The Fallout of Russia's Invasion in the Wide World of Sports: The Guardian
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Contemporary Russian aggression towards it neighbors now stretches back 15 years, to South Ossetia, Georgia, in 2008, and later to the invasion of Crimea in 2014, with ongoing hostilities in the eastern regions of Ukraine ever since. How has the response from the international sporting world in particular been different this time?
Sean Ingle (SI): Two things. First was the scale of Russia’s invasion. I think the sporting world had perhaps looked away a little bit with the others, certainly with Georgia and later Crimea in 2014. The scale of the invasion, coming just days after the 2022 Winter Olympics, was far different than what we saw in 2008 and 2014. Second, I think the international response was different because of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Barely days after the war broke out, the IOC had this meeting of its executive board, which then released a statement that recommended no participation of Russia and by Russian athletes and officials in sport. It said that no international events should be staged in Russia and Belarus. It also said, “The IOC EB has, based on the exceptional circumstances of the situation and considering the extremely grave violation of the Olympic Truce and other violations of the Olympic Charter by the Russian government in the past, taken the ad hoc decision to withdraw the Olympic Order from all persons who currently have an important function in the government of the Russian Federation or other government-related high-ranking position….”[i] The list explicitly mentions three persons, including Vladimir Putin. That is the starting point.
What you have to realize is that almost all Olympic sports rely on the IOC for the majority of their funding. There are some exceptions: track and field is one, as well as sports like tennis, which obviously have their own circuit. But most of these, the smaller and mid-range Olympic sports, get a lot of money from the IOC every four years. Therefore, they will be guided by an IOC directive on the whole. That’s why things were very different this time around.
JIA: You said that the IOC held this meeting just a few days after the invasion. Did the IOC move that quickly, or was there some kind of knowledge in advance that the executive board might need to respond in a formal manner?
SI: There was an awful lot in the news about this. I was in Beijing for the Winter Olympics,[ii] and IOC President Thomas Bach was asked about it. The IOC makes a huge play about how they bring peace to the world. If you ever sit in on an IOC meeting, or ever listen to Thomas Bach or others talk, a lot of it is about how the central purpose, or one of the central tenants of the Olympics, is to bring nations together: nations that otherwise would fight and row and argue are brought together in sport. This was the message in Beijing. In the closing ceremony, Bach said the words, “Give peace a chance;” John Lennon’s “Imagine” was played, as it always is, at the opening ceremony.
If you go back to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018, the IOC would have regarded that as a huge success, bringing North and South Korea together. You might remember there were some fears in 2017, even early 2018, that there were problems between the two countries. We all feared that there could be some serious stuff going on there. The IOC regarded those games as a diplomatic triumph.
Returning to the question, during those Winter Olympics, there was a lot of talk about fears of an invasion. They finished on Sunday, February 20. Almost immediately afterwards, the Russians invaded, on February 24. What was particularly tricky for the IOC was that the Winter Paralympic games were being staged in Beijing at the start of March—barely ten days or so afterwards. The IOC almost had to react so quickly because it had to make a quick decision on Russia and whether or not its athletes would be allowed to participate. The IOC ultimately decided, at that point, that the Russians would not compete in the Winter Paralympic games.
That, I believe, explains partly why the IOC moved so quickly. There was a lot of talk and chatter while we were in Beijing, but the fact that it happened in between the Winter Olympics and the Winter Paralympic games meant the IOC had to make a decision very quickly.
JIA: What about other governing bodies? Was the response as fast as that of the IOC?
SI: Most of the sporting bodies fell in line with the IOC, at least when it came to team sports. Moving forward to where we are now, some sports have made a separation with representation: if you are playing an individual sport, you can play under a neutral flag, and we see that in tennis. In chess— which, interestingly, is run by a Russian—they suspended Sergei Karjakin, who was a former World Chess Championship challenger, for 6 months because he made some sort of outlandish statements about supporting the Russian troops and some other things. But generally, most sports, I think, adopted the individual athletes plan and neutral flag. Almost every sport with a Russian team competing had to do it quite quickly.
UEFA,[iii] the governing body of European football, as well as FIFA,[iv] the governing body of global football, had to do the same because there were crucial World Cup qualifying matches to be played involving the Russian team. I am told that Poland, for instance, went to FIFA and said, “We’re not playing the Russians”—they were to play each other in a playoff match, so FIFA had to make a decision as well, quite quickly. I think all sport fairly quickly made this decision. There was some other fall out.
