By Astrid Söderström
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the world has been in shock. So has the sports world whose response has been surprisingly strong and universal, pushing the worn-out “you shouldn’t mix politics and sports together” narrative to the side.
As one of the most notable first reactions, on February 25, the Union of European Football Associations announced the relocation of the Champions League final this May from Saint Petersburg to Paris. On the same day, Formula 1 reacted by canceling the Russian Grand Prix, stating that it is “impossible” to hold the race under the circumstances.
The movement spread from individual athletes or event organizers taking stands against Russian athletes or events taking place in Russia to eventually, official rulings from sports federations. By now, Russian athletes have been shut out from international competitions almost completely and additionally, competitions scheduled to take place in Russia have been either canceled, removed, or facing a widespread boycott.
”Sports have been important for [Russia’s President Vladimir Putin], and he has put the effort in getting events to Russia. It has also always been made sure Russian teams have good resources,” tells Markku Jokisipilä, a historian knowledgeable in Russian and Soviet sports, for the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. The sports ban’s influence has been speculated by multiple experts, reflecting mostly on the role of sports as a soft tool for demonstrating power and lifting national spirits, as well as Putin’s alleged personal love for sports.
“Vladimir Putin has been passionate about both sports and using sport to project Russia’s importance on the world stage and giving back to the Russian people a sense of pride in their success on the world stage,” Michael Payne, the former head of marketing at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) commented for CNN.
Vera Tolz, a professor of Russian studies at the University of Manchester told The Atlantic reporter Yasmeen Serhan that “the Kremlin is disproportionately sensitive when it comes to sports because they’re something that ordinary people care about.”
The most significant ruling came on February 28, when the IOC recommended sports federations to ban all Russian and Belarussian athletes due to the “breach of the Olympic Truce by the Russian government and the government of Belarus through its support in this.” The IOC justified that even though they promote fairness and not punishing athletes for their government’s actions, the war was a grave violation and prevents Ukrainian athletes from representing their own country.
This recommendation helped those federations and event organizers who might have been hesitant at first, to align themselves. On the same day, the International Federation of Association Football FIFA and UEFA decided together, either due to the IOC statement or pressure from the soccer community, to ban all Russians from international competitions. Essentially, this will shut Russia out of the World Cup later this year which they have not yet qualified for.
Formerly, governing bodies like the IOC or FIFA have been blamed for avoiding responsibility. For example, they have failed to have a proper response to human rights violation concerns amid the 2022 Winter Olympics in China or in the making of the next soccer World Cup in Qatar. Now, the surprisingly wide and firm response will show whether the sports world has influence or not.
Despite the importance of success in sports, Jokisipilä doesn’t think the bans will have an influence on the course of the current conflict. “Putin seems to have come to a conclusion that soft power will no longer fulfill his aim and [therefore] sports have lost their meaning,” he continues.
However, Jokisipilä believes that Kremlin losing interest in sports as a propaganda tool can be a turning point for Russian sports and help take distance from government involvement. “If the functionality decreases in the state’s eyes, the allocated resources will reduce as well.”
Russian athletes were already banned from formally representing their country or using their national symbols and competing under the name of Russian Olympic Committee athletes instead. This ban came after the 2024 Sochi Olympics’ wide, state-orchestrated doping scheme was exposed. In fact, the February 28 statement from the IOC leaned on this former scrutiny as well, when they stripped Putin and other Russian government officials of their golden Olympic Order, the highest rewards from the Olympic Movement.
“Even the fact that the Kremlin, Russia, has gone to such lengths, in using doping, in order to win more medals, in a way shows how participating in competitions and winning, winning was key to Putin’s Popular Mobilization strategy,” Tolz commented to CNN.
“Will Putin care about having to give his Olympic gold order back or what the rest of the international world thinks of him? Probably not. Will he care about what all the local Russians are saying, ‘Hang on, what is going on?’ Absolutely,” Payne speculates. He seems hopeful that the sanctions will make Russian citizens question the government’s actions in Ukraine, and therefore suggests a more direct impact on the sports world’s reaction.
Even without a real impact on the course of the war, these responses seem to matter. “When the war has not stopped, I think it’s the right decision not to allow any Russian athletes to participate in any sporting event,” commented Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko, a former striker for AC Milan and Chelsea to Sky Sports News. “It’s a great reaction from the institutions like UEFA and FIFA to make the right decision.”