Russia can't pretend to right its wrongs with sport any longer

When Russia invaded Ukraine, it created a cascading effect of boycotts, sanctions, and bans for goods, trade, travel and sport.

While each will impact the country, sport has always been Russia’s tool — a mechanism to purport dominance, and build a positive global image and national identity.

As Germany’s Athleten Deutschland, an independent athlete association aiming to protect the rights of elite German athletes said:

“The Putin system for many years has deliberately used sports for its purposes…Sporting success is seen as a sign of national strength and superiority. Athletes are utilized to produce this success. Any means have been used to achieve this — be it the violation of human rights…or the operation of a state-orchestrated doping system.”

Soon after Russia’s invasion, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) applied sanctions on Russian athletes and teams. With this, Russia’s capacity for athletic success on the world stage, image in sport, and its ability to present the nation as a collaborative member of global sport vanished.

“This invasion of the Ukraine resulting in widespread bans across sporting federations has probably taken sport as an image building tool right out of play for Russia for the foreseeable future,” says University of Guelph professor Dr. Ann Pegoraro, who is director of the International Institute for Sport Business and Leadership.

In particular hockey, which became synonymous with Russian success during the Soviet Union era, will no longer be an instrument of president Vladimir Putin’s nationalism.

“Perhaps the one sport that has helped them the most, hockey, has iced Russia from participation,” Pegoraro added. “The professional hockey leagues are cutting off ties to Russia, sponsors are removing Russian players from campaigns and the sport where they could once claim dominance and intense rivalries will not be an avenue to showcase their athletic dominance. Images of Russian athletes creating moments of nationalistic pride through sporting success will not be seen for some time to come.”

Some, however, don’t believe governing bodies such as the IOC have the resolve to maintain sanctions beyond the end of the conflict, even if the impact to Ukraine and global stability remains.

According to Professor Barbara Keys, Durham University’s Director of Research who specializes in Olympic History, the IOC’s “antipathy toward taking actions that it sees as overtly political” is unlikely to last. Dr. Keys predicts the IOC could reverse decisions in time for the 2024 Olympics.

“The current bans are a virtually cost-free way for the IOC to hop on the bandwagon of international shock and outrage about Russia's war of aggression. The IOC leadership is surely calculating that such bans will have no bearing on the next Olympic Games which are not going to happen until summer 2024.”

Historically however, there is precedent for sanctions continuing beyond war.

SOCHI, RUSSIA  MAY 10, 2021: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks before a Night Hockey League gala friendly match at the Bolshoi Ice Dome. The Night Hockey League, a Russian amateur sports organisation, was founded in 2011 on the initiative of president Putin and famous ice hockey players to promote amateur ice hockey. Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS (Photo by Dmitry Feoktistov\TASS via Getty Images)
Hockey in particular became a symbol of Russian success during the Soviet Union era, but sport can no longer be an instrument of Putin’s nationalism, at least not for now. (Getty) (Dmitry Feoktistov via Getty Images)

Following WWI, five countries, including Germany, were ostracized from the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. Following WWII, both Germany and Japan were not invited to the 1948 London Summer Olympics, nor the St. Moritz Winter Olympics.

Immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the IOC recommended similar sanctions asking that “International Sports Federations and sports event organisers not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions.”

The IOC itself has historically shied away from banning nations, though.

“The IOC’s reactions to world conflicts are often more complicated than they appear,” explains Western University assistant professor and social history of sport researcher MacIntosh Ross.

“There’s a common misconception that Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, Hungary and Germany were barred from competing at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics,” Ross continued. “That’s not strictly true. At the time, the IOC still believed that banning nations, even nations that fueled bloody world wars, was a political decision and therefore off limits. Instead, the IOC told organizers not to invite them.”

The same is true today with Russia, whether it relates to state-sponsored doping or the current invasion of Ukraine.

The IOC has traditionally claimed “political neutrality,” stepping away from conflict, and has not “banned” Russian athletes from upcoming competition, including the 2024 Olympic Games.

“During the 21st century, the IOC has been hesitant to exclude nations on the basis of armed conflict, even when it violates the Olympic Truce,” Ross explains. “The IOC’s move to allow National Olympic Committees to participate even when a nation is sanctioned feels hollow. It’s got to the point where one has to question whether the philosophy of Olympism means anything at all to the IOC, because the bits about supporting the ‘harmonious development of humankind’ and ‘promoting a peaceful society’ seem to be an afterthought, even as Russia invades Ukraine.”

Despite the Olympic Truce — which aims to allow athletes and spectators to participate in sport safely — as IOC President Thomas Bach stated in 2020, “The Olympic Games cannot prevent wars and conflicts. Nor can they address all the political and social challenges in our world. But they can set an example for a world where everyone respects the same rules and one another.”

The IIHF echoed this. President Luc Tardif utilized nearly identical verbiage claiming “The IIHF is not a political entity and cannot influence the decisions being taken over the war in Ukraine.”

While it is true that the Olympic Games, nor any venue of sport, can prevent war, sport can be at least one small part of the solution — part of the pressure to end conflict.

During the apartheid era, South Africa was expelled from the 1964 Olympics, and from the International Olympic Committee altogether in 1970 due to their racist laws of segregation. South Africa did not compete in another Olympic Games until 1994, three years after the end of apartheid.

Presently, in response to Russia, international federations, leagues, and private teams immediately moved to exclude and isolate Russia — both from competition, and financially.

“This will be a personal injury for Vladimir Putin,” said Pegoraro. “These bans are removing the privilege of sport from Russia, and also squeezing it financially with loss of revenue.”

With the exclusion of Russia from upcoming international competition, the lasting impact on Russia’s global image, superiority built through sport, and the success of Russian athletes abroad will be felt by the Kremlin.

The longevity and resolve of decisions made by the IOC, IIHF and FIFA, however, is yet to be seen.

As the IOC’s own statement says, the organization “may adapt its recommendations and measures according to future developments.”

The IIHF echoed the indecisiveness of future action.

“The IIHF Council has not left out the possibility of further actions impacting future events or other IIHF activities but hopes above all for a swift and peaceful resolution to the war,” their statement said.

Further action could preclude participation in competition beyond 2022, or the adaptation of recommendations could involve the return of Russian athletes.

In Pegoraro’s eyes however, the world view of Russia in sport has changed. The damage is done, and it will take Russia longer to recover, whether athletic success is found or not, from the devastating and unfounded invasion of Ukraine.

“The inability to compete on the international stage will also cut off whatever Russian government that emerges post this invasion from the opportunity to use sport to rally its citizens, and unite them even briefly behind the country,” she said.

“Often sport events bring nations together and can help facilitate much needed internal political dialogue to heal divided nations. And we are seeing many Russian individuals protesting this invasion, indicating that the nation is indeed fractured. Sport will not be able to help heal that divide for some time.”

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