Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, substantial portions of the international community have worked together to apply pressure on the Russian government. Those actions have ranged across the entire spectrum, from economic sanctions, to aiding the Ukrainian people and government with money and arms, and even to the world of sports.
Many major international sports governing bodies have instituted bans on Russian athletes competing until further notice. Perhaps most notably, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) barred Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at the 2022 Paralympic Games in Beijing. The international governing body for soccer, FIFA, which is the largest sporting organization in the world, has banned any Russian clubs or national teams from competition. That ban bears unique significance, as soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and FIFA is the second-largest international governing body in the world, behind only the United Nations.
Michael Payne, the former head of marketing at the IOC, told CNN recently that the most significant impact of these sanctions by sport governing bodies could be to “challenge the Kremlin’s narrative on the conflict.” Payne goes on to say that “There can be no misunderstanding: no amount of control of the Russian media is able to explain what’s going on in the sports world, that they’ve suddenly been banished.”
The aquatics community, led by FINA, has taken action as well, albeit less punitive action than many other bodies. FINA responded shortly after the invasion began by pulling the 2022 World Junior Swimming Championships, which were set to take place in late August, from Kazan, Russia. FINA hasn’t gone much further than that as of yet, and they’re still resistant to full stop banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from competition. European Aquatics (LEN), on the other hand, has banned Russia and Belarus from competition until further notice.
We’ve seen Ukrainian athletes displaced, many heading to other European countries for sanctuary. Italy is hosting both Ukrainian artistic swimmers and, as recently announced, 12 Ukrianian swimmers this month. The group of swimmers, including World Champion Daryna Zevina, will be training in Italy at Lignano Sabbiadoro from March 12-31.
You may be asking yourself: It’s just sports, why does banning Russian involvement matter? Aren’t there plenty of things in the world right more important than sports?
Well, yes. Afterall, people are dying right now in Ukraine. With every day that passes, more soldiers and civilians will be killed, families will be broken up and uprooted from their homes, and world inches closer to an escalated global conflict that absolutely nobody wants. That’s precisely why it’s so crucial that the international community at large provides pressure on Russian president Vladimir Putin via every available avenue, including sports.
Sports play a huge role in our lives. Think about how you feel when your favorite team or athlete wins it all. The pride. The elation. For fans, sports are an outlet, it’s entertainment, whether they’re watching on a TV or in person. For the athletes, it’s what they’ve trained their whole lives for, it’s their craft.
Sporting on the international stage brings in the element of national pride. It’s exactly why events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics are so huge. Ask yourself, have you ever found yourself watching a sport you don’t typically follow in the Olympics, cheering for athletes you’re not familiar with, just because they represent your country? Probably.
That’s the reason action by sport governing bodies has a chance to be uniquely effective in applying pressure to Putin’s regime. It’s well known that Putin believes Russian athletes performing well on the world stage is an important display of Russia’s strength. Athletes will of course be upset that their opportunities to compete in their sport have disappeared. But more importantly, average Russians who are used to watching their athletes compete, will take notice that they’re no longer competing. They’ll ask why this is happening and look for somewhere to turn their anger.
If there’s any hope of Russian withdrawing from Ukraine, it lies in the state of things in Russia. If the Russian people turn against the war in overwhelming fashion, lives, Ukrainian and Russian, could be saved.
As Michael Payne told 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.”