Sanctions and Sports: The Politics of Participation
by Tala Sihabi
International athletic competitions carry on one shoulder the ability to bring people together to celebrate the thrill and beauty of sport. The other shoulder carries the consequence: its value as an avenue to target when inflicting pressure on the pockets of a state and the popularity of its leaders. Global sports organizations base their marketing on calls for togetherness through combining the passions and aspirations of millions under one roof. Yet these grand events also incite a sense of tribalism. With any two competing teams, the spirit, hope, and enthusiasm of their respective communities are on the line. The huge attention these events receive translates into immense media coverage and huge marketing campaigns. Large sporting events are hence ripe ground for the political to interfere with the athletic and commercial elements involved.
Whether it is Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to the national anthem or Arab athletes forfeiting games against Israeli opponents, the use of athletic events to display rejections of political decisions or solidarity with certain causes is common but certainly not new. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) first banned Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, Hungary and Germany from competing in the 1920 edition of the summer games in Antwerp, Belgium for their involvement in WWI. The list of banned states most notably features the prohibition on South African participation in seven editions of the Games for its regime of apartheid.
Russian athletes have been hit particularly hard by political interference. In the 2020 and ’22 Olympic Games, the Russian Federation was famously only allowed to compete under the IOC flag as a continuation of the two-year ban on its participation in all major international competitions due to a large-scale doping scandal. The 2022 FIFA World Cup would have seen Russia on its way to competing under its own flag for a podium celebrated by the song of its own national anthem until late February. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine initially warranted a statement by the IOC recommending that all international sports organizations block Russian and Belarussian athletes and officials. This statement was echoed by the football associations UEFA and FIFA soon thereafter, following mounting pressure to join the IOC. Different state sporting committees pushed for these bans, some citing their potential withdrawal from competition altogether if their demands were not met. This was the case for Sweden, Czech Republic, and Poland, Russia’s opponents in the World Cup qualifiers. As a result, the Russian men’s football team was barred from competing in its FIFA World Cup qualifying game, the women’s team was barred from partaking in Euro 2022, and UEFA canceled a long-standing sponsorship with Russian gas company and sponsor of the Champions League, Gazprom. The football organization additionally shifted this year’s Champions League final game away from the Gazprom arena in St. Petersburg to Paris, the site of the Euro 2024 tournament which Russia has been banned from as well. The list of bans extends to feature sports across the board until further notice.
When asked to comment on politics, global sports organizations often cite a desire to avoid politicizing sports or staining a stance that welcomes all nations. A recent example is UEFA’s penalties on a Scottish football team for their fans waving Palestinian flags in a match against an Israeli club despite warnings. In the case of Russia, organizations like FIFA or UEFA have more than just their cited desire to keep their events outside the political realm. Russia has had concrete ties with FIFA for years. It even hosted the World Cup in 2018. As for the IOC, its relationship with Russia was built even earlier, when Putin became the recipient of a highly-merited Olympic Order gold honor award in 2001. Both these organizations severed their relationships with Russia within a week of it waging war on Ukraine- action taken at speed worth noting- making blunt and explicit statements of condemnation.
Making these statements is the bare minimum called for by the unfolding events, if not falling a little short of it. Multiple political figures and millions of people referred to the double standard conveyed in condemning Russian war crimes while ignoring or protecting Palestinian occupation.. These voices want us to understand that sanctions on Israel could have been taken with the same haste. Why was it so easy to denounce Russia when the appeasement of oppressive regimes has kept organizations neutral for years on other cases that clearly violate human rights as well? For one, the support of political strongholds like the US and the EU seems to be material. In the case of the latter, is it the moral obligation European states have that drives their support? Is it the geopolitical threat they face from a leader fixated on a past of imperial dominion? Action of such scale will never occur if top-down clearance is not communicated. In the words of the president of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe:
Imposing sanctions on athletes because of the actions of their government goes against the grain. I have railed against the practice of politicians targeting athletes and sport to make political points when other sectors continue about their business… This is different as governments, business and other international organizations have imposed sanctions and measures against Russia across all sectors. Sport has to step up and join these efforts to end this war and restore peace. We cannot and should not sit this one out. (CNN)
Coe’s language around ‘sitting out’ on sanctioning efforts hints at such action being a choice to make rather than a default consequence of atrocities of a certain kind or magnitude committed. His statement poses the ethical dilemma of blocking athletes who have dedicated decades for the chance to compete at the world’s highest stages, bearing their national flags on their uniforms. It is difficult to put into words what athletes may feel, forced to let go of what they have yearned for. After qualifying to the final in the Dubai Tennis Championships on February 25th, a day after the war on Ukraine began, Russian tennis player Andrey Rublev traced the words “no war please” on the lens of the camera covering the event. Rublev is among many athletes who have made public calls for peace, distancing themselves from the aggressions committed by the nation they represent on the court and fighting for the separation of politics from sports. These efforts are more likely to succeed in the case of individual rather than team sports events. Some individual sports still make way for the participation of Russian and Belarussian athletes as neutral athletes, but team sports are almost completely out of the picture. National sporting budgets, sponsorship and event coverage funds, and other commercial gains tend to be pooled more into team sports, making them much more prone to political pressure. This demonstrates the great injustice between players of individual and team sports, where it is unclear whether any ameliorations to this injustice would ever be plausible.
It is a shame to say that a sudden political occurrence can shut down a lifetime of training for a sport. Where a certain sport is highly valued, an event highly anticipated, or related commercial deals are on the table, this hit can hurt. Many fans want the patriotism and intensity of sports to transcend the political divisions that have hurt so many athletes. Only more so are the athletes themselves who simply want the fair chance to perform what has been in rehearsal for decades. However, we can’t completely separate sporting events from their social grounding. The bottom line is that frustrations about participation are meager when bloodshed, poverty, a lack of security, the demolishing of cultural heritage, the halting of education and business, the burning of the work of past generations, and the extinguishing of the aspirations of future ones, and much more, is taking place.