Opinion: Putin has made Russian athletes his political tools. Banning them is the right thing to do

A few weeks later, Bach’s declaration already sounds like the last gasp of an outdated ideal. For many years, the IOC and other governing bodies of world sport have insisted that their competitions remain separate from international politics. But in many cases, this supposed neutrality ended up serving the interests of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who used sport to cement his position at home and portray himself as a respectable world leader, even attacking Russia’s neighbours.

Only now, following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, are international sports organizations severing ties with Putin’s Russia. Russian athletes will pay the price, but action is needed to remove one of Putin’s most trusted political tools and further isolate him internationally.
A number of global sports organizations have withdrawn events from the country or severed ties with Russian entities. European football federation UEFA moved this year’s Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris, while Formula 1 canceled the Russian Grand Prix scheduled for the end of September. Other governing bodies, leagues and clubs have followed suit. On Monday, UEFA and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) took the extraordinary decision to exclude the Russian national football team from the 2022 World Cup qualifying tournament.
Even the IOC changed course and joined the actions against Russia. On the day of the invasion, Bach condemned Russia’s “violation of the Olympic Truce”, a consensus resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2021, which began seven days before the Winter Olympics. of Beijing and lasts until seven days after the Paralympic Games. On Monday, the IOC went further, recommending that all sports federations ban athletes from Russia and Belarus (due to their country’s crucial capacity for Putin’s aggression) from participating in events.

While the international governing bodies of various sports are now positioning themselves as principled leaders, many of the actions taken against Russia have come in response to their sport’s outrage.

In the case of football, the Polish, Swedish and Czech football federations have refused to face Russia in the qualifying tournament for the World Cup. National team members were involved in each federation’s decision not to play, and some players publicly declared their support. “It’s the right decision! tweeted Robert Lewandowski, the Polish team’s top scorer.
Other European federations have joined the Poles, Swedes and Czechs in rejecting FIFA’s initial attempt to find a compromise by allowing Russians to play as the “Russian Football Union”, without association with the flag or the country’s anthem. Faced with a significant setback, FIFA and UEFA then instituted a complete ban on Russian participation.
Also in hockey, Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Dominik Hasek have called for Russian players to be barred from competitions in North America. Gretzky said Russia should be banned from the world junior men’s championship, while Hasek, who grew up in Czechoslovakia when the country was occupied by Soviet troops, required that the NHL remove Russian players from its rosters. “The NHL must immediately suspend the contracts of all Russian players!” he tweeted.
Athletes who have spoken out insist that a ban on Russian participation in world sports is a necessary step. Having competed on the world stage, they understand that athletes inevitably serve as ambassadors for their country. “Each athlete not only represents themselves and their club, but also their country, their values ​​and their actions,” Hasek tweeted. Allowing Russian athletes to participate in sports can advance the image Putin wants to project to the world — all while Russian soldiers beat Ukrainian civilians. It is simply not acceptable.

Politically, removing Russia from international sports is part of a larger strategy to isolate Russia from international finance, trade and travel. And it prevents Putin from using one of his most effective tools.

Since coming to power, Putin has used international sporting events to restore his country’s global standing following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He played a direct role in lobbying IOC and FIFA members for Russia to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 and the Men’s World Cup in 2018. These successful bids were heralded as proof of Russia’s return to the forefront of advanced nations. “The decision shows that Russia is trustworthy,” Putin said in 2010 when FIFA announced his country would host the World Cup.
International events allowed Putin to “sport” his government’s military aggression. In August 2008, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia on the same day Putin was in Beijing for the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. In 2014, Russian troops began to enter Crimea on the last day of the Winter Games, and the crisis in this region worsened against the backdrop of the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi.
The supposedly apolitical environment of the Olympics provided a shield against any criticism of these actions. “The Games are supposed to be out of politics,” said Aleksandr Zhukov, a former head of the Russian Olympic Committee, when asked ahead of the 2014 Sochi Games about Putin’s actions. “Those who try to stick political tails on them are simply unworthy.”
Leaders of global sports organizations turned a blind eye and deflected the questions. When FIFA President Sepp Blatter met Putin in Sochi in April 2015, Russian troops were occupying the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. “Some people want the World Cup taken away from Russia,” Blatter said, “but we will give an answer to that: we are involved in football and we won’t let politics get in the way.”
Why the cavalry does not come to the side of Ukraine
In the summer of 2018, when the World Cup opened in Russia, an international investigation revealed that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a rocket missile launcher. a unit of the Russian armed forces, causing the death of 298 people. And three months before the tournament started, more than 20 countries expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats after a former Russian spy living in Britain was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.
At the time, FIFA President Gianni Infantino glossed over the incidents, saying: “There is a lot of injustice in the world.” And instead of challenging Putin, Infantino said: “This country, Russia, has changed… Everyone has discovered a beautiful country, a welcoming country, full of people who are keen to show the world that this which is said maybe sometimes is not what is happening here.”

After being embodied for years by the Russian leader, the “sportocrats” of the world now look like stooges. Their insistence on the separation of sport and politics rings hollow.

On the other hand, it is the athletes who have come forward to assert that political events matter in sport. Many of them agree that the ban on Russian athletes is regrettable. However, we must act. “Russian footballers and fans are not responsible for this”, tweeted Lewandowski, “but we cannot pretend that nothing is happening”.

Athletes also remind us that sport must be seen in its proper perspective. It seems that the leaders of international sports organizations often have a unique vision of their mission. They deflect any challenge to the prestige and profits generated by their tournaments, and they cooperate with any world leader willing to advance their sport, no matter how heinous that leader’s actions. In their calls to exclude Russia from international sports, athletes rightly point out that the games cannot be sealed off and watched in a vacuum, separate from world events. It is not possible to watch Russian troops bomb Ukrainian cities and then allow Russian athletes to represent their country in a soccer or football match.

Many fans also see the sport as an autonomous space, separate from the concerns of life. For them, sport is an escape – a form of entertainment – and there is no point in mixing it with politics. We see this view among hockey Fans, angry that Hasek is asking for the suspension of Russian players from the NHL.
But athletes like Hasek, who are calling for bans against Russia, say we need to see the sport in a broader context – one that recognizes the world’s outrage at events in Ukraine. “It’s not an easy decision” tweeted members of the Polish national team after deciding not to play against Russia, “but there are more important things in life than football”.

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