Sport in the War on Ukraine

By Grant Jarvie

As of February 28th 2022 sports reaction to the war in Ukraine has been good, sport usually waits and reacts, but there are times when it can do more, and this is one of these occasions.

Sport, Soft Power and Russia
Sport means a lot to Vladimir Putin and to Russia for its international legitimacy. They use sport to show how powerful and successful they are in the world. Putin has always understood the soft power role that sport can play in politics. It has been central both to his image and to his core strategy of the reassertion of Russian power.

Sport in the War between Nations
Nor is this the first time that sport has been implicated in a war between nations.

In countries where hope is needed sports stars have often walked the walk because sport has given them the platform to talk to the people.

Following the Ivory Coast’s qualification match for the 2006 World Cup, former Ivory Coast and Chelsea striker pleaded:

“please lay down your weapons and hold elections,”. Drogba and his team-mates didn’t single-handedly stop the civil war but they provided a country with a reason to hope.

in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, sport was centre stage in the fight against apartheid South Africa. The international ban was signed in Scotland at Gleneagles. Maybe there are lessons to be learned from this for the current situation.

While sport remains one of the world’s war without weapons platforms, the invasion of Ukraine is war with weapons.

Voices of Athletes from Ukraine
The popularity, scale and reach of sport won’t end this conflict but sport and the international community needs to listen to the voices of Ukrainian athletes and people and do the right thing regardless of commercial pain.

• “A nation of sincere, hardworking and freedom-loving citizens!” Today is a difficult time for all of us. But we must unite! Andriy Shevchenko, The 2004 Ballon d’Or winner.

• “Ukraine is not a ‘part of Russia,’’ Marta Kostyuk, Tennis Player.

• “At home in Ukraine it’s really nervous now, a lot of news about guns, about weapons, about some armies around Ukraine so it’s not OK. Not in the 21st century” Vladyslav Heraskevych, Men’s Olympic Skeleton team.

• “Let us unite in this extremely difficult time for the sake of peace and the future of our state,” Elina Svitolina, Tennis Player.

• “Democracy and freedom have no price… Ukraine wants, peace, freedom and sovereignty” Wladimir Klitschko, former world boxing champion.

On the 27th of February Ukranian athletes wrote an open letter to Thomas Bach President of the International Olympic Committee pleading for Russia and Belarus to be suspended from National and International Olympic and Para-Olympic Committees.

This was supported from athletes across Ukrainian sport , athletes, swimmers, tennis players, gymnasts, core winter sports such as bobsleigh and skeleton

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, supported by Belarus is a clear violation Olympic and Paralympic charters .

It would seem contradictory that a nation be banned from the Olympics because of systematic doping is allowed to participate in sport having invaded a European state. We should not underestimate the soft power tool that sport is and can be.

Other Voices
Ukraine athletes are not alone , very brave Russian athletes have pointed out that this is Putin’s war not Russia war .

Fyodor Smolov, who plays for Dynamo Moscow, called for no war, Naomi Osaka tweeted “I can’t believe what I am seeing” and Sebastian Vettel has called early for the Russian Grand Prix to be cancelled and made it clear before it was cancelled that he won’t be going.

The Moscow native and Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin asked for “no more war”…Please, no more war,” . In the past Ovechkin has been a Ovechkin has been a staunch supporter of Vladimir Putin starting the PutinTeam social movement in 2017 to drum up support for the Russian President but the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, the athlete said. “It doesn’t matter who is in the war, Russia, Ukraine, different countries. We have to live in peace and a great world” .

On the 26th February the German Athletic Association publicly called for a complete ban on Russia and Belarus from the International Sports system.

Quote” All societal subsystems have the responsibility to question their relations with Russia and to include tough sanctions – including national and international sport.

Shalke O4 in Germany are but examples of Russian sponsorship money being dropped, Manchester United have done the same and UEFA were moving down the same track.
International sports organisations have withdrawn events from being held in Russia.

This is fast moving territory, cancelling sponsorship, some sports moving events from Russia, asking for games to be played on neutral grounds but Russia and Belarus have not been banned from international sport.

Barcelona and Napoli lead football’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by standing in front of ‘Stop War’ banner before their Europa League match a day after the invasion.

Sports Isolation of Countries
It is not a precedent for sport to isolate countries. It is not a precedent for visas to be withheld or not granted to sports stars.

It would be unfair to punish Russian athletes already in other countries but the option exists to not distribute sports work permits to athletes from Russia and Belarus – that worked in the past.

Ukrainian athletes and beyond are asking sport to do everything it possibly can to halt Russia and make it accountable.

Ukraine’s athletes should be listened too, and sports bodies should do the right thing, even if it means loss of earnings. Sport is not the solution, but it can give a country reason to hope.

Sport organisations can do more to capitalise upon the lead given by many brave athletes. Occasionally sport can and should lead the politicians and not hide behind the politics of sport.

Scotland has the opportunity to cement solidarity with Ukraine in the World Cup Play qualifier at Hampden on March 24th. The Ukrainian team manager has voiced support for the fixture to go ahead.

Key Messages
1. Putin invests heavily in sport and the politics of sport to present Russia to the world.
2. All areas of civil society should respond and not just leave it to financial sanctions.
3. Sport is soft power tool in a situation that has gone beyond a war without weapons
4. What is being said here is not a precedent.
5. The West has made a political calculation to stay out of Ukraine for fear of the consequences and one suspects that Russian leaders have calculated that the West will not enter Ukraine for fear of the consequences.

Consequently, every other avenue of protest should stand up and be counted, including sport. Given that hard power levers have been ruled out because of fear of World War Three then soft power levers become even more important.

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