Exclusion of Russian Athletes Defeats Its Purpose
When Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022, the West had a duty, both symbolic and strategic, to do something.
Full-scale war between NATO and Russia, of course, was not an option, as it risked dragging the world into nuclear annihilation. Thus, economic sanctions and proxy warfare replaced open confrontation, in the hope that they might sufficiently damage Russia’s war effort and precipitate its defeat. Given the constraints, the chosen course of action has a cold but clean logic to it; one that Putin, himself a proven pragmatist, might have followed too, had the roles been reversed.
Wars, however, are not fought only at the level of military alliances and governments, but they pervade more mundane aspects of society as well. The world of sports, at the instigation of the authoritative International Olympic Committee (IOC), has also joined the battle against Russia and in support of Ukraine by excluding Russian athletes en masse from international competitions. But this is a move which, despite its noble inspiration – perhaps tinted with a bit of public-relations priggishness –, does little to support the Ukrainians, instead having a boomerang effect.
The aim of this exclusion is dual. On the one hand, it simply symbolises solidarity with Ukraine, showing that the unilateral aggression of one country by another does not leave the sports community indifferent. On the other hand, it follows a more strategically refined – though unacknowledged – agenda, one aimed at causing dissent against Putin from within Russia and therefore at laying the conditions for his ultimate overthrow by popular forces. The underlying logic is that, when Russian athletes realise how damaging the war is to their careers, they might be prompted to condemn it. As such, this strategy is not so different to that applied to the sanctioned Russian oligarchs, and the intention was maybe for the two to work together: if the incentives of criticising Putin are increased selectively amongst different social groups, then, one day, the popular discontent might become too great to be contained, and regime change may soon ensue.
But for the most part, this is a flawed analysis which fails to appreciate Russia’s domestic realities. Reflecting Putin’s own reading of international politics, the dominant narrative circulating in the Russian media is that the war in Ukraine is the West’s ultimate attempt at bringing Russia to its knees. And anything resembling criticism of the official narrative is severely punished. The exclusion of Russian athletes by international sports federations therefore has either one of two effects: forcing athletes into acquiescence due to their public status; or, worse, leading them to genuinely subscribe to the official narrative due to the pervasiveness of state-sponsored propaganda combined with the limited access to alternative sources. Indeed, if the West’s intention, as is claimed by the Kremlin, is to destroy Russia, then the discrimination against Russian athletes can easily be spun as proof of that.
From this point of view, the IOC’s recommendation suddenly appears to be counterproductive, and what was conceived of as a necessary evil in the fight against Putin becomes pure injustice: if the intentional exclusion of Russian athletes cannot yield its targeted outcome, then what remains is the intentional destruction of innocent peoples’ very purpose in life. Their only sin? Having been born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, under the wrong leader.
Other options than an outright exclusion of Russian athletes could have been contemplated instead. The IOC could have merely recommended that Russian athletes not be allowed to use their flag of sing their national anthem in the event of a victory or a podium finish (this measure is currently recommended as a last resort if for legal reasons the athletes cannot not be disqualified). This would have symbolically punished Russia as an abstract entity, but not those Russian athletes who had nothing to do with the invasion of Ukraine. Allowing them to still participate to competitions under this arrangement would have also had the benefit of exposing the hard-line Putin supporters to alternative media narratives, thereby sowing doubt in their minds about the veracity of Kremlin-sponsored narratives; doubt is perhaps all that is needed to break the Kremlin’s monopoly on truth, and athletes were maybe the perfect channel to do that. This, under the present situation, will remain confined to the realm of speculation.
Considering the (understandable) sensitivity of the Russia-Ukraine war, the temptation is to attack this kind of argument as Russian propaganda-in-disguise; to view it as a contrived, only superficially rational argument aimed at undermining support for Ukraine. After all, the exact same reasoning, one might argue, could be applied to the oligarchs. One might also feel uncomfortable at the suggestion that Russian athletes are suffering an injustice, when so many Ukrainians are seeing their loved ones dying on the battlefield and are forced to abandon their homes.
Here is, however, some pushback against those instinctive reactions. First, Russian oligarchs and Russian athletes are two very different groups of people. The oligarchs became abundantly rich in the 1990s by expropriating their fellow countrymen at a time of institutional vacuum; that they were able to keep their looted riches was the result of a tacit agreement reached with then-newly elected President Putin, who saw this as a means of limiting their interference in politics – absence of prosecution against compliance with the powers that be. The oligarchs are therefore eminently tied to Putin, hence why there was real reason to believe that freezing their assets may prompt them to form an anti-war front in the highest spheres of Russian society – something which, unfortunately, has hitherto produced disappointing results. Russian athletes, on the other hand, whilst not constituting a homogenous group, are for the most part honest and hardworking people, whose prosperity is often exclusively linked to their sport; some of them depend entirely on funding from their national federation, which is itself controlled by the Federal Ministry of Sports: for them, the price of dissent is extremely high, with at any rate a scope of more limited dimensions.
Furthermore, the fact that there are greater and lesser acts of injustice does not erase the simple fact that the lesser ones are injustices, too: the difference is one of degree, not of kind. There is no arguing that war-time killings are far more distressing than people being banned from competing in gymnastics or figure-skating competitions. But if the ban does little to stop the killings – or, worse, cements support around their ultimate perpetrator –, then maintaining it adds unnecessary pain, however marginal it may be, in a world already all too full of it.
Where possible, it should be everyone’s striving to promote mutual understanding, even against the polarising forces of war. Sport, despite the many attempts at political instrumentalization, still has the potential to promote healthy rivalry between peoples, uniting them around common rules and common values. Let us aspire as much as possible to the idealism of the Olympic motto: “Swifter, Higher, Stronger – Together".