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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

REASONS TO CHANGE TACK #4: SPORT AND POLITICS

For most of my life I held dear to the notion that sport and politics could be kept separate. I even thought, if it's not a contradiction, that sport could bring people of different nations together despite their political disagreements. With the Paris Olympics not too far off, and the International Olympic Committee's decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals, I am prompted to recount why my thinking on sport and politics shifted.


An age of innocence


A few years ago I taught a class on US–Russia relations to American liberal arts students. In one seminar discussion I raised the issue of sport and politics. My baseline position, at the time, was that sports should not be used as political tools and should be as apolitical as possible.


Allow me to recall some context before I explain how my thinking was challenged. My notes show that, in the lecture accompanying the seminar, I'd mentioned Russia's hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In the run–up to the Sochi Games, a controversy raged about Russia's then recently–introduced law against 'homosexual propaganda' (or, to give it its formal title, 'Law for protecting children from information advocating for the denial of traditional family values'). Critics rightly saw the law as proscribing any advocacy for LGBT+ rights. In response to the law, many campaigners in western countries were calling for a boycott of the Games.


At that time, I would have innocently argued against a boycott, on the grounds that it was unfair on the athletes who had trained hard for the event. My 'seminar prep notes', mind, do indicate that I intended to challenge whether sport and politics could ever be kept apart, noting that hosting the games was very much a vanity project for Putin and an effort to attract the international attention and political prestige that surrounds major sporting events. I wasn't that innocent!


There was no major boycott. As symbolic support for the LGBT+ community, the US deliberately included a number of gay athletes such as Billie Jean King in its delegation at the opening ceremony, which drew accusations from Vladimir Putin that the US was 'politicising' the event. (The 2014 Winter Olympics, in case you are wondering, predated the revelations about the scale of a state–sponsored doping programme in Russia.)


To get to the point I wish to make here, I discussed the issue of sports boycotts with my American liberal arts students. They thought using sport as a tool of foreign policy was fair game. It's easy, regrettably, to think your own view will be shared by others and consequently I was surprised by the strength of feeling on the matter. It wasn't just that a majority thought the US should have considered a boycott. It was a unanimous view. Some of the students were in the College's sports teams and I asked them directly if they were really prepared to sacrifice years of training for the sake of a political decision by the government (I was asking in an abstract sense; the discussion was not about their views on the particular issue of LGBT+ rights that came up in the case of the Sochi Olympics). In principle, they were: they might be upset in such a situation but it would the right thing to do, they believed.


From boycotts to bans


Much has happened in the decade since the Sochi Olympics. The Russian doping scandal broke in the following years, leading for calls to ban Russian athletes from the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. The issue of doping is not black and white as this 2018 article by Matthew Syed eloquently explains. Russia, though, clearly breached any semblance of playing by the rules. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) decided against a top–down ban, leaving the decision to the governing bodies of individual sports.


In the subsequent iterations of the games, Russian athletes competed as Olympic Athletes from Russia (2018 Winter Olympics) or the Russian Olympic Committee (the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympics). The athletes were not supposed to display any national symbols such as flags and the Russian anthem would not be played at medals ceremonies, with Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto played instead. The sanction was mild: Russian athletes were not competing under the universal Olympic flag but under the Russian Olympic Committee's flag which, while predominantly white, still featured the colours of the Russian national flag.


And now, of course, the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris draw near. Another Olympics... another controversy involving Russia. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Belarus as co–aggressor, now dominates the debate. The IOC initially recommended that individual sports federations ban Russia and Belarus from competing in events and later decided that Russian and Belarusian athletes could compete in the Paris games as neutrals; admittedly under stricter conditions than in the sanctions against them in 2020, including their exclusion from the opening ceremony parade. A pair of UN experts approved of the IOC's changed stance, stating that sport must not be 'instrumentalised' and that 'no athlete should be required to take sides in the conflict'. I disagree.


Why I changed my mind


Or rather, I now disagree. I think my American students were right, after all, and sport cannot ever pretend to stand apart from politics. Russia's invasion of Ukraine makes the point far more apparent than the controversies about discriminatory laws or state–sponsored doping – controversies that have shrivelled into a distant past – ever could have.


Russian bombs have destroyed sports stadia and playing fields. Ukrainian athletes have gone to the frontlines to fight and some never return. An estimated 400 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have been killed. Russia has squarely prevented Ukraine from having the full opportunities of competing in, training for, or hosting international sports events (even if Ukraine has done its level best to continue in many sports). It is suddenly far easier to sympathise with those calling for Russian and Belarusian athletes to be banned from all competitions. It seems absurd for Russia to get off as lightly as its athletes competing as neutrals. Few Russian athletes have had to stop their training because of the war.


A second factor influencing my changed view is seeing how Russia and its athletes dealt with recent sports competitions where they were ostensibly neutral. I remember being surprised that they still had a tally in the medals table during the Tokyo Games. In a British newspaper, the Russian athletes' medals might have been listed as ROC (for Russian Olympic Committee) but in the Russian media that I recall they still listed their own country's name alongside the tally for Russian athletes' medals. It might be their prerogative but it made a mockery of the punishment. The Russian team may not have been allowed to display their national flag on their kit, though you were hard–pressed to spot the difference given the athletes still wore the national colours arranged in the same order as they appear on the flag. Russian flags, moreover, appeared in the stadia if I recall correctly. My point is that the average Russian may have barely noticed that their country was sanctioned.


So while a little bit of me remains ambivalent about the idea of tarring everyone with the same brush, fully aware that many Russians and Belarusians do not share their governments' positions on the war, I think a complete ban on their participation is the right thing to do. Our main sympathy must surely rest with the immediate victims of Russia's invasion, the Ukrainian people, and not with those living in dictatorships all too keen to 'sportswash' their regime. Boycotts and bans should not be undertaken lightly in competitions but it is naïve to think sport can be kept free of politics and such sanctions can morally be the right decision in the long run. Only a full ban can (try to) signal global condemnation.


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