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“There is going to be a pause and a reset”: What next for sport’s relationship with Russia?

Russia's devastating invasion of Ukraine saw it reduced to a sporting pariah within a matter of days. But the attacks have also raised pertinent questions about international sport's uncomfortable relationship with the country and whether it will ever look the same again.

4 April 2022 Sam Carp

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The word unprecedented has been exhausted over the past two years but there are few other ways to describe the international sporting community’s reaction to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Even the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which just weeks before Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered his troops across the border in late February had desperately clung to its position of neutrality throughout China’s Winter Olympic Games, took an uncharacteristically heavy-handed stance in response to the attacks.

The IOC’s initial call for international federations (IFs) to relocate or cancel their planned events in Russia and Belarus was swiftly followed by a recommendation to bar athletes and officials from the two countries from participating. It would prove to be the catalyst for a chain of announcements as IFs moved to outline what sanctions they would be handing down, with some implementing stricter measures than others. As more and more punishments were issued, it was those not seen to be doing anything that were soon in the minority.

Russia, a country that for so long has viewed sport as a source of great national pride, had been cast out by the sporting community in just a matter of days.

“I was really, really shocked by how many organisations, how many stakeholders did make decisions, how quickly they made those decisions, and also the magnitude of those decisions as well,” says Simon Chadwick, global professor of sport at the Emlyon Business School in Paris. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years nearly, and I’ve never known anything like it. It’s just completely unprecedented. And I would argue that it’s possibly unprecedented in history as well.”

Organisations like soccer’s global governing body Fifa, which initially sheltered under the approach adopted by the IOC in recent years, whereby Russian athletes have been allowed to take part in the Olympics as neutrals, eventually came down hard, banning Russia from playing its upcoming 2022 World Cup playoff game against Poland. Its European counterpart Uefa moved quickly to relocate the 2022 Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris, before making a similar decision to throw Russian teams out of its competitions.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC), meanwhile, made a sensational U-turn, sending competitors from Russia and Belarus home just 24 hours after saying they could take part at Beijing 2022 under a neutral flag.

Even sports particularly close to Putin’s heart were compelled into action. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), for example, suspended all Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from its competitions ‘until further notice’, and took away Russia’s hosting rights to the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championships. Putin also had his status as an honorary president revoked by the International Judo Federation (IJF), which, alongside the IOC, World Taekwondo and the International Swimming Federation (Fina), was one of several organisations to strip Russia’s leader of token sporting titles.

Sanctions were imposed by the governing body for chess, another sport that is famously popular in Russia, a nation which lays claim to some 240 grandmasters, comfortably more than any other country. The Russian and Belarusian teams were suspended by the International Chess Federation (FIDE), which also decided to terminate sponsorship deals with state-controlled companies from the two countries and move the upcoming Chess Olympiad originally scheduled to take place in Khanty-Mansiysk.

“The world is outraged by the invasion so we did feel it was necessary to take action,” says Nigel Short, a chess grandmaster and vice president of FIDE, whose president Arkady Dvorkovich was previously Russia’s deputy prime minister. “I heard the accusation that this is a Russian-dominated organisation, so I think those people who were peddling this particular line were surprised.

“Of course we are Russian influenced, but I think if there is any tiny little bit of good that can come out of this horrific tragedy, this humanitarian disaster, it would be that there will be a sort of redressing of balance in our organisation.”

Hosting major events has enabled Vladimir Putin to promote himself as an ally to some of sport’s most powerful individuals

While acknowledging that FIDE has “taken the hits” after ending some of its commercial deals, Short says the chess federation has “a financial cushion” because it has now moved away from being dependent on Russian sponsorship. Others, however, may not have the same luxury.

A number of IFs – FIDE included – stopped short of banning Russian athletes from participating in their competitions, while some chose not to condemn or even mention the invasion. That perhaps highlighted which organisations are more reliant on Russia, as well as suggesting a reluctance to shut themselves off from doing business with the country in the future.