There was a Russian gymnast who had a neutral uniform, but when he won a World Gymnastics Championship event fairly soon after it all started, he had a “Z” on his chest,[v] and that led to outrage and so on. Ultimately, a lot of them followed the IOC’s lead, a lot of them agreed that they should ban Russia, the country itself, but many of them made exceptions for individual athletes.
Where we are now, and what’s quite interesting, is the IOC shift without any actual change in the war. Russia is still invading, while Ukraine is still resisting. The IOC has changed its position for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024, at least to allow Russians to try and qualify. What the IOC has now said is that is has identified two UN special rapporteurs in the field of human rights—who I don’t think really know very much about sports law, based on what I’ve read about them and what I have learned speaking with them—who have come up with a formulation that allows individual Russians to at least try to get to the Olympics in Paris. Essentially, if you were not involved in war crimes, you could compete for Russia. This was their initial formulation. But that has now been changed to more of a direct link with the Russian armed forces. Now, where it gets complicated and messy and still unresolved is that in Russian sport, a lot of athletes growing up, while they are still young, will represent a military team that has sponsorship. So PFC CSKA Moscow[vi] is a big team, and if you play for the CSKA sports team, you may retain a small amount of sponsorship. You may, now and again, perhaps once a year, put on a CSKA military jersey. Does this mean that you support the Russian military? Those are the questions that will be hashed out in the coming months. But it has been a significant change. The IOC wants Russians in the Olympics, and most governing sports bodies are willing to fall in line with that. The one big exception is World Athletics, which are keeping individual Russians banned at this stage.
JIA: For the Paris 2024 Summer Olympic Games, is there a sense that France, as the host country, or even Paris as the host city, has any say over the IOC’s decision regarding Russian athletes? Or do they just have to accept the IOC ruling? French President Emmanuel Macron himself has attempted to play a role in bringing the war to a close. Does that filter up in any meaningful way?
SI: Macron and Bach met earlier in June. In the statement the IOC issued afterwards, Thomas Bach expressed his happiness that France was on the same page as the IOC. In reality, they have almost no choice. The IOC essentially swings in with its big sporting jamboree, and you pretty much have to do what it says. Now, that works both ways in China. I was in there in Beijing for the Winter Olympics in 2022, and the Chinese government wouldn’t let Western journalists out of this special bubble, protected by armed Red Guards, where there was freedom of speech. We would ask critical questions of the Chinese there at these quite odd press conferences, where Chinese journalists were saying to Bach, “Mr President, what’s the thing that’s most impressed you about the Winter Olympics?” while the Western journalists would be hammering him, “Why is this going on? Why are athletes being held? Do you know what’s going on?”
What the IOC says essentially goes, so the French say that they’re happy with this formulation the IOC has come up with for Russian athletes.
JIA: Entire federations within Russia were already under scrutiny, if not actively serving punishment, for doping scandals. How did that influence or complicate the response from the IOC or other sports governing bodies?
SI: Only World Athletics,[vii] the governing body for track and field and other running sports, has banned Russia since 2015. They made the link, where it’s not just one thing or another, as the IOC and many other sports have decided. I wrote a column earlier this year essentially saying that it’s not just one thing.[viii] It’s not just this latest war. We know now that in London for the 2012 Olympics, Russian athletes doped on an unprecedented scale. The McLaren Report[ix] found more than a thousand athletes who had been part of this state-sponsored doping system in 2014, at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Russian athletes were given steroids, so they were glowing, cheating. But then, when they had to provide urine samples, the samples were passed through a mouse hole in the Sochi Anti-Doping Lab, the caps were screwed on clean, clean urine was put in, and therefore athletes passed the drug tests. We know that in 2016, there was more doping. We know that in 2018, Russians hackers stopped communications during the opening ceremony. We know that they violated the cease-fire for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and we know that they violated it this time as well. And so there comes a point where you have to ask yourself, where do you draw the line? Where do you say to Russia, “It’s not just one thing. It’s all of this.” That’s what I’ve argued, but the IOC doesn’t see it like that. They are attempting to make a legal distinction in which they claim that you can’t punish the individual for the sins of the country. That is their position, essentially.
