Editor’s Note: Bruce Berglund (@brberglund) taught Russian and East European history for two decades at Calvin University and the University of Kansas. A three-time Fulbright scholar, he has written about nationalism, religion, and politics in the region. His latest book is “The Fastest Game in the World: Hockey and the Globalization of Sports.” His next book is a history of the referee in world sports. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
In his address to members of the International Olympic Committee before the Beijing Winter Games, IOC President Thomas Bach asserted that the mission of the Olympics was to bring the world together in peaceful competition. “We can only accomplish this mission,” Bach stated, “if the Olympic Games stand above and beyond all political differences.”
Mere weeks later, Bach’s statement already sounds like the last gasp of an outmoded ideal. For many years, the IOC and other governing bodies of world sport have insisted their competitions remain separate from international politics. But in many cases, this supposed neutrality ended up serving the interests of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has used sports to solidify his position at home and present himself as a respectable world leader, even while attacking Russia’s neighbors.
Only now, in the aftermath of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, are international sports organizations breaking ties with Putin’s Russia. Athletes from Russia will pay the price, but the steps are necessary to take away one of Putin’s most reliable political tools and further isolate him internationally.
A number of world sports organizations have pulled events from the country or severed ties with Russian entities. The European soccer federation, UEFA, moved this year’s Champions League final from St. Petersburg to Paris, while Formula One canceled the Russian Grand Prix scheduled for late September. Other governing bodies, leagues and clubs followed suit. On Monday, UEFA and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) took the extraordinary step of barring the Russian national soccer team from the qualifying tournament for the 2022 World Cup.
Even the IOC has changed course and joined the actions against Russia. On the day of the invasion, Bach condemned Russia’s “breach of the Olympic Truce,” a consensus resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2021, which started seven days before the Beijing Winter Olympics and lasts until seven days after the Paralympics. On Monday, the IOC went further, recommending all sports federations ban Russian and Belarusian athletes (because of their country’s crucial enabling of Putin’s aggression) from competing in events.
While the international governing bodies of various sports are now positioning themselves as taking the principled lead, many of the steps against Russia have come in response to outrage from within their sports.
In the case of soccer, the Polish, Swedish and Czech football federations refused to play Russia in the World Cup qualifying tournament. National team members were involved in each federation’s decision not to play, and some players publicly stated their support. “It is the right decision!” tweeted Robert Lewandowski, the Polish team’s top scorer.
Other European federations joined the Poles, Swedes and Czechs in rejecting FIFA’s initial attempt to strike a compromise by allowing Russians to play as the “Russian Football Union,” without association to the country’s flag or anthem. Facing significant pushback, FIFA and UEFA then instituted a complete ban on Russia’s participation.
In hockey as well, Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Dominik Hasek called for Russian players to be excluded from contests in North America. Gretzky said Russia should be banned from the world junior men’s championship, while Hasek, who grew up in Czechoslovakia when the country was occupied by Soviet troops, demanded that the NHL remove Russian players from its rosters. “The NHL must immediately suspend contracts for all Russian players!” he tweeted.
The athletes who have spoken out insist a ban against Russian participation in world sports is a necessary step. Having competed on the world stage, they understand that athletes inevitably serve as ambassadors of their nations. “Every athlete represents not only himself and his club, but also his country and its values and actions,” tweeted Hasek. Allowing Russian athletes to participate in sports can advance the image Putin wants to project to the world – all while Russian soldiers are striking Ukrainian civilians. It’s simply not acceptable.
From a political standpoint, removing Russia from international sports is part of the broader strategy of isolating Russia from international finance, trade and travel. And it prevents Putin from using one of his most effective tools.
Since he rose to power, Putin has used international sports events to restore his country’s global standing in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He played a direct role in lobbying members of the IOC and FIFA so Russia could host the Winter Olympics in 2014 and the Men’s World Cup in 2018. These successful bids were heralded as proof of Russia’s return to the top rank of advanced nations. “The decision shows that Russia is trusted,” Putin said in 2010 when FIFA announced his country would host the World Cup.
International events enabled Putin to “sportswash” his government’s military aggression. In August 2008, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia on the same day Putin was in Beijing for the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. In 2014, Russian troops began moving into Crimea on the final day of the Winter Games, and the crisis in that region escalated against the backdrop of the Winter Paralympics in Sochi.
The supposedly apolitical environment of the Olympics provided a shield against any criticism of these actions. “The Games are supposed to be outside politics,” said Aleksandr Zhukov, former head of the Russian Olympic Committee, when asked before the 2014 Sochi Games about Putin’s actions. “Those who try to pin some political tails on them are just being undignified.”
Leaders of world sports organizations turned a blind eye and deflected questions. When FIFA President Sepp Blatter met Putin in Sochi in April 2015, Russian troops were occupying the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. “Some people are wanting the World Cup to be taken away from Russia,” Blatter said, “but we will give one answer to this – we are involved in football and we will not allow politics to get in the way.”
By summer 2018, when the World Cup opened in Russia, an international investigation had found Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a missile launcher from a unit of the Russian armed forces, causing the deaths of 298 people. And three months before the tournament’s start, more than 20 countries expelled over 100 Russian diplomats after a former Russian spy living in Britain was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.
At the time FIFA President Gianni Infantino glossed over these incidents, saying, “There are many injustices in the world.” And instead of calling Putin out, Infantino declared, “This country, Russia, has changed … Everyone has discovered a beautiful country, a welcoming country, full of people who are keen to show to the world that what maybe is sometimes said is not what happens here.”
After having been played for years by the Russian leader, the world’s “sportocrats” now look like stooges. Their insistence on the separation of sports and politics rings hollow.
By contrast, it’s the athletes who have stepped forward to assert that political events do matter in sports. Many of them acknowledge that banning Russian athletes is unfortunate. Still, action is necessary. “Russian footballers and fans are not responsible for this,” tweeted Lewandowski, “but we can’t pretend that nothing is happening.”
The athletes also remind us that sports have to be viewed in proper perspective. It seems the heads of international sporting organizations often have a single-minded view of their mission. They deflect any challenge to the prestige and profits their tournaments generate, and they cooperate with any world leader willing to advance their sports, no matter how odious that leader’s actions might be. In their calls to exclude Russia from international sports, athletes are rightfully pointing out that games cannot be sealed off and viewed in a vacuum, divorced from world events. It’s not possible to watch Russian troops shelling Ukrainian cities and then allow Russian athletes to represent their country in a soccer or hockey match.
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Many fans likewise see sports as a self-contained space, separate from the concerns of life. To them, sports are an escape – a form of entertainment – and it serves no purpose to mix them with politics. We see this view among hockey fans, angry that Hasek would demand the suspension of Russian NHL players.
But athletes like Hasek, who are calling for bans against Russia, argue that we have to view sports in a broader context – one that acknowledges the world’s outrage over events in Ukraine. “It is not an easy decision,” tweeted members of the Polish national team after deciding not to play Russia, “but there are more important things in life than football.”