Sports

Why you never dance with devils


Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has international athletics commissions distancing themselves from Russia. But they put up with Putin’s authoritarianism for far too long.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has international athletics commissions distancing themselves from Russia. But they put up with Putin’s authoritarianism for far too long.
Illustration: Getty Images

The reckoning has finally come for the sports organizations that have played footsie with autocratic nations. And not just FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, but for the Premier League, Formula One, and any sports league that has cashed checks from questionable international sources while pretending business is business.

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The world order has been disrupted, and as such, so are the games.

On Monday, Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina refused to play a match against an opponent representing Russia or Belarus. She does not blame the players, she said, but she is not willing to pretend her country isn’t under grave threat from a player across the court.

“…We – Ukrainian players – requested to ATP, WTA and ITF to follow the recommendations of the IOC to accept Russian or Belarussian nationals only as neutral athletes, without displaying any national symbols, colours, flags or anthems,” Svitolina posted to social media.

ATP Player Sergiy Stakhovsky has said he joined the Ukrainian reserves.

Sports are always linked with politics, but most of the time there is a greater advantage in allowing free global competition than in keeping a ledger to show how often nations deviate from international values — a ledger that would reveal the United States as much as any other.

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But then there are times like the one we currently face.

As we watch Russian President Vladimir Putin again kill peaceful citizens in the name of empire, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time. This is a sports publication, but numerous outlets have detailed the times Russia has been destructive in recent years, whether in Chechnya, the Republic of Georgia, Crimea or Syria, or using misinformation as a weapon in free elections abroad. The Mueller Report found Putin was quite active in the United States’ election of 2016.

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Putin’s own political opponent, Alexei Navalny, is on trial after surviving a grave threat on his life, facing 20 years in jail on charges few outside of Russia believe have any basis in fact.

These things all happened before the invasion of Ukraine last week. At any point, sports leagues and governing bodies could have refused to take Russian money and pretend that Russia was just another actor in the pantheon of nations. They could have declined to use Russian venues as host sites, or to purchase teams, but the façade of normality prevailed. They could have not helped publicize these brutal dictators, and allowed them to prance on the biggest sports stages in the world.

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Because of this, Putin himself traveled to Beijing last month for the start of the Olympic Games and to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. On Feb. 11, Ukrainian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych held up a sign that said “No War in Ukraine.” There was talk that he might be cited for violating rules against political speech during an Olympics.

If you really want to talk about Olympic rule-breaking, however, it has been Putin’s Russia all the way. The team was found to have instituted a comprehensive program to replace its athletes’ dirty urine samples, and could not compete as a nation (again) this year in Beijing. But that didn’t keep Russian athletes out of the headlines for doping, after 15-year-old skater Kamila Valieva won gold and then had a sample come back with evidence of a banned substance and two additional heart medications.

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But the most sacred Olympic tradition Russia broke was the international truce. Although the first part of the Olympic games has concluded, the Paralympics begin on Friday, and the international truce extends through that period.

The IOC put out a statement on this violation. “…IOC President Thomas Bach reiterates his call for peace, which he expressed in his speeches at the Opening Ceremony and the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games.”

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As the tanks roll toward Kyiv, it is too late for statements and speeches. Bullies only understand accountability, and that didn’t come in time. Bach instead chose to impose rules on athletes who use their platforms to discuss injustice, not the perpetrators of the injustices themselves.

So now here is the reckoning. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea Football Club, has handed over stewardship of his club to an affiliated charity in what appears to be a hedge against being stripped of the team. The IOC is (belatedly) recommending that sports leagues only allow athletes from Russia and Belarus compete as nationally neutral. FIFA has banned Russia from the World Cup but only after numerous nations objected to playing against the team or at Russian venues.

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Shutting the barn door after the horse got out.

There is no keeping politics out of international sports. Pretending that one could draw a line between the two is simply to silence dissent. The only way to proceed is to be clear-eyed about the historical and humanitarian context each nation brings to compete, and have clear, enforceable standards.

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Sports leagues have looked the other way for far too long.

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