JIA: Is what is being done to Russian athletes by the IOC unprecedented? Or have there been other times when states have been in violation and athletes still want to compete, so there have been punishments or compromises?
SI: The exception is South Africa under apartheid, where South Africa was banned for decades because of this. But famously, you go back to the 1936 Olympics—I have fun sometimes going through The Guardian archives, from the late 1930s but even before the games—and very similar debates were being held. The way the Jews were being treated in Germany, should the Olympic Games be staged? The IOC then made similar points to the IOC of today, arguing that it’s a sporting contest, that “What we do is above politics.” Hitler found one Jewish athlete to compete for Germany, so that when the games took place, levels of abuse towards Jewish people dropped. International observers essentially said, “What’s the problem?”
The IOC has always tried to find ways to get sporting nations and individuals from all nations to compete. It feels that that is its mission, to unite the world through sport. Even when wars are going on, there’s quite a lot of whataboutism in the IOC as well. If you raise this with certain people, they will say, “If we ban countries from war, we would have banned the U.S. in 2004, in Athens. So our mission is to unite through sport, and we will do our very best to make sure that happens.” Normally, it does. Historically, the IOC’s attitude is very much that even if war goes on, the games continue. Of course, the U.S. pulled out of the Moscow games in 1980 over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and then the Soviet Union and many Eastern Bloc countries did the same for the 1984 games in Los Angeles in retaliation. Besides those times in which countries themselves decide to boycott, it’s very rare indeed that a country and its athletes are completely banned, the most famous of which remains South Africa from 1962 to 1990.
JIA: The FIFA World Cup was most recently held in Qatar. The big news in golf over the past couple of weeks has been the merger between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, the upstart competitor league funded by Saudi Arabia. There are also issues around gender in sport and transgender athletes, as well as acquisitions and the buying and selling of professional teams. There’s a lot going on in the sporting world that distracts from what happens on the field. Are the decisions being made around Russia and Russian athletes by the IOC and these other governing bodies similar to these phenomena, reflecting the fact that sport in the twenty-first century is complicated? Or is there a category difference between what’s going on with the war and some of these other issues?
SI: Yes and no. The first point to make is that this very simplistic notion that sometimes people have, that we should keep politics out of sport, is just headers and volleys, as we’d say in the UK. Most of my work and writing looks at the intersection between finance, corruption, acquisition, and what goes on on the field: the good and the bad. Think about someone like Thomas Bach. He considers himself—and I know this from people close to him—on the same level as big world leaders. When he meets Xi, or meets with Joe Biden, he sees it as a meeting of equals.
It all matters. A lot of people, especially serious people, dismiss sport as not mattering, but it does matter, in many different ways, and this is, I think, where there is a big difference between the actions from the IOC toward Russia and what we are seeing, say, with Saudi Arabia joining forces with the PGA Tour. That’s based on a different sort of thinking. Partly, it’s because Saudi Arabia wants to pull attention from some of the unsavory things it’s done over the last few years. Partly, it’s due to economic reasons, as now the kingdom’s got a sovereign wealth fund whose goal is to make money and profit. Partly it’s a tool of soft power and diplomatic acceptance: Saudi Arabia’s been out in the cold, but if you partner with the PGA Tour, you gain acceptance there. Partly it is, of course, the sports-washing angle, where they want people to get over the death of Jamal Khashoggi, they want people to forget the 81 individuals that were executed in a single day, including the half of them who had been protesting with pro-democracy sentiments. But the other angle, when you speak to the Saudis, is that Mohammed bin Salman has launched Vision 2030,[x] where he wants to improve the lives of the ordinary population, the majority of whom are under 35. You can imagine MBS’s reasoning: “If we own or share in the ownership of the PGA Tour; if we have one of the top footballers in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, playing in Saudi Arabia; if we’re bidding for these sporting events; if we’re building golf courses and holiday destinations, we are making Saudi Arabia a much better place to live.” It’s all of those things in Saudi’s case—it’s not just the sports-washing, it’s not just the economic considerations, it’s not just the greater diplomatic force on the world stage. Sport matters, and often it’s more than just sport.
