No, the Ban on Russian Athletes Should Not Be Lifted

International competitions are sources of national pride and national prestige, particularly for countries with autocratic regimes.
Hans Georg Betz, Russia news, Russia sport ban, Ukraine war, Russian invasion of Ukraine, 1936 Olympics, sport and politics, sport bans, FIFA Russia ban, East Germany doping program

Sochi Olympics, Russia, 2/16/2014 © Iurii Osadchi / Shutterstock

March 15, 2022 07:25 EDT

In a recent article, Ellis Cashmore raised the provocative question of whether or not we should lift the ban on Russian sport instituted as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. Cashmore advances a number of sensible arguments, most importantly that this ban might turn out to be counterproductive. Instead of coaxing the Russian population to question the neo-imperialist delusions of its “great leader,” President Vladimir Putin, it might provoke an in-your-face backlash, reinforcing rather than weakening the despot’s grip on the minds of his subjects. 

Should We Lift the Ban on Russian Sport?


Furthermore, Cashmore maintains, experience shows that sports bans largely failed to have a significant impact on regime policies in the past. South Africa is a case in point. There are good reasons to believe that the bans and boycotts the country was subjected to did little to hasten the collapse of apartheid. The same could, of course, be said about sanctions in general, as Peter Isackson has recently noted in these pages. Cuba is probably the most prominent example of the failure of prolonged sanctions to undermine a regime; Iran is another. 

This could also be said about resolutions passed by the United Nations General Assembly condemning acts of aggression. The most recent vote following Russia’s attack on Ukraine has demonstrated once again the futility of symbolic gestures, even if supported by the vast majority of the international community. The reality is that for despots and autocrats, the only thing that counts is brute force. After all, what brought Nazi Germany to heel was not boycotts and sanctions but the overwhelming military might of the allies. 

The Importance of Sport

Should we, then, lift the ban on Russian sport? In fact, should we lift all sanctions imposed on Russia, given the fact that, empirically, sanctions more often than not turn out to be counterproductive? The answer to the second question is obvious, at least to me. Sanctions might not be particularly effective in their impact on regime behavior, but they serve as an expression of moral revulsion, a signal that we don’t want to have anything to do with you, or at least as little as possible. This involves all areas, not only economics — and particularly sport.

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It is easy to state, as Cashmore does, that “it would be foolish to hyperbolize the importance of sport; obviously it is not as serious as war, or a million other things. So, why hurt people who are not responsible for the original sin?” Anyone who has ever watched Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film “Olympia,” which documented the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, is likely to get a sense of the importance of sport to autocratic regimes. 

The Berlin Games were supposed to demonstrate the superiority of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan race. But a black athlete from the United States, Jesse Owens, had the audacity to steal the show, making HItler’s sport warriors — “swift as greyhounds, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel” — literally eat dust. The Führer was not amused; he hastily left the stadium so not to have to bear witness to the Aryan humiliation.

A famous German strategist once characterized diplomacy as war by other means. The same could be said about sport, particularly during the Cold War period. This was certainly true in the case of the SED regime in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). For the regime, sport was more than a competition, it was a Systemfrage — a question of system, socialism vs. capitalism. Sport victories, particularly against West German athletes, meant confirmation of the superiority of the socialist system and, of course, of the Soacialist Unity Party. 

At the same time, sport provided the regime with the international visibility it so desperately craved. For this, no price was high enough, including the health of the athletes. Starting in the early 1970s, the regime embarked on a broad-based systematic doping program. Already at a young age, promising athletes were pumped full of drugs, designed to enhance their performance and competitiveness. Many of them still suffer from the long-term consequences.

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The East German case is extreme but hardly exceptional. Anyone who has ever visited Rome can attest to that. Rome hosts an Olympic stadium that dates back to the late 1920s, initially forming part of the larger Foro Mussolini. In the 1930s, the stadium was expanded, in preparation for the 1940 Olympics. The games were ultimately canceled because of the war, depriving Mussolini of the opportunity to showcase his Fascist revolution: the massive obelisk at the entrance of the Foro, with its “Mussolini Dux” inscription, the mosaics leading up to the stadium, glorifying the Fascist takeover, the granite blocs bearing excerpts of Mussolini’s speeches. 

Mussolini’s reign ended in April 1945 at a gas station in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. Yet at the centennial of Mussolini’s March on Rome, later on this year, the obelisk is still there, in Rome, in front of the Olympic stadium, together with the mosaics and the granite blocs — a silent testimony to a dictator’s hubris and the role of sport in it.

Get Real

One of the most often heard arguments these days on the subject of the sport ban is that it is the “innocent” athletes who are most directly affected by it. “I only feel sorry for the athletes” has been an often repeated mantra by those commenting on the ban. Let’s get real. Compared to the suffering and anxieties of millions of Ukrainian civilians subjected to Russian terror bombing, the chagrin of Russian athletes deprived of the opportunity to compete internationally is of little consequence — except, of course, for those, like Daniil Medvedev, who lose money. But then, the ATP has so far refused to follow other sports and ban Russian players. 

Finally, one last thought. Before FIFA banned Russia from its World Cup competition, Poland, followed by Sweden and the Czech Republic, made it clear that they would not play Russia in the playoffs for the World Cup at the end of this year. Robert Lewandowski, Bayern München’s star forward and winner of the Best FIFA Men’s Player title two years in a row, was particularly adamant in his refusal to play against Russia

I am quite curious to know what would have happened had FIFA not banned Russia. Would Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic have been sanctioned for refusing to play the Russian national team? What would have it done to FIFA’s already dismal image if, as a result, Vladimir Putin’s aggression against his neighbor had been compensated with Russia’s automatic World Cup qualification? 

The reality is that international competitions in certain sports, such as football and ice hockey, are more than just sports. They are sources of national pride and national prestige, particularly for countries with autocratic regimes, with star athletes as national icons who are more often than not close to the regime. Alexander Ovechkin, arguably the best hockey player at the moment, has a long history of supporting Putin, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea. 

As Czech hockey great Dominik Hasek has put it, this is not a personal matter: “Every athlete represents not only himself and his club, but also his country and its values and actions. That is a fact.” It is for this reason that the ban on Russian sport was imposed. It should not be lifted.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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