Almost immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a growing number of sports bodies have taken actions aimed at not only preventing the organisation of international sports competitions on Russian or Belarusian soil, but also affecting the participation of athletes from those countries in competitions around the world.
These sports bodies include the International Olympic Committee, Fifa, Uefa, World Rugby, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, Badminton World Federation, and most recently, the All England Lawn Tennis Club that banned all Russian and Belarusian players from competing in this year’s Wimbledon Championships.
The Wimbledon ban will impact Russian men’s World No 2 Daniil Medvedev and Belarusian women’s World No 4 Aryna Sabalenka, a Wimbledon semi-finalist last year.
The series of sports sanctions that began in February only continue to mount and as a result, urge us to navigate the tricky terrain that sport becomes, in times of war and conflict.
It is safe to acknowledge that sports has never been free from geopolitics and the use of sports sanctions in that context has been the reality for a long time. A look at the precedents set during World War I, World War II, or the anti-Apartheid movement during which sport organisations and governments took a stand against the racially exclusive policy in South Africa suggests that there, indeed, is a long history of countries and subsequently, individual sportspersons being brought into the wave of sanctioned regimes in order to serve the geopolitics of a country or a group of countries.
However, academicians whose expertise lies in International Relations, Sport and Cultural History and Eurasian studies have argued that these sporting sanctions have often been used as tools of Western imperialism, reek of hypocrisy and, are often, unfair on athletes.
Top Dogs and Alphas in World Politics
Mohammad Sohrab, a sociologist and a professor at the Academy of International Studies at Jamia Milia Islamia advises looking at sanctions in sports in a manner that is not binary or simplistic.
“If we cannot always analyse international relations simply through the prism of morality, even sports cannot always be subjected to that prism,” he told Scroll.in.
“Sports are talked about everywhere because they are guided by some universal values that bring the international fraternity together to promote peace, tolerance, competition and co-existence. The practice of sports sanctions is not so problematic itself, however, the problem lies with the politics of selectivity over these so-called universal values.”
Nandan Unnikrishnan, head of the Eurasia Programme of Studies at the Observer Research Foundations and one of India’s leading experts on the former Soviet space, also agrees that the ban indicates the amazing power that the Western nations have over the rest of the world.
“Sanctions are applied by those who believe that they are strong, that they control the world and that they have the right to enforce them,” said Unnikrishnan in a telephonic conversation with Scroll.in.
“As we see through the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia right now, most international bodies are majorly controlled by the Western nations whether it is Fifa, Uefa or Wimbledon.”
Unnikrishnan added: “Clearly, when you are more powerful, you apply your own standards to the world. This is basically a lesson to the world that says, ‘I am the alpha, I am the top dog and my rules work. Therefore, please fall in line and obey me.’ Russia has often challenged that world outlook and the US-led West is attempting to teach it a lesson.”
Daryl Adair, Associate Professor of Sport Management in the Business School, University of Technology Sydney, Australia, in a conversation with Scroll.in, also pointed out the closest parallel to the Wimbledon ban was during the two World Wars.
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“There are precedents for sanctions against tennis players in the context of military conflict. In the current scenario, Britain is not officially at war, but its open support for Ukraine (including the disbursement of armaments) indicates that it has a vested interest in opposing the Russian invasion,” Adair further explained.
Holier than thou attitudes
Adair argues that although it is imperative that countries like Russia or China (that also faced severe backlash for their human rights violation against Uighurs) do not deflect criticism by stating that other nations have their own problems, he suggests looking at the double standards at play too.
He said, “With Wimbledon being staged in the West - and a NATO country to boot – the ban on Russian players was always going to be a hometown decision.”
“For me, the most important and ignored example is the occupation in Palestine. The ‘international sports world’ has been bereft in addressing the conquest of Palestinian territories. And, why is Myanmar still part of world sport given genocidal actions against the Rohingyas?” he asked.
According to all three academicians, the common thread that ties together the practice of sports sanctions is hypocrisy and double standards.
Unnikrishnan said, “If we were genuinely worked up about what Russia did in Ukraine, the first thing we would be doing is applying all these sanctions to Israel for what it does to Palestine or Saudi Arabia and UAE for the war in Yemen.