When it comes to the Saudis or the Qataris and the Russians, there are some similarities, but there are also points of differentiation. One example is the difference between LIV Golf versus Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup or the 2014 Winter Olympics. Think of it this way: what was the reason that the UK hosted the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games? Partly it was economic, to regenerate the East End of London. Partly it wanted to project itself as a sporting generation. Partly it was looking at his own people and saying, “You know, we can do these big events.” The Saudis enforced a blockade of Qatar and provoked and supported war in Yemen, but they haven’t reached the same level of bad behavior on the international circuit as Russia. The actual ecosystem is much, much worse than the Saudis— Russia has certainly violated the Olympic protocol far more than them.
JIA: Has there similarly been a reaction from the sporting world in Central Asia or Eastern Europe, among the countries neighboring Russia?
SI: I don’t think there has been much spillover. Last year, Elena Rybakina, who won Wimbledon and is Russian born, but now plays for Kazakhstan, was asked lots of questions about the war but didn’t really want to go there. I have a lot of sympathy for Russians and fellow Russian athletes, in some sense, because they have to be very careful with what they say. A number of them have spoken out and said no to the war.
I spoke to Ian Nepomniachtchi recently, who challenged for the World Chess Championship, and he’s been one of the most brave, talking about how Russia shouldn’t be at war—which, given that he would have been helped by the Russian state to prepare for his matches, speaking out was a very brave thing to do. Earlier this year, he said that he’s against the invasion of Ukraine and that the war is horrific. He’s gone further than a lot of Russians. The first day the war started, he tweeted, “History has seen no lack of black Thursdays, but today is blacker than the others #saynotowar.”[xi] In the early days of the war, there were talks between the two parties, and Nepomniachtchi tweeted, “It is reported that negotiations are underway in Gomel. God grant that their result was a truce. I fear the price of the madness of the last days will be unimaginable and exorbitant. Can we afford our future now?”[xii] It didn’t fit my piece, but I also spoke to him after he lost the Championship and asked about this, mentioning that he was quite brave in saying this, given the reaction back home. He told me, “Well, I have to. I don’t believe in war.” It’s hard for those Russians.
Then there are others, for example, the tennis player Aryna Sabalenka who, until recently, supported Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, and now seems to be running that back a bit. But the most common reaction for most Russian and Belarusian sports people is to not mention the war. They really don’t want to talk about it, and you can understand why. When I speak to Ukrainian athletes, their frustration is that not enough of the Russian and Belarusian athletes, even privately, have offered support or spoken out. They feel that people they regard as former competitors, perhaps even friends, on some occasions, have a duty to say something, yet most of them haven’t. That’s why you see Ukrainian tennis players Elina Svitolina and Marta Kostyuk, among others, refuse to shake hands with Russian or Belarusian competitors, because they still feel like these countries are invading their own.
JIA: That gets at some of the reactions from Ukrainian athletes. Broadly speaking, has there been a show of support for them?
SI: I’ve spoken with a few athletes. Particularly, Ukrainian skeleton rider Vladyslav Heraskevych, who held up a paper sign that said “No war in Ukraine” after a heat at the 2022 Winter Olympics, before the invasion. He’s been one of the more active athletes ever since. I speak to him semiregularly and he is one who has led the charge. I think the Ukrainian response has been very united. In my last interview with him, he said, “Russian sport remains very weaponized. Even the recent Australian Open tennis. They took great pride in their players, doing well even when they were supposedly neutral athletes. And don’t forget the Z-letter crowd in the stands waving Russian flags and hanging out with Novak Djokovic. It’ll be no different in Paris. They will use the Olympics as propaganda.” I think that sums up fairly well what the Ukrainian athletes think. Even if the individual Russian athletes themselves don’t say anything, their triumphs are still lauded by the Putin regime. Those triumphs at the Olympics will serve as great propaganda value. Also, Ukrainian athletes think that while they’re being bombed and their sports facilities destroyed, how can it be right that the Russians are allowed to compete in Paris? How can it be right that the Russians are allowed to compete in major sporting events? Most of the Ukrainians I speak to are now training in Poland. The top athletes have been displaced from their homes and their training facilities. They argue, with a lot of justification, that they are at a disadvantage on the sporting field, and then they will have to meet representatives of a regime that is trying to take over their country. That’s their position.
JIA: The war, on Europe’s doorstep, is impacting the continent in manifold ways. Several times, you have spoken about Thomas Bach, president of the IOC. But he is also German. He’s a European. Even as he self-identifies as a world leader, is he sufficiently removed from that background that he’s able to transcend being European in that role? What function might that background play as he negotiates these dynamics?
