Western officials and athletes are increasingly expressing support for their Russian colleagues and admitting that sport is not the same without them. But the Olympic Committee is adamant.

When Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto was crowned the women’s singles champion at the World Figure Skating Championship in March this year, her euphoria was tinged with a sense of emptiness. For she knew, more than anyone else perhaps, that it was but a pyrrhic victory. 

Kaori did not perform a single quadruple jump and was initially predicted to be sixth at the tournament, held in the French city of Montpellier. Kaori conceded “defeat”, saying: “Since there are no Russian figure skaters here, I suddenly became a contender to win.”

Russia’s champion athletes, including an Olympic gold medallist, were banned over the invasion of Ukraine. So was Belarus for supporting Russia over what the Kremlin describes as a “special military operation”.

Russian stars were predictably aghast at the Olympic federation for banning the country.

"For me, the results of this World Figure Skating Championship are a lie, they do not exist," commented producer and choreographer Ilya Averbukh, also a former Olympic medallist. 

"Total disrespect," agreed coach Alexander Zhulin. 

Even a section of athletes and sports personalities from other countries have criticised the hasty ban on Russian sports stars from international meets.

Background

From the time of antiquity, sporting events used to be a valid mechanism for stopping wars and political debates. However, world sport in the 21st century has become more and more politicised, and western nations especially — which control` most of the international sports organisations — have effectively weaponised sports over the years. There are numerous examples, such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) verdict against Russia, the Lamine Diack corruption case, and the 2018 Winter Olympics amid North Korea's nuclear threat.

"Politics and sports go hand in hand," says  Andrew Podnieks, a hockey historian and author of more than 100 books.  For decades, entire studies have been dedicated to this topic by scholars around the world. 

"Russia is undoubtedly among those countries that use sports as an instrument of soft power policy of the state," argues Daria Osinina, a master's student at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation.  “This is evidenced by the increased attention to sports in recent years when Russia became one of the central venues of international sports competitions: Summer Universiade in Kazan, World Athletics Cup in 2013, Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2014, FINA World Championships in 2015, and FIFA World Cup in 2018.”

It is believed that politics and sports are linked for two main reasons. First, sport develops the country's image, and athletes express their loyalty to their homeland by coming to a tournament with the flag and anthem. Secondly, competitions improve the economic situation: they are visited by foreign athletes, sponsor companies in search of new contracts and, of course, a large number of tourist fans.

A blow to football

Since the start of the Ukraine conflict, international sports federations have slapped a series of harsh sanctions against Russian athletes. Major international competitions were "taken away" from Russia, and clubs and athletes were suspended from participating in major tournaments. Such a precedent has never been seen before in the history of the sport.

Experts say that the Western restrictions have hit football the hardest. The Russian national team will not participate in UEFA Nations League and European competitions next season. UEFA has also "closed" the World Cup in Qatar for Russian athletes. Top foreign players are leaving Russian clubs in droves.

Economics plays a major role.  UEFA loses nothing from the non-participation of the Russian national team and clubs in its tournaments as the economic contribution role of Russia in world football is minimal, though it is a rapidly growing market. Over the past 10 years, the association's revenue, even taking into account the pandemic, has doubled from $2.8bn to $5.7bn per year when the European Championship is held, and from $1.4bn to $3bn in other years.

Not everyone, however, believes the role economics plays in such bans.

"Let's be objective, in terms of sports performance, Russian clubs are now about on a par with Scotland," Alexei Kirichek, a member of the marketing committee of the Russian Football Union (RFU), explained to Profil. “Would you see Scottish teams excluded from European competitions?"

And yet, for UEFA, the main interest in relations with Russia is the sale of European Cup broadcasting rights to Russian TV channels. "Remarkably, nothing has changed here, no hint of sanctions," Kirichek notes.  “It is likely that FIFA will sell us the rights to show the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. International organisations do not refuse an audience of 140 million people. Such double standards…”

Decapitated ice hockey

Another case is ice hockey, where it is impossible not to notice the absence of Russia. Even the director of the Alliance of European Hockey Clubs, Shimon Shemberg, who has a strict anti-Russian position, said in May before the 2022 World Cup in Finland that from a purely sporting point of view,  the World Cup can only become poorer without Russia. "Sports-wise, it will have a significant impact on the tournament," Shemberg clarified at the time. “This is obvious because Russia is one of the big hockey powers, a perennial medal contender. It's like the FIFA World Cup without Germany or Brazil.”

Following the World Cup, President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Luke Tardif admitted: "Without Russia and Belarus, the competition is no longer the same. I hope the hockey family will reunite soon. And his deputy Petr Briza talked about financial losses: "Russians bring both fans and important partners for the Infront. It's not easy to replace them."

Furthermore, the IIHF is likely to incur additional losses by paying Russian organisers a forfeit amount for disrupting the tournament in Russia. According to calculations of the Ministry of Sports of the Russian Federation, international federations cancelled a total of 186 planned competitions in the country. They were sent a proposal to compensate for the damages. The Russian side expects to get back 49.3 million dollars amicably or through the courts. And the first "cashback" has already been paid: FIDE returned 1 million euros for the cancellation of the World Chess Olympiad in Russia.

Protection from records

Nevertheless, Thomas Bach, head of the IOC, still negatively assesses the possibility of lifting the recommendation to suspend Russians from international competitions. On July 4, he stated that it is still not the right time. "We stand by our earlier position, which is very clear, including our recommendations to international federations not to invite athletes from Russia and Belarus to international competitions," he stressed.

However, some federations have not suspended Russia: in the international arena, Russian racing drivers, cyclists, tennis players—excluding Wimbledon— chess players, and UFC fighters continue to compete.

The Russian table tennis team has been included among the participants in the World Cup in China, but the final decision will be taken on July 26-27. The Russian luge team has successfully contested its exclusion in the internal arbitration court of the International Federation. A similar success was achieved in bobsleigh.

Games of ill will

The absence of Russian athletes has been notable in shooting and archery, Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, swimming and synchronised swimming, artistic and rhythmic gymnastics, boxing and taekwondo, fencing, and skiing and short track. "Unfortunately, the number of competitions whose results look dubious because of the non-participation of Russians is gradually increasing," laments Profile columnist Ivan Dmitrienko.  “But we can look at the situation differently: it is in these sports that Russia is self-sufficient enough to hold alternative world championships.”

Indeed, the first such forums should be held as early as July. Six regions of the Russian Federation will host the Universiade with the participation of universities from friendly countries. Kazan will host the "Friendship Games" on water sports, where nine countries will participate. And in Minsk, a gymnastics tournament "Crystal Rose" will be organised soon.

Also, the Ministry of Sports promises to hold competitions similar to the international stages of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating and the Diamond League for athletes. It seems that the Goodwill Games, first born in the 1980s out of dissatisfaction with the Soviet system, are making a comeback today.

In addition, voices in support of Russian sports have been echoing in the West since the early days of the ban. "This is a big, big mistake," said French biathlete Simon Fourcade. "I think it's unfair," agreed Antonio Conte, manager of England's Tottenham. 

"I believe that sports can contribute to peace. What will we do when the conflict is over? How will we reconcile with each other?"  FC Dynamo Kiev coach Mircea Lucescu was puzzled. Oyvind Vatterdal, a deputy board member of the Norwegian Olympic Committee, resigned from his post in protest against the exclusion of the Russians.

Source: TRT World