How Should the Sports World React to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?
The international sports community has the power to influence the war.
More of my thoughts on the crisis in Ukraine on CBS News here.
We like to think that international sports rises above the petty politics of nations to present an aspirational model celebrating people of all ethnic, religious, and philosophical backgrounds. In the best of all possible worlds, when one athlete breaks a record, regardless of where they’re from, all humanity advances another notch up the rung of human potential. Our daily burden is lightened just a little bit.
But the unavoidable truth is that international sports is often treated as a public relations tool to promote the idea that winning at a sport somehow translates to nationalistic superiority. That the glint of shiny gold, silver, and bronze medals will blind us to atrocities within a country. Or that the bloated ceremonial pageantry of China would camouflage the horrors of their concentration camps for the mostly Muslim Uyghurs.
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I don’t think it’s coincidence that Putin waited until after the Winter Olympics were over to invade Ukraine. Putin had forged a public alliance with China, so he certainly didn’t want to do anything to interfere with or distract from China’s hosting glow.
Putin attended the opening ceremonies, which indicates how important the games were to him. He undoubtedly hoped that their 32 medals, second only to Norway, would not only prove to the world Russia’s physical dominance but also to humanize Russian people through their athletes. Unfortunately, the world watched the cringe-worthy spectacle of 15-year-old skater Kamila Valieva enduring a verbal barrage from her entourage and coaches. The world is also aware of the doping that Russia encourages among its athletes because the ultimate goal for them is not the integrity of sports nor the advancement of meritocracy, but winning at any cost—even cheating—if it helps the political aims of Russia.
Now they have invaded Ukraine. According to Ukraine’s health ministry, 352 civilians, including 14 children, had been killed since the beginning of the invasion.
So, what is the international sports community going to do about it? I know we aren’t a military threat, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have significant power. By showing unity with those who oppose the invasion we take away the public relations power they sought and we bring pressure to bear on the Russian bear. By banning all Russian teams from competing in any international sports, we are affirming that Russia’s actions are unacceptable and that anyone representing their country—even though the athletes may be innocent pawns—will not be welcome.