The war in Ukraine forces sports federations to take a stand

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Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month, the response from the global sporting community has been significant to say the least. On February 28, the International Olympic Committee formally recommended that “international sports federations and organizers of sports events not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions”. Almost immediately, a number of governing bodies heeded the IOC directive as the Russian Federation was suspended from competition by top organizations like FIFA, World Athletics, Union Cycliste Internationale and the Federation international ice hockey. Even the International Skyrunning Federation has announced that, until further notice, the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus will be prohibited. Other than apartheid-era South Africa, no country has ever been so pariah on the international sporting scene. But while South Africa’s ostracism took years to manifest – having been disinvited from the 1964 and 1968 Games, the country was not formally expelled by the IOC until 1970 – the ban from Russia seemed to happen overnight.

For its part, the IOC said it issued its decree with “a heavy heart” as it had no desire to “punish athletes for the decisions of their government”. That sentiment was echoed by World Athletics chairman Seb Coe, who noted that while he had always been against targeting athletes to “make a political case”, the current situation was an exception. “It’s different because governments, companies and other international organizations have imposed sanctions and measures against Russia across all sectors,” Coe said in a World Athletics press release. “Sport must step up and join these efforts to end this war and restore peace.”

It’s no secret that organizations like the IOC have been reluctant to take a stand against state-sponsored injustices in the past. In the run-up to last month’s Olympics in Beijing, the IOC stubbornly refused to pressure China over its treatment of its Uyghur population. Similarly, FIFA seemed to have little qualms about hosting the 2018 World Cup in Russia four years after the country annexed Crimea and simultaneously seized territory in eastern Ukraine. So it’s worth asking why they were so quick to react this time around and whether boycotting sports from Russia can be an effective means of conflict resolution.

Speaking of idealized notions about the role of sport in international relations, it is significant that Russia launched its invasion during the so-called “Olympic truce”. The UN-backed initiative calls on IOC Member States to “foster an atmosphere of peace” throughout the duration of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Unlike the endless drone campaigns of the United States, a country that has had the advantage of being perpetually (and therefore invisibly) at war, the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine has dominated the media news cycle. western. This level of attention effectively forced the hand of the IOC in a way that Russia’s previous Olympic truce violations (namely its war with Georgia in August 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in February 2014) did not. haven’t done it. What’s the point of championing such an ambitious ideal if you’re not prepared to stick to it?

As Jules Boykoff, professor of politics at the University of the Pacific, who is regularly one of the IOC’s most outspoken critics, told me: “It is extremely unfortunate that athletes are caught in the political crossfire, but if the International Olympic Committee is not going to take a strong stand against a country when it openly invades another sovereign country while the Olympic truce is in effect, then when can we expect it to act?

In other words, taking a public stand against the war in Ukraine is increasingly necessary to protect the Olympic brand. Stuart Murray, associate professor in the Department of International Relations at Bond University and co-founder of Australia’s Sports Diplomacy Alliance, says the events of the past two weeks are another example of a wider trend where governing bodies, like big business , feel compelled to take a stand out of the need to remain relevant. “I think the world expects a lot more from the people who govern the sport, especially when you think about the power they have and the good they could achieve,” Murray said. Referring to FIFA and the IOC, Murray suggested that “perhaps both organizations realize – rightly – that some regard them as an anachronism”.

Of course, opinions are divided on the extent to which international sport can really be a force for good in the world. Do high-stakes football matches or Olympic medal counts lessen or exacerbate animosity between nations? While acknowledging that there are many examples of athletes being “armed” by nefarious political regimes, Murray was generally optimistic that sport, as he put it, can be “the glue that binds the society”.

A similar sentiment inspired the short-lived Goodwill Games, which were created by media mogul Ted Turner in response to the reciprocal boycott by the United States and Russia of the 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles) Olympics. ) and aimed to help bridge the divide between East and West. The venture, which was a kind of shortened version of the Olympics and was held every four years from 1986 to 2001, eventually lost millions of dollars over the years and, ironically, lost much of its appeal. after the end of the Cold War.

According to Professor Joseph Nye, the former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, who is credited with the term “soft power” in reference to a country’s cultural cachet, the Goodwill Games represented a “noble but unrealistic” ideal. , since major sporting events always have the potential to become the symbol of wider political struggles and, therefore, tools of propaganda. As Nye told me, “Soft power is the ability to attract, and boycotts of sporting events are attacks on the soft power of other countries.”

When it comes to the current sports boycott of the Russian Federation, it’s not immediately obvious how important such a maneuver really is compared to more blatant “hard power” tactics like economic sanctions, let alone the incalculable toll of military combat. However, and as others have noted, Vladimir Putin has long portrayed himself as a hardy sportsman: judo master, hunter, swimmer, secret hockey genius and, of course, shirtless horseman. Likewise, he has been heavily involved in securing big-budget international competitions for his country, including the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It’s hard to think of another world leader who is similarly invested in using sport as a tool to simultaneously enhance its personal and national image. With the tragedy deepening in Ukraine, denying him that opportunity is increasingly a moral obligation. In the words of World Athletics Chairman Seb Coe, “We can’t and must not let this one pass.”

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