“The mistake it’s really easy to make here is to view everything in the sporting world through the eyes of Western Europe,” Nick Varley, the founder of LookUp Communications, points out. “But you have to understand when you look at how some of the federations have responded is they’ve got other angles on this in terms of where their connections are, where their athletes are from, where their geopolitical alliances are. Some of them are very linked to Russians and, in some cases, Russian oligarchs directly, so it shouldn’t be any great surprise that some of those sports are in a position where they are not taking action.”

If there is any tiny little bit of good that can come out of this horrific tragedy, it would be that there will be a sort of redressing of balance in our organisation.

Nigel Short, Vice President, International Chess Federation

Indeed, the past month or so has exposed the extent of Russia’s influence across international sport. It hasn’t just been a case of relocating events, excluding athletes and ending sponsorship deals. TV contracts have also been suspended and federation heads have stepped aside. If nothing else, the geopolitical situation has forced organisations to confront their relationship with a country that has exploited some of the biggest events to establish for itself a position of greater soft power and legitimacy, a process that has enabled Putin to promote himself as an ally of some of the most authoritative figures in the sporting world.

But over the last decade, during which Russia has staged huge global gatherings such as the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 Fifa World Cup, there have been clear warning signs that Putin’s regime has little interest in playing by the rules. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the country was supposed to be serving a four-year ban from all major sporting events related to the state-sponsored doping scandal exposed after the aforementioned Games in Sochi, an episode that had already contributed to an atmosphere of deep distrust within the sporting community.

Still, more than 200 Russian athletes were allowed to compete at this year’s Winter Olympics as neutrals. IFs, meanwhile, have continued to schedule events in the country. Even this year’s SportAccord World Sport & Business Summit, the biggest annual gathering of Olympic stakeholders, was due to take place in Yekaterinburg before organisers pulled the plug on the event in late February.

Figure skater Kamila Valieva was at the heart of another Russian doping scandal at the recent Winter Olympics 

Given what has gone before, it would be reasonable to ask why it has taken all-out war for the federation world to act. According to Varley, who previously worked on four successive winning bids for the Summer Olympics, sport has long “turned a blind eye” to Russia, but the red line has now been crossed.

“The truth is every federation has taken events to Russia,” he says. “Russia is a major sporting superpower and has been a welcoming host for lots of these federations, and therefore pretty much everyone has gone down that road. That’s not to say that was wrong. I think it would be highly selective to call all of those out and say they were wrong.
“But I think what has to happen now is the sports industry as a whole has to be honest with itself, take a look in the mirror and say: ‘OK, we know what we’re dealing with here, how do we move forward?’”

As Varley suggests, the question now is what the industry’s relationship with Russia might look like in future. The answer is unlikely to reveal itself soon and will depend on a number of outcomes that will be decided far beyond sport’s control.

But while that situation plays out there will be plenty of time to look inward, for the sporting community to potentially reassess the way it currently does business with governments and state-backed entities. While many sports governing bodies have been happy to cash cheques without scrutinising where the money is coming from, there is a growing feeling that they can no longer afford to turn a blind eye.

Moving forward from here, for anybody to think the situation is going to normalise and we’ll go back to how things were would be an incredibly naive thing to do.

Simon Chadwick, Global Professor of Sport, Emlyon Business School

On the subject of conducting adequate due diligence, Chadwick argues that geopolitical risk assessment has to be a key factor for IFs and other sports entities when making decisions about partnerships with external organisations, even if it means embedding experts within the business to support that process. He describes the Russia-Ukraine conflict as “a tipping point” where the West must decide to either look at sport differently or find itself exposed on an ongoing basis to what is happening in other parts of the world.

“I think that most people in sport in the West still think in terms of rational economics,” Chadwick begins. “So what you do is you make rational economic decisions. This is a problem, because we think there’s money to be made there, and that’s the most important thing.

“But what we have – not just with Russia, but with China and with countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others – is they’re making decisions not on the basis of rational economics, but on the basis of geopolitics. So you’ve essentially got this misalignment of partners where what us in the West think we’re doing and what those elsewhere in the world think they’re doing are completely different things.

