War by other means: Russia hit with sweeping sports sanctions

Artyom Shvets-Rogovoi of Russia, right, scuffle with Magnus Nygren of Sweden during the Ice Hockey World Championship group A match between the Russia and Sweden at the Olympic Sports Center in Riga, Latvia, Monday, May 31, 2021. Roman Koksarov/AP Photo.

One understanding of sports is that they are war by other means. This past week has brought us the inversion of that contention: sports as a means of war. 

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine (supported by neighbouring Belarus) has prompted cascading sanctions from nations, businesses, and organizations the world over. Western powers, wary of intervening on Ukraine’s behalf with direct armed support and escalating the conflict to global proportions, have responded instead with other non-military measures.

Certainly the most targeted and debilitating so far have been sweeping financial and economic sanctions. But responsive measures have been enacted in cultural realms as well as pressure builds on countries and governing bodies to condemn Russia and show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. This has been prominently brought to bear in athletics. 

International sports sanctions against Russia and Belarus have been extensive, affecting a host of leagues and competitions, including in archery, badminton, baseball and softball, basketball, biathlon, canoeing, chess, curling, cycling, gymnastics, hockey, motorsport, pentathlon, rowing, rugby, sailing, skating, skiing, soccer, surfing, swimming, tennis, track and field, triathlon, and volleyball.

Even the International Cat Federation has banned cats with Russian owners from their competitions through the end of May. 

The International Olympic Committee executive board last week recommended to sports federations worldwide that Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials be banned from participation. The International Paralympic Committee initially announced last week that it would allow the Russians and Belarusians to compete as neutral participants under the Paralympic flag before reversing the decision 24 hours later and barring the athletes from those countries—just a day before the opening ceremonies for the Beijing games took place.

In response, the Kremlin called the decision a “disgrace.”

The fallout in the world of soccer, the globe’s most popular sport, has been particularly dramatic. FIFA and UEFA last week released a joint statement declaring that Russia’s national and club teams have been banned from international matches and tournaments, including the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, “until further notice.”

Roman Abramovich, Russian oligarch and owner of English soccer club Chelsea, announced last week that he was handing over the stewardship of the club to its board of trustees and is now set to sell the team, with all net profits being donated to “all victims of the war in Ukraine.”

The Champions League Final planned to be played in St. Petersburg in May, has been moved to Paris. 

Elsewhere, the Formula 1 Grand Prix to be held in Sochi in September has also been cancelled, and the Haas Formula 1 team has terminated its contract with Russian driver Nikita Mazepin, as well as with title sponsor Uralkali. The FIA has decided that Russian and Belarusian drivers will still be allowed to compete in international motorsport—but only if they race under a neutral flag and agree not to express any support of Russia’s invasion.

Some sanctions have personally targeted Russian President Vladimir Putin himself: World Taekwondo has withdrawn the honourary black belt conferred on Putin in 2013 and the International Judo Federation has suspended his status as Honorary President and Ambassador of the International Judo Federation. The International Swimming Federation has also withdrawn the FINA Order award given to Putin in 2014, and the IOC has withdrawn the Olympic Order it gave Vladimir Putin in 2001.

The furor has also expanded to the digital realm, as esports leagues are banning Russian teams from participating in competitions and video game companies are deleting Russian athletes and teams from their games—EA Sports has initiated processes to remove the Russian national team and all Russian clubs from EA Sports FIFA and NHL products. 

Hockey superstar and Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin—who has previously expressed support for Putin—commented at a press conference last week that it was “a hard situation,” and that, “It’s tough to see the war. I hope soon it’s going to be over and there’s gonna be peace in the whole world.”

The NHL released a statement last Monday condemning the invasion. Meanwhile, it has suspended its relationships with Russian-based business partners and, for the time being, shut down the league’s Russian-language social and digital media sites.

Hockey equipment brand CCM Hockey has announced that it will stop using Russian NHL players in any global marketing initiatives, saying in an email to TSN: “Although Mr. Ovechkin is not responsible for the Russian government’s actions, we took the decision to not use him (or any Russian player) on any global CCM communication at this point.” 

Player agent Dan Milstein, himself born in Ukraine, represents a number of Russian-born players in the NHL. In an interview with ESPN last week he expressed concern for the backlash his clients were facing. “The discrimination and racism these Russian and Belarusian players are facing right now is remarkable,” he said. “We’re being set back 30 years. I have players calling me, parents calling me. They’re concerned whether they’ll be able to play, whether they’ll be safe.”

NHL teams with Russian-born players are reportedly hiring extra security in response to heightened threats against players.

Milstein also claimed on Twitter that the Canadian Junior Hockey League will announce that Russian and Belarusian 16- and 17-year-old athletes would be banned from the upcoming draft.

The CHL later announced in a statement that it had officially cancelled the 2022 Canada-Russia Series, but clarified that the date and format of the 2022 Import Draft “has yet to be determined and will be announced at a later date.”

The Great One himself has weighed in, commenting on TNT last Tuesday night and urging the World Juniors to bar Russia from participating in the event. Said Wayne Gretzky, “I think international hockey should say, ‘We’re not gonna let them play in the World Junior hockey tournament. I think we got to, as Canadians, take that stance since the games are going to be played in Edmonton.”

The IIHF promptly banned Russia and Belarus from international play until further notice, which includes the men’s and women’s World Championship, the U-18 World Championship, and the rescheduled World Junior Championship and U-18 women’s World Championship.

Many prominent Russian athletes have echoed calls for peace, but some are making their frustration with these measures known. 

Artem Dzyuba, the Zenit St. Petersburg striker and captain of the Russian national soccer team, commented that he is “against any war”, but also added, “I am against discrimination based on nationality. I’m not ashamed to be Russian. I am proud to be Russian. And I don’t understand why athletes have to suffer now.”

The broad sanctions have drawn criticism from non-Russian sources as well. Author and Turkish American economist at Duke University Timur Kuran warned on Twitter of unintended consequences: 

“IOC, FIFA, and UEFA are banning Russian athletes. Some academic journals are banning submissions from Russian scholars. These are TERRIBLE moves. They punish victims of Russia’s autocracy. And they serve Putin’s regime by reducing contacts between Russian citizens and foreigners.”

Fears of retaliatory measures were heightened over the weekend when it was reported that WNBA superstar Brittney Griner is being detained in Russia on drug charges after customs officials at an airport near Moscow found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

Russia’s Customs Service did not identify Griner but has announced that a criminal case has been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, which in Russia can carry a sentence of up to ten years in prison.

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s weekly email newsletter.

You'll get our weekly newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.