Lazio team players wear a 'Stop the war' T-shirts referring to Russia's invasion of the Ukraine as they arrive to warm-up prior to the Italian Serie A football match between Lazio and Napoli at the Olympic stadium
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month, the response from the global sports community has been significant. (Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty)
In Stride

The War in Ukraine Is Forcing Sports Federations to Take a Stand

Whether they want to or not, organizations like World Athletics and the International Olympic Committee have shed the mantle of neutrality

Lazio team players wear a 'Stop the war' T-shirts referring to Russia's invasion of the Ukraine as they arrive to warm-up prior to the Italian Serie A football match between Lazio and Napoli at the Olympic stadium

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Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month, the response from the global sports community has been significant, to say the least. On February 28, the International Olympic Committee formally recommended that “International Sports Federations and sports event organizers not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions.” Almost immediately, a number of governing bodies heeded the IOC’s directive as the Russian Federation was suspended from competition by high-profile organizations like FIFA, World Athletics, Union Cycliste Internationale, and the International Ice Hockey Federation. Even the International Skyrunning Federation announced that, until further notice, the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus would be prohibited. Other than Apartheid-era South Africa, no country has ever been made such a pariah on the international sporting scene. But while the ostracization of South Africa took years to manifest itself—after being disinvited from the 1964 and 1968 Games, the country was only formally expelled by the IOC in 1970—Russia’s ban seemed to happen overnight.

For its part, the IOC said that it issued its decree with “a heavy heart” as it had no desire to “punish athletes for the decisions of their government.” The sentiment was echoed by World Athletics President Seb Coe, who noted that while he had always been against the targeting of athletes to “make political points,” the current situation was an exception. “This is different as governments, business, and other international organizations have imposed sanctions and measures against Russia across all sectors,” Coe said in a World Athletics press release. “Sport has to step up and join these efforts to end this war and restore peace.”

It’s hardly a secret that organizations like the IOC have been reluctant to take a stand against state-sponsored injustices in the past. In the lead-up to last month’s Olympics in Beijing, the IOC stubbornly refused to put pressure on China regarding its treatment of its Uyghur population. Likewise, FIFA seemed to have minimal compunction about staging the 2018 World Cup in Russia four years after the country’s annexation of Crimea and simultaneous seizure of territory in eastern Ukraine. So it’s worth asking why they were so quick to respond this time and whether the athletic boycott of Russia can be an effective means of conflict resolution.

Speaking of idealized notions about the role of sports in international relations, it is significant that Russia launched its invasion during the so-called “Olympic Truce.” The U.N.-backed initiative calls on IOC member states to “foster an atmosphere of peace” for the duration of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Unlike the endless drone campaigns of the United States, a country which has had the advantage of being perpetually (and hence invisibly) at war, the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine has dominated the Western media news cycle. This level of attention has effectively forced the IOC’s hand in a way that Russia’s previous violations of the Olympic Truce (namely its war with Georgia in August of 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in February 2014) have not. What’s the point of championing such an aspirational ideal if you aren’t prepared to stand by it?

As Jules Boykoff, a politics professor at Pacific University who is consistently one of the most vehement critics of the IOC, put it to me: “It is extremely unfortunate to have athletes get caught in the political crossfire, but if the International Olympic Committee is not going to take a firm stand against a country when it openly invades another sovereign country while the Olympic Truce is in effect, then when can we ever expect it to act?”

Taking a public stand against the war in Ukraine is, in other words, increasingly necessary to protect the Olympic brand. Stuart Murray, who is an associate professor in the department of international relations at Bond University and co-founder of Australia’s Sports Diplomacy Alliance, says that the events of the past two weeks are yet another example of a larger trend where governing bodies, like big corporations, feel compelled to take a stand out of a need to stay relevant. “I think the world expects an awful lot more from the people that govern sport, particularly when one thinks of the power they possess and the good they could achieve,” Murray says. Referring to FIFA and the IOC, Murray suggested that “perhaps both organizations realize—quite rightly—that some see them as an anachronism.”

Of course, opinions are divided on the extent to which international sports can really be a force for good in the world. Do high-stakes soccer matches or Olympic medal count tallies alleviate or exacerbate animosity between nations? While acknowledging that there are numerous examples of athletes being “weaponized” by nefarious political regimes, Murray sounded generally optimistic that sports as he put it, can be “the glue that binds society together.”

A similar sentiment inspired the short-lived Goodwill Games, which were created by media mogul Ted Turner in response to the reciprocal boycotting of the United States and Russia at the 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles) Olympics and were intended to help bridge the divide between East and West. The enterprise, which was a kind of abbreviated version of the Olympics and took place every four years from 1986 until 2001, ultimately lost millions of dollars over the years and, somewhat ironically, lost much of its appeal after the end of the Cold War.

According to professor Joseph Nye, the former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School who is credited with coining the term “soft power” in reference to a country’s cultural cachet, the Goodwill Games represented an ideal that was “noble but unrealistic,” since major sporting events always have the potential to become symbolic of larger political struggles and, hence, tools for propaganda. As Nye put it to me: “Soft power is the ability to attract, and boycotts of sporting events are attacks on other countries’ soft power.”

When it comes to the current sports boycott of the Russian Federation, it’s not immediately apparent how much such a maneuver really matters when compared to more blatant “hard power” tactics like economic sanctions, to say nothing of the incalculable toll of military combat. However, and as others have noted, Vladimir Putin has long styled himself as a robust sportsman: judo-master, hunter, swimmer, secret hockey genius, and, of course, shirtless equestrian. Likewise, he was very involved in securing big-ticket international competitions for his country, including the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It’s difficult to think of another world leader who is similarly invested in using sports as a tool to simultaneously bolster their personal, and national, image. With the mounting tragedy in Ukraine, depriving him of that opportunity is increasingly a moral obligation. In the words of World Athletics president Seb Coe, “We cannot and should not sit this one out.”