The separation of sports and politics no longer exists. In truth it never existed, but now even the pretense of apolitical international sporting bodies has been obliterated by Putin’s war.
Sports and politics have always been inescapably intertwined. Especially on the global stage, a population’s sense of pride and nationalism is often strongly tied to sports. With the unfortunate luck of being born an English football (soccer) fan, I can attest to the equally exhilarating and debilitating emotions (the latter regrettably all too often) that accompany this role (but of course it’s coming home next year). Governments are always quick to celebrate a team’s international success and share in the positive limelight, while others go so far as to sanction state-sponsored doping in the pursuit of sporting prestige.
Traditionally, sporting organizations have attempted to separate themselves from political events, but they have become more accepting of the involvement of politics in sports in recent years, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlighting this change.
The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) initially chose to ban the Russian flag, anthem, and use neutral locations for team’s games, but faced fierce criticism with many teams openly declaring their refusal to play against Russia. In response, FIFA and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) suspended Russian football clubs and national teams from all competitions; Spartak Moscow lost their round of sixteen place in the Europa League, St. Petersburg will not host this year’s Champions League final, and Russia will be unable to qualify for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
The International Paralympic Committee initially required Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals before barring them from the Paralympics entirely. The decision was made on March 3, the eve of the opening ceremony, after several nations threatened boycotts and rising discontent in the athletes’ village.
Formula 1 has ended its contract with the Russian Grand Prix but permitted Russian Nikita Mazepan to race as a neutral competitor for Haas. The International Tennis Federation has prohibited Russians and Belarusians from team competitions — although individual players have been allowed to continue without national identification. On a more personal note, Vladimir Putin has been suspended as the honorary president of the The International Judo Federation and stripped of his honorary black belt.
The international sporting community has made clear that Putin’s disregard for international law leaves Russia no place on the sporting stage. Given the cost of human life, sporting limitations are far from the most important sanctions currently facing Russians, and international competition is of little importance to those whose lives have been upended by the conflict — but sport does hold a certain symbolic power.
Sport is a very public and powerful medium Europeans can rally behind to demonstrate their support for Ukraine. It is also a means to reach and influence the Russian people outside of traditional political spheres. International sport is not an area where a country can go it alone; in order to win, one inescapably needs an opposition to win against. Russia’s exclusion from the opportunity to compete in the 2022 World Cup is of no comparison to the plummeting value of the Ruble, but it may sting the average Russian on a different and not entirely ineffectual level.
A comparison may be drawn between Russia’s current pariah sporting status and the four-decades long sporting boycott of South Africa from 1966-1990 in protest of the country’s apartheid regime. FIFA barred South Africa from the World Cup, the Confederation of African Football banned the country from the Cup of Nations, and numerous other nations and organizations participated in the boycott. While sporting impotence was not the cause of the collapse of the apartheid regime, exclusion from the global sporting community, especially for white South African rugby fans, was not an entirely unimportant matter for a nation so passionate about its sports.
The international reaction of sporting bodies to the Russian invasion was notable for its speed and scale. While we would all like to believe such organizations are taking a moral stance against an act in flagrant violation of international law, their actions have not escaped criticism. In the modern world of social media and instantaneous communication, all organizations are forced to respond to a more aware and active consumer base, and European sporting giants are no exception.
Social media-led boycotts can be widespread, effective, and economically devastating to any business caught at odds with unified public sentiment. This can be seen in FIFA’s retreat from its initial response requiring Russian teams to compete under a neutral flag to complete exclusion. This was similarly seen in the Paralympic Committee’s last minute u-turn from allowing neutral participation to outright banning all Russian and Belarusian athletes. Both events are indicative of the growing power of the ethical consumer in the 21st century.
The Olympic Committee and FIFA, most notably, have also faced accusations of racism for their strong support of Ukraine but lack of response to non-European centric crises such as Palestinian calls for the suspension of Israeli athletes, boycott calls over China’s treatment of Uyghur, and similar issues raised by Yemenis, Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians, among others. While the show of solidarity with Ukrainians is to be applauded, the question remains why such support fails to materialize for other suffering nations and peoples.
Sporting authorities have begun to show new leniency in their willingness to allow player-led protests at sporting events, such as athletes taking a knee against racism before the start of a game or political slogans on warm up shirts. However, responses do not appear to be centered around a defined set of principles, but instead seem to consist of knee-jerk reactions to unfolding events.
As the international sporting community accepts the inherently political nature of sport, a new rulebook for ethical standards of participation needs to be written. What violations require what punishments? The invasion of a sovereign nation: unacceptable. But human rights abuses? Genocide? Civil rights? If a new ethical touchline is to be drawn around global sports, what will the new standards of participation require? Welcome to the world of politics.