Why Sport is Never Beyond Politics when it Comes to Russia

February 22, 2023
The Olympic Games are a world event dedicated to peace and unity, but some countries may use them as a political tool.

On August 8, 2008, Russia invaded Georgia on the first day of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia launched its annexation of Crimea. On February 4, 2022, at the same opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, a few weeks before the beginning of the full-scale war in Europe, Chinese officials asked senior Russian officials to delay the invasion of Ukraine until after the Olympics.

Despite the ongoing Russian aggression against its neighbors, the International Olympic Committee has proposed allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in the next Olympic Games as independent Olympians. They claim "sport is beyond politics," but can this actually be the case?

False Olympic Truce

Sporting competitions are an ancient tradition which allow people to represent the places they come from in competition with other people doing the same. One of the fundamental principles of the Olympics has always been an Olympic Truce, dating all the way back to the original Olympics in ancient Greece. It was introduced to ensure the safety of the competitors during the Games, as well as that of the host state.

To this day, one of the missions of the International Olympic Committee is "to cooperate with the competent public or private organizations and authorities in the endeavor to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace."

Russia's decisions to start numerous wars of aggression and destroy world peace flagrantly violates the fundamental mission of the Olympics.

World Wars I and II led to the cancellation of the Olympics in 1916, 1940, and 1944. These decisions make sense, as it would be hard to imagine German and British soldiers taking a break from the battlefield to compete in athletic competitions in a stadium with Winston Churchill meeting Adolf Hitler at the opening ceremony of the 1940 Olympics somewhere in Helsinki.

Such situations seem absurd because we know there was no chance for pausing these wars and pretending for a few weeks of the Olympics that the countries' athletes weren't fighting to the death on the real frontline.

Nevertheless, since the first major Russian invasion of another independent state in 2008, the world has looked the other way when it comes to Russian aggression and the Olympics. But in 2022, Russia started the first full-scale war in Europe since WW2, killing hundreds of thousands of people and threatening the whole world with nuclear war.

Is it still worth pretending that sport is beyond politics when Vladimir Putin is invited to the next Olympics?

Why Russia needs the Olympics so much

Participation in international sporting competitions drives athletes around the world to dedicate themselves to excellence, perform tremendous feats of physical skill, and inspire millions of people in their home countries. This, in turn, creates the necessary conditions for healthy and exciting competition between athletes at these sporting events. Stories of Olympic glory have inspired countless books, films, and even successful athletic careers.

"To new victories in labor and sport!" Soviet propaganda poster, 1935

"All World Records Must Be Ours!"

Still, sports in Russia have had an almost sacred importance, just as they did in its predecessor, the Soviet Union. The sporting arena replaced the trenches as the place for Russians to show the strength of their country, and victories fueled internal propaganda arguing for the superiority of the Soviet system and then the greatness of the Russian civilization.

For example, the series of ice hockey matches held between the Soviet Union and Canada in 1972 (the Summit Series) is still reflected in Russian culture as one of the Cold War's "major confrontations with the West." The Russians made a propaganda movie based on the USSR's victory over "scary and evil" Canadians in the first game. Relying only on this film, one would never know that Canada would ultimately win the Summit Series four games to three (with one tie). The Russian narrative edits the story to only focus on its victory.

Image from the Russian movie Legend No. 17.

Sports have been guided by Kremlin politics since the days of the Soviet Union, just like any of Russia's other diplomatic or intelligence missions abroad. CSKA Moscow, a Russian sports club (which actually stands for "Central Army Sports Club Moscow"), was transformed into a central piece of the Soviet Armed Forces. It remains a department of the Russian Defense Ministry to this day, while almost all Russian athletes in top clubs are also officers in Russian military structures. Today, many of them are well-trained soldiers sent by the government to the frontline in Ukraine. Nothing has changed since the Cold War, where Russian athletes served the Red Army or the KGB, and sports competitions themselves were perceived as real wars.

Yelena Isinbayeva, Russian two-time pole vaulter Olympic gold medalist receiving a military rank from the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu.

The International Olympic Committee claims that they will allow the Russian and Belarusian representatives to participate in the next Olympics as "independent athletes." In fact, this limit does not exclude the athletes from the aggressor state.

Before the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the world learned about how the most powerful structures in Russian sport and government had conspired to help their athletes cheat. An investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency revealed how Russia's sporting establishment used one of the most powerful agencies in the Russian government, the FSB security service, to cover up a systematic doping program in order to bring Russia greater athletic success.

