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Ukraine, Russia and the politics of sports

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the spotlight back on the relationship between elite sports and geopolitics

FILE: Russia president Vladimir Putin (right) and Fifa president Gianni Infantino at the 2018 football World Cup in Russia.
FILE: Russia president Vladimir Putin (right) and Fifa president Gianni Infantino at the 2018 football World Cup in Russia. (AP)

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When Russia hosted the 2018 football World Cup, the mega-event was celebrated around the world. The host nation put together a string of impressive performances, though it lost to Croatia in the quarter-finals. The power of football won. But in the years leading up to the event, there had been a fair bit of controversy.

The 2015 bidding process for the World Cup was marred by a corruption scandal. And, according to a June 2018 report from Building and Wood Workers’ International, 21 workers died during the construction of stadiums for a perfect tournament. The mega-event washed off every stain, however.

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This was an example of sportswashing, when countries try to deflect criticism of their policies and actions through sport, be it the purchase or sponsorship of sporting teams or participation in the sport itself. Today, there is an undeniable link between sport—and many other fields, for that matter—and geopolitics. What has renewed debate on sportswashing—a term coined in 2015 and made popular by Amnesty International in 2018—and the pushback to any possible attempt to use it is the fallout of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.

A string of sporting sanctions, across football, motor racing and athletics, has followed. Sponsorship deals worth millions of dollars have been cancelled. The 2021-22 UEFA Champions League final has been moved from St Petersburg, Russia, to Paris, France. Football governing bodies Fifa and UEFA have expelled Russian national teams and clubs from all international competitions. Formula One (F1) has decided to terminate its contract with the Russian Grand Prix. Earlier this week, the Haas F1 team parted ways with their Russian driver Nikita Mazepin and title sponsor Uralkali, the Russian company owned by Mazepin’s father.

“The speed and scale with which the world of sport has reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was stunning and arguably unprecedented, and rightly so,” says Simon Chadwick, global professor of sport and director, Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry, at the Emlyon business school in Paris.

It hasn’t always been as severe. “It is right that any country that illegally invades another, engages in war or coerces others, should be sanctioned in this way. However, we have witnessed other such episodes in recent decades where bans haven’t been imposed, hence acting solely against Russia is somewhat out of kilter with established practices,” Chadwick says on email, adding that global sport should establish a common standard that is applied consistently when assessing when to ban countries and its athletes.

Earlier this year, the Winter Olympics in Beijing was shrouded in doping scandals, diplomatic boycotts and the controversy around Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. And the year will end with the football World Cup in Qatar, which has been facing allegations of human rights violations and questions about its treatment of thousands of migrant workers. India had its own sportswashing moment with the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which was marred by countless legal disputes and corruption scams.

Russia is bound to feel the effects of the latest sanctions. But so will athletes, who have no say in the political decisions of their countries. The Russian invasion, then, adds another dimension to the long-running debate on whether sport and politics should be kept separate.

Will the events of the past few weeks force people to rethink the relationship between money, political power and elite sports? It seems unlikely. “As soon as one starts to design a sport, sport becomes political. The decision to play 11 versus 11 for 90 minutes was a political decision. Sport is, therefore, inherently political. However, it is clear we have moved from an era where money dominated sport to a new era in which geopolitics is beginning to dominate sport,” says Chadwick. Countries invest heavily in sport. There are now clear geopolitical dimensions to, and influences on, sport, he says.

As journalist Barney Ronay noted in an article for The Guardian recently, sportswashing has served its purpose for countries like Russia. “Commerce, politics and televised sporting entertainment have served their purpose. Putin’s Russia has gained influence, soft power, and legitimacy.” Is change, then, possible?

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