting for to put us to sleep.
- Yelena Isinbayeva

"It's a big honour for me," said Ramonov, who won gold at Rio in the 65-kilogram men's freestyle event.

"I've planted a tree for the first time in my life, hopefully not the last time."

Russia, which also operates a naval facility in the Syrian city of Tartus, began its bombing campaign in support of Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, a move that helped shore up his government's crumbling forces.

Russia is reportedly planning to expand its airbase in Syria into a permanent military facility.

Agencies contributed to this report.