“So moving forward from here, for anybody to think the situation is going to normalise and we’ll go back to how things were – ‘we’ll have a nice Gazprom deal again or we’ll run a race in Sochi’ – I think that would be an incredibly naive thing to do.”

Several federations have banned sponsorship deals with Russian state-owned companies such as Gazprom

From a hosting perspective, 37 nations released a joint statement in March calling for Russia and Belarus not to be permitted to stage, bid for or be awarded any international sporting events. Russia has expressed a desire to host Euro 2028 or 2032 and was linked with another bid for the Olympics as recently as August but Varley doesn’t believe “anyone sensible would even think about it” now. He adds that federations are already starting to show greater geopolitical awareness when deciding where to take their events.

“I think the trend you’ve seen,” he continues, “is that because you no longer have these big bid races and right holders form subcommittees and make their own choices, one of the factors they take into account is geopolitical issues that could tarnish their brand. So I think, in some ways, that’s good news for the Western democracies who over the last ten, 15 years have become increasingly the bids that lose because they fail in referendums or they get outspent and outmuscled by big geopolitical giants with deep pockets and perhaps somewhat questionable practices.

“I think that trend is actually already underway. If you look at where federations have been taking events, I think you’re seeing that there are fewer places that make you raise your eyebrows. So I’m sure this will accelerate that change.”

As for the future, Short says he doesn’t see the current measures FIDE has imposed on Russia as “some sort of permanent exclusion”, adding that the nation would be brought back into the fold “if the tanks were to turn around and head back home”. He also points out that there are many Russian athletes opposed to the war in Ukraine, including a group of chess players who published an open letter calling on Putin to stop the attacks.

Even if there was a ceasefire tomorrow, can I see Russia being readmitted to the world sporting family the day after? No.

Nick Varley, Founder, LookUp Communications

But it is inconceivable that discussions over Russia being reintegrated into international sport can even begin to be considered while it continues to wage terror in Ukraine. Should something resembling a satisfactory resolution be reached, there will still be lingering questions over how and when it would be appropriate for that process to take place.

“Even if there was a ceasefire tomorrow,” Varley says, “can I see Russia being readmitted to the world sporting family the day after and then people taking events back there the week after that? No. I think there is going to be a pause and a reset before anything like that happens. The only real question is do the sanctions get any tougher? And then how long does that pause last? Is it a year? Is it two years? Is it five years?

“I read the other day the idea that Russia and Belarus should be banned from the Paris and Milan Olympics. Just say: ‘That’s it, you’re out for one whole cycle of the Olympiad.’ I personally would say that’s a pretty good starting point. Hopefully there is a ceasefire, then use that period to rebuild the relationships, to rebuild trust, to reach out and do the work.

“But you can’t expect those things to happen overnight.”

There have been calls for peace across sport

When and if that process does get underway, history points to it being a long and complicated one. Given the various sports, representative associations and bodies involved, Chadwick expects to see inconsistency where some organisations “stay away” from Russia while others “dive straight back in”. To avoid that from happening, he believes that the international sporting community would need to come together to settle on a roadmap for the country’s reintegration.

Varley agrees that aligning on a set of broad principles “would seem to be in everyone’s interest”, but adds the caveat that “there is no mechanism to do that”. Indeed, the only thing that is clear at this stage is that the path ahead is far from straightforward.

“Ultimately, the genie is out of the bottle and you can never put it back in,” Chadwick states. “So the Western sporting community in particular will need to be far more strident than it’s been up until now. Again, for anybody who thinks that the situation is going to normalise, that they can all go back to how it was a month ago, that’s incredibly naive. It exposes them to massive risk.

“We need, as a community, to find a route to reintegrate Russia – and this is not just about the invasion of Ukraine. It’s about the doping scandal, which I think is all part of the same template. It’s all part of the subversion and division that Russia has tried to sow.

“So as a community we need to take this seriously and, unless we do, anybody who chooses to do business with Russia I think will be vulnerable.”

This is a feature from the forthcoming Issue 117 of SportsPro magazine. To find out more, click here

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