Sport in a time of war: the predicament of Russian athletes

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Should athletes pay the price for the actions of their respective governments? 

It’s the Catch-22 question. On one hand, sport is used as a tool of propaganda across the world and, in Russia, could be used to undermine the severity of sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the Ukrainian invasion. On the other hand, it must be recognised that Russia is not a democracy. Vladimir Putin deals with opposition and dissent brutally. The most recent Russian elections were reported to be marred by election fraud and it must be recognised that Russian athletes have little, if any, control over Putin’s actions. Speaking out against him is dangerous. 

Yet, sporting organisations have laid their verdict. Russian athletes and the country’s overall sporting participation are out of favour. Russian and Belarusian athletes were banned from the Paralympics and the IOC have advised sporting organisations that such athletes should not be allowed to compete in international competitions.

The World Athletics series and the International Skating Union are among the organisations that have heeded such advice. Football organisations such as FIFA and UEFA have suspended Russia from club level and national competitions. Most competitions due to be held in Russia have also been cancelled such as the Russian Grand Prix and the Champions League Final. 

Sporting organisations have laid their verdict

But does it set an unenforceable precedent to ban athletes from competing due to geo-political issues they have little, if any, control over? Many governments across the world are doing horrific things and violating international law. Should we ban Saudi Arabian athletes because their rulers are bombing Yemen? Should we ban Chinese competitors because of the Chinese government’s genocide against the Uyghur population?

Should we ban Israeli athletes because their government has built settlements that have been found by the UN to break international law? Where do we draw the line? Most governments have policies for which they can be severely criticised. Of course, it is a scale of severity, but is it fair to punish some athletes but not others? Should we not acknowledge athletes for their talent as opposed to what country they represent? 

Perhaps a better approach is that adopted by swimming, Formula 1 or tennis. These organisations have taken a more nuanced approach of banning Russian and Belarusian teams, symbols, flags and anthems. They allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under a neutral flag. 

Yet, the FIA’s policy for Formula 1, in particular, is not without problems. Firstly, motor sporting organisations in individual countries, such as Motorsports UK (with others expected to follow suit) banned Russian drivers from competing. This occurred alongside the uncertainty regarding entry requirements to host countries for Russian and Belarusian citizens.

The second issue is that the FIA demanded that all Russian and Belarusian competitors sign a document stating that they will abide by a specific code of conduct. This would ban them from using Russian or Belarusian national symbols, colours or flags on their clothes, personal items or social media. It would also prohibit them from showing support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine in any way. 

This might seem like a simple request, however, it ignores the autocratic dynamics of Russia. It fails to acknowledge the danger that high profile Russian figures are likely to place themselves, and their families, in if they sign a document which prohibits support of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and by extension his regime.

Again, this singles out drivers from other nations who have not had to sign a document stating they will not support their own governments’ actions. However, it would be a PR nightmare (as was seen in the world of gymnastics) for Formula 1 if an athlete publicly supported an invasion which has seen a maternity hospital being bombed.

In effect, the policy seems to be a way of preventing Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing, given there has been no confirmation of anyone signing the document. High profile Russian drivers such as Daniil Kyvatt or F3 driver Alexander Smolyar have refused. 

Whilst athletes should be given the opportunity to continue to compete under a neutral flag, the problem is enforcing this. In effect, you are asking athletes to give up part of their identity by effectively denouncing their nationality. This is not only placing them and their families in danger, but is also a very big thing to ask.

Having pride in your country goes beyond what those who govern it are doing and it is deeply emotional for many athletes. There is also the problem of athletes being interlinked with the Russian regime via sponsors: enter Nikita Mazepin.

Mazepin has kicked up quite a fuss after losing his F1 seat following the Ukrainian invasion. In a press conference he lamented that it was unfair because the FIA said he could race, he has no connections to Putin or the war and that he would accept the conditions they imposed (although he later admitted he hadn’t read them). Cue the poor Mazepin narrative that was fairly successful on social media, up until the point that the EU sanctioned Mazepin and his father for their ties to the Kremlin. 

What should be recognised in the Mazepin situation is that Mazepin was a pay driver. Having a seat was the result of his father’s (a Russian Oligarch who met with Putin after the Ukrainian invasion) company Uralkali sponsoring Haas. With the Uralkali chairman and the Mazepins facing sanctions, not to mention the wariness of Haas’ other sponsors to Mazepin’s involvement in Haas, Mazepin’s position as driver was “untenable”. 

The biggest victims of war are rarely war’s perpetrators. In Ukraine, men, women and children have lost everything – many are injured or dying. The plight of sportspeople cannot be compared to such levels of suffering in Ukraine, but they too are being punished for the actions of others. It is unfair, but then again war is never fair and there does not appear to be a ‘good’ solution whilst Putin is attacking Ukraine.

Image: Jamie Wilson via flickr

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