SI: I think it’s useful to know that the first person who called Thomas Bach when he became IOC president was Vladimir Putin, who was therefore the first person to congratulate him. Now, I am not suggesting that there’s anything deep in that. But even people who are friends of Bach, whom I have spoken to, suggest that maybe that Vladimir Putin support, and him thanking Bach, has led Bach to perhaps be a little bit softer on Russia than you might have expected. Now, others would suggest that’s nonsense. He has a duty to sport, and he wants to bring all nations together. But it is odd when you look at everything the Russians have done. Every time, Bach has tried to find ways to keep Russians involved. Returning to the doping scandal that was brewing before the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016—which was an astonishing attack on sport, and astonishing what later happened at the Olympics—Bach was still attempting to find ways to get as many Russians to compete in the Rio games as possible. So no, I don’t think being European matters. If you see your mission as being someone that brings the whole world together, then sport, and that mission, overrides everything else. One can justify banning the Russian flag, banning the Russian uniform, but keeping Russian athletes in is consistent with international or sporting law. However you want to put it, that’s that, and that’s what the IOC has done.
JIA: Any concluding thoughts?
SI: I just want to emphasize the importance of sport and politics. It’s more than a game to countries. It is a tool of soft power. It’s a tool of diplomacy. It does matter to countries. It is frivolous, it is nonsense, for the most part. But famously or infamously, people forget, or people claim, that Harold Wilson won the 1966 British General Election because England won the World Cup—though when you actually look at the dates, that doesn’t tally.
For the Olympic Games, in particular, there is a boost when countries host. Not in every sense, but in a lot of senses. During the build-up to the games, when the cranes are up and the costs are spiraling, public support plummets. But then something strange, magical, wonderful—whatever it is you want to call it—happens, and when the Olympics start, the crowds are cheering and everyone is behind it. I wrote this in The Guardian in 2012: it felt like serotonin was being pumped into the Thames here in London because everyone was happy. Everyone was smiling. It was a very shortlived party, a couple of weeks for the Olympics, a couple of weeks for the Paralympics. But that summer, London was really happy, and politicians do get something of a boost from it, though it’s a short-lived effect. But it is there.
[i] International Olympic Committee, “IOC EB recommends no participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials,” February 28, 2022, https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-eb-recommends-noparticipation-of-russian-and-belarusian-athletes-and-officials.
[ii] The Winter Olympics were held in Beijing from February 4-20, 2022.
[iii] Union of European Football Associations
[iv] Fédération Internationale de Football Association
[v] Sean Ingle, “Russian gymnast with ‘Z’ symbol on podium next to Ukrainian faces long ban,” The Guardian, March 7, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2022/mar/07/shocking-behaviour-russian-gymnast-shows-z-symbol-on-podium-next-to-ukrainian-winner.
[vi] In March 2022, the European Clubs’ Association suspended PFC CSKA Moscow, as well as six other Russian club teams. BBC, “Ukraine crisis: Which sports have banned Russian athletes?,” March 18, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/sport/60568139.
[vii] Formerly known as the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Owen Gibson, “Athletics governing body suspends Russia from all competitions,” The Guardian, November 13, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/nov/13/athletics-governing-bodies-suspend-russia-from-allcompetitions. The doping suspension was lifted in March 2023 but World Athletics has upheld the ban due to the war in Ukraine. Harry Poole, “Russia: Doping suspension lifted but ban on nation’s athletes remains because of Ukraine war,” BBC, March 23, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/sport/athletics/65055933.
[viii] Sean Ingle, “So Mr Bach, will nothing ever be enough to ban Russia from the Olympics?,” The Guardian, February 13, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2023/feb/13/so-mr-bach-will-nothing-ever-be-enough-to-ban-russia-from-the-olympics.
[ix] Richard H. McLaren, “The Independent Person Report,” July 18, 2016, https://www.wada-ama.org/ sites/default/files/resources/files/20160718_ip_report_newfinal.pdf.
[x] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, “Vision 2030,” https://www.vision2030.gov.sa/.
[xi] https://twitter.com/lachesisq/status/1496782308480847872. Translated from the Russian.
[xii] https://twitter.com/lachesisq/status/1497984140075020293. Translated from the Russian.