“Looking back at the history of sanctions, in the case of Apartheid where incidentally, USA and Britain did not join and continued their sporting leagues, sanctions have always been applied only by Western countries against Soviet Union, or anyone who has gone against them.
“They boycotted the 1980 Olympics in the Soviet Union. They, then shifted some events out of Russia in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 coup in Ukraine and the subsequent Russian takeover of Crimea.
“Nobody considered the banning of American athletes for the invasion of Iraq or banning a Western athlete for violating a United Nations’ resolution on Libya or for the illegal bombing of Belgrade in 1999. No one thought of banning them because they are powerful and they control these international bodies that eventually enforce the bans.”
According to Unnikrishnan, sanctions can have an effect of admonishment and shaming or bringing to the notice of the people the injustice of that particular country but it does not necessarily bring about a change in the behaviour or the foreign policy of the country.
“Look at Iran, North Korea. Look at India. We’ve been under sanctions since 1974 when we did our first nuclear test. So, sanctions never really deterred countries from doing what they believe are their national interests.”
Meanwhile, Sohrab believes that the very criteria of defining human rights and its violations have never been uniform because it has largely been subjected to the Western cultural and geo-political interests.
Pointing towards the direction of the implicit and explicit violations of human rights involving the West, he said, “During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Olympics were boycotted but the same forces that boycotted Soviet were the supporters of the Apartheid regime in South Africa for very long.
“My contention is that we haven’t we seen the same binary formations vis-à-vis Western military action and gross human right violations against Afghanistan, in Latin American regions, Africa and so many parts of West Asia. We must pinpoint these double standards,” he said.
Onus on athletes as individuals
It is safe to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not going to lose sleep over the sporting sanctions. The series of actions can dent reputations and bring shame but why should athletes who are not necessarily playing team sports be made to pay for the deeds of their country?
The answer is rather simple, if one were to consider the international relations’ theory on nation-state.
Sohrab explains that there is a symbiotic relationship between the state and the individual. Therefore, most of the time, individuals are seen through the prism of the state whilst the state is seen through the prism of the individual.
“In an ideal world, individuals should not be subjected or forced to pay the price for the misdeeds of his or her nation-state. However, individuals, unfortunately, are not independent of their nation-states. So, in the world we live in today, we continue to represent our nation state and the nation state represents its citizen,” he said.
Additionally, Sohrab believes that the West realises the fault lines that lie in Russia and capitalises on that, leaving the Russian athletes to navigate the tricky terrain of adopting a stance on their country’s policy.
“When athletes have spoken up against regimes, they have often paid a heavy price. You have to take into account the way the Russian community functions. They cannot opt for an anti-Putin or neutral stance,” he said.
Tennis players Medvedev and Andrey Rublev had made their pro-peace sentiments clear earlier. However, Wimbledon and several other tournaments have demanded more assurance in order to allow athletes to represent themselves as neutrals, devoid of the Russian flag and anthems.
This demand most likely stems from the actions of athletes such as Ryvlov and gymnast Ivan Kuliak endorsing the pro-war ‘Z’ insignia, chess Grandmaster Sergey Karjakin endorsing the Russian invasion and Russian oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Dmitry Mazepin’s associations with Putin.
Adair explains, “It appears that the British Prime Minister of Sport Nigel Huddleston and the All England Club have taken the view that sanctions provide the only guarantee that there would be no Russian ‘influence’ at Wimbledon.”
“The ‘neutrals idea’ has been part and parcel of Russian athletes competing despite their country being banned from sport for systematic doping. This has been the mildest of deterrents, for this pivot allows Russian athletes to de facto represent their country.”
To many, it is evident that as long as the power lies disproportionately with the West and they continue to host sporting tournaments with historical value, sport sanctions will continue to be used.
It may neither lead to political or behavioural change within the nations but it will further fragment an already polarised sports world, while those outside of the oligarch class and sans pro-Putin propaganda become collateral damage in a conflict they don’t necessarily endorse.
At the moment, the unanimous acceptance of the nation-state theory in international relations and major sports organisations acting as instruments to maintain the status quo leaves these athletes with no option but to wear their capes of neutrality in order to compete.
There is hope, however, that if world politics indeed moves towards a largely bi-polar or multi-polar power system, accountability will also be demanded from those who currently sit back and evade the questions around their involvement in conflicts and human rights violations.