The politicization of sport was always considered a perversion of the virtues that made athletic endeavors special: vigorous, merit-based competition; fair play; old-school sportsmanship; and contests devoid of malign external influences. Hence, the 1936 Berlin Olympics served for decades as a teachable moment about the tragic interweaving of sports and politics.
Generations of sports enthusiasts grew up appreciating that, in a stadium built to celebrate the Nazis’ Third Reich, Adolf Hitler’s leveraging of the Berlin Games to promote Aryan supremacy failed spectacularly. It failed due to 18 courageous black American athletes, led by the legendary Jesse Owens, who collectively won 14 medals.
Fast forward 44 years and the International Olympic Committee’s position was that the American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, a boycott protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, was an inappropriate means to achieve a political end. The IOC accurately forecast that the boycott’s victims would be the athletes, themselves.
That seminal lesson about both the inappropriateness and the impracticality of exploiting sport for political ends is completely lost on the bodies that govern sport today.
They currently seek to reduce Russia to the status of international sporting outcast as punishment for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent humanitarian tragedy unfolding among the Ukrainian people.
On Feb. 28, soccer’s global and European governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA, respectively, banned Russian soccer clubs and the Russian national team from all competitions. Russia will not play their World Cup play-off matches next month, and UEFA has moved the 2022 Champions League club final, originally due to be played in St. Petersburg, Russia, on May 28, to Paris. (Russian soccer’s governing body, the RFU, is expected to challenge the bans’ legality at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.)
World Athletics has banned Russian athletes. The IOC is recommending that all sports enforce a total ban on Russia. The IOC said that wherever this was not possible for organizational or legal reasons, Russian athletes should not compete under the name of Russia and only as neutral athletes or neutral teams. The Russian Olympic Committee says the IOC decision, “contradicts both the regulatory documents of the IOC and the [Olympic] Charter.”
On March 3, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) applied the IOC approach to the Paralympic Winter Games commencing in Beijing on March 4, stating that Russians will no longer be able to participate in the Games.
Motor racing’s F1 has cancelled the Russian Grand Prix, which was due to be staged in Sochi on Sept. 25. The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the international governing body, announced on March 1 that Russian F1 drivers may still compete under a neutral flag, but Motorsport UK, the national motorsport authority, has gone even further than the FIA and has banned them from competing in the UK.
Also on March 2, the National Hockey League (NHL) suspended its relationships with its Russian business partners. The NHL also will be “discontinuing any consideration of Russia” as a potential location for future league events. There are also suggestions the NHL should suspend the contracts of Russian players, including national hero Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals. Hockey equipment giant CCM announced it will stop using Ovechkin and other Russian players in its marketing campaigns.
These bans and discriminatory actions are misguided instruments enacted by authority figures seeking to punish anyone Russian out of an understandable frustration at the West’s impotent political leadership in the face of Vladimir Putin’s assertive foreign policy and aggressive military actions.
These instruments are deeply misplaced because they are so riddled with double-standards. They are also driven by the cultural malignancy that is identity politics, while simultaneously overturning the foundational principles of freedom of expression.
The hypocrisy of the IOC and the IPC appears limitless. Politically blind to the comprehensively documented atrocities committed by the communist Chinese regime against the minority Muslim population, only weeks ago the IOC held this year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.
According to a June 2021 Amnesty International report, “Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region face systematic state-organized mass imprisonment, torture and persecution amounting to crimes against humanity.” So, it may surprise the IOC to learn that China is hardly the global epicenter of liberal democratic values.
It should not. The IOC’s previous selection of Beijing as host of the 2008 Olympics overlooked huge numbers of political prisoners and the de facto slave labor that produced the Olympics’ souvenir merchandise.
It is rather telling that the IPC is not cancelling this month’s Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, but is preventing Russian athletes from taking part. How can the IPC, with a straight face, hold its event in a country whose government, epitomized by its surveillance state, perpetrates humanitarian horrors and uses its military and economic power to intimidate neighboring countries?
In August 2008, Russia went to war with the small Caucasian nation of Georgia, a conflict that ended with Russia in control of the Russian-backed, self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Nevertheless, from the second through the fourth week of February 2014 the IOC still held the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Coincidentally, during that February, Ukraine’s Crimea region was being invaded by the Russians, who formally annexed the Crimea in mid-March 2014.
Russia’s move against Crimea did not surprise anyone closely following international relations and Russian foreign policy. Putin was the same nationalist leader who in 2007 began publicizing his plans for territorial expansion. How could a sporting body as politically sensitive as the IOC allow the Sochi Games to continue given Russia’s contemporaneous designs on Ukrainian territory only a few hundred miles from the Olympic Stadium?
The modern-day Olympic host-country trap was actually avoidable. During President Jimmy Carter’s misguided 1980 Olympic boycott campaign, he nonetheless sensibly proposed establishing a permanent Olympic site in Greece to remove the problem of the politicization of the hosting of the Games. The IOC mistakenly rejected Carter’s proposal, and the Olympics have suffered ever since.
FIFA also applies a political double standard in the application of its alleged principles.