Indeed, the FSB was tasked with finding a way to break into secure urine jar samples to swap out clean and dirty urine samples from athletes. The fact that Russia would busy its security organs with it in order to help them cheat their way to victory on the world stage, and then deploy its cyber spies against the international authority which sought to punish their cheating, shows just how tremendously political sport is in Russia.

As a result of this cheating scheme, many Russian athletes were banned from the 2016 Olympics and subsequent games, and Russians have been banned from competing under their national flag since 2018. Those Russian athletes who were not disqualified for doping were allowed to compete under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee, which despite being ostensibly "neutral," bore the Russian colors. 

Russian athletes under the flag of the "Russian Olympic Committee" at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Photo credit: EPA/UPG

After Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we saw a clear demonstration of why the Russian government considers athletic glory to be such a key political objective. On March 18, 2022, as Russian soldiers were killing and torturing people in occupied Ukrainian towns like Bucha on road to Kyiv, numerous Russian Olympic athletes, including ones who had just won medals in the 2022 Beijing Games under the ostensibly "neutral" flag of the Russian Olympic Committee, took the stage at a pro-war rally in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. They emblazoned themselves with the letter "Z," which had become the main Russian symbol of their full-scale invasion.

Russian Olympians, including athletes just returned from the Beijing Games, stand on the stage at the March 18 pro-war rally in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. The posters behind with a "Z" letter replacing the typical Cyrillic letter to read: "For a world without nazism"; "For Russia" Source: screenshot from YouTube

That is why the main issue with Russian athletes participating in international sporting events is that they remain part of the Kremlin's regime. The Kremlin uses their athletic achievements to create political capital that helps it maintain the legitimacy and power it needs to keep pursuing its murderous aims in Ukraine and beyond.

Omission is also a choice

Every time there is a call to hold Russia to account for its aggression or its cheating in sports, the Russian media and Russian propagandists and officials have exploded with furor no lesser than when they talk about seizing foreign territories.

For example, after banning Russian athletes from competing in the next Olympics, Kremlin propagandists cried out about "national discrimination," which the IOC referenced in their communications about their decision to let Russian athletes participate.

In its arguments to have Russian athletes participate in the Olympics while their country wages a war of wanton aggression, Kremlin propaganda has also pushed the idea that "sport must be beyond politics." It has proven a convenient means of deflecting uncomfortable questions about Russian aggression by the authorities which Russian athletes work to legitimize.

According to survey results from September 2022, about 76% of Russian respondents still approve of the actions of Russian forces in Ukraine. Movever, according to an April survey from the same pollster, 57% of Russians were convinced that NATO was responsible for death and destruction in Ukraine, while another 17% believed it was Ukraine's own fault.

As we can see, although the vast majority of Russians have supported their government's aggression against Ukraine and reject any responsibility for the war. This is why calls to "keep sports beyond politics" is simply another call for Russians not to accept responsibility for their own political decisions. They wish to support the war against Ukraine, but they do not want to face the negative consequences of such actions.

Ivan Kulyak with a "Z" letter attached to his uniform during the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup in March 2022. Source: screenshot from YouTube

Right after the beginning of the so-called Russian special military operation, Russian artistic gymnast Ivan Kulyak attached a "Z" letter, the sign of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, to his uniform during the March 2022 Artistic Gymnastics World Cup. After being disqualified, the athlete appealed against the International Gymnastics Federation's decision, claiming it to be illegal.

Another paradox of Russian propaganda is that, on the one hand, it claims that sports are beyond politics, while on the other hand, the Russian government prohibits athletes with dissenting political views from representing the state in sporting competitions.

Vice-president of the Russian Athletics Federation and former Russian athlete Irina Privalova insisted that the athletes who oppose Putin's politics should not represent Russia in sporting competitions. Therefore, when choosing the path of a Russian athlete, you can either pretend to be apolitical or directly support the Kremlin's position.

It is crucial to realize the direct connection between people's choices and the ultimate governmental decisions. One does not exist detached from the other. Hence, it is also impossible to separate Russian athletes from their country while still letting them participate in the Olympics. Moreover, considering the importance of sport for the Kremlin's propaganda, allowing Russian athletes to participate in any sports competitions can only serve to strengthen the aggressor regime.

Valeriia Musiiaka
Analyst at UkraineWorld