Only four years ago, post-Crimea and post-Georgia, Putin’s Russia hosted the World Cup. A global TV audience of 1.1 billion witnessed FIFA President Gianni Infantino fete Putin at the World Cup final in Moscow. Those underwhelming optics escaped the radar of FIFA’s politically correct PR team.
No doubt the irony is lost on FIFA, but why is the forthcoming (Nov. 21 to Dec. 18) soccer World Cup taking place in Qatar? According to Amnesty International’s 2020 report on the human rights situation in Qatar, freedom of expression is restricted, women face discrimination legally and in their everyday lives, while the enormous migrant worker population endures unacceptable conditions that put their lives in jeopardy as well as threaten their liberty.
May we assume that a forthcoming media release from FIFA’s Zurich headquarters will announce the host country’s team is to be banned from the World Cup, or that the Qatari team will participate as neutrals absent its national flag and anthem?
If the world’s woke sporting bodies are to paint their principles across nations, teams, and clubs with a consistent brush, is not retrospective judgment also appropriate? Inspired by America’s respective race-based reparations and cancel culture movements, should we not retroactively punish those countries and individuals who participated in past sporting events that implicitly endorsed or acquiesced in the promotion of respective regimes and their disgusting behaviors?
For example, the 1978 World Cup was won by the host nation, Argentina. From 1976 to 1983, Argentina’s military dictatorship unleashed a “dirty war” upon its political opponents involving tens of thousands of disappeared people and the widespread use of torture. The 1974 World Cup, won by the host nation West Germany, also featured East Germany. The latter was governed by a brutal communist regime that survived, until the Berlin Wall’s fall in late 1989, courtesy of its notorious secret police apparatus, the Stasi, one of the most effective and repressive security services in modern history.
Clearly, both Argentina and East Germany’s participation in those tournaments must be removed from the sport’s official records, YouTube archives, and so on.
North America’s politically correct hockey powers must feel collective shame about the February 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, which was held only two months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Applied retroactively, the USA’s “Miracle on Ice” win over the Soviet hockey team, and subsequent gold medal victory, should never have been permitted. The current NHL must want those medals returned to the IOC and those iconic games airbrushed, Soviet-style, from the Olympic record.
Surely, the much-heralded (at the time) Canada-USSR hockey Summit Series in the early 1970s, and the Canada Cup hockey series from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, also must be scrubbed from the historical record. The NHL and its corporate partners could pressure the participating Canadian coaches and players into offering public apologies for their decades-old political cowardice in not taking a stand against a Soviet regime then-synonymous with the Gulag and the KGB.
Banning and discriminating against Russian athletes is simply identity politics on steroids. Identity politics targets voters based upon their race, gender, class, religion, etc. because the notion that our group identity determines our individual political attitudes is the pseudo-intellectual foundation upon which identity politics rests.
Although identity politics may at times be good politics (see: the 21st century American Democratic Party), rarely does it make for good policymaking. In this vein, the actions taken to date by the world’s leading sporting bodies and federations set a very dangerous precedent.
Is it now acceptable to punish individuals based solely upon their national identity? As Bernie Ecclestone, who ran F1 for 40 years, argues, “If there is a Russian driver in F1, what does it have to do with Russia fighting a war? There is no relationship there. The Russian athletes have nothing to do with this conflict. They are not part of it, and they have never been part of it. They just happen to be Russian.”
To judge every athlete based upon the actions or inactions of the government of the country of their birth is the very definition of the proverbial slippery slope. Are not the values of the sporting world, and liberal democracy writ large, better served with an exclusive focus upon an athlete’s individual skills, experiences, and choices measured and judged within the confines of a competitive sporting environment?
Freedom of Expression
Recent political developments can blind one to the fact that freedom of speech includes the freedom to be silent, too. Clearly, such a freedom, which is central to true freedom of expression, is now unacceptable in sporting circles.
The freedom to be silent is no longer to be tolerated. Recent days are littered with institutional, corporate, and media criticism of Russian athletes who either have remained silent about the Ukraine invasion or have not sufficiently denounced, according to their self-anointed betters, Russia’s government.
Inspired by American political discourse over the past two years, these critics wrongly equate an athlete’s silence with support for and endorsement of any and all transgressions and evils perpetrated by the Kremlin. Social media’s legion of keyboard warriors targeting their thesauruses at Russian athletes choose to ignore two realities.
First, any Russian athlete who denounces the invasion may expose him or herself, and their immediate and extended families, both in the West and in Russia, to retribution at the hands of the Russian State. Second, in a civilized, truly liberal society, everyone has the right to be political, that is, to be active or expressive in the public sphere. But everyone also has the fundamental right not to exercise that particular right.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a geopolitical nightmare awash with a humanitarian tragedy. Reasonable people may disagree whether or not, and how, the invasion may have been prevented. Going forward, they may disagree about how best to support Ukraine and to deter further Russian aggression.
But, when it comes to painting, and thereby denormalizing, all Russian athletes with the same illiberal brush, the reasonable response is to resist such an impulse. Instead, reasonable people should implore the sporting authorities to do better. With apologies to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II),” one could begin by telling them, “Hey, FIFA—and the IOC, IPC, NHL, and F1—leave them Russians alone.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.