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War by other means: Russia hit with sweeping sports sanctions

News

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.

The Ontario election is less than 100 days away and housing could be the dominant issue

News

With fewer than 100 days until the Ontario election, voters are starting to get a sense of which issues will dominate the campaign.

A new memo from Darrell Bricker, the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, shows that the pandemic is still top of mind for people in Ontario, although it may not stay that way once the election campaign gets underway.

According to an online poll of 800 Ontarians conducted in December, the pandemic is an important issue for 41 percent of respondents. Housing and health care closely follow with 33 and 30 percent of voters describing it as an important issue in the upcoming campaign.

In each wave of the pandemic, concerns about the virus have crowded out other issues, but Ontario could see a repeat of the federal election where the pandemic faded in the minds of voters as the candidates hit the campaign trail.

“Concerns about the pandemic declined during the election which allowed other issues to move up as priorities for voters,” wrote Bricker. Rounding out the top five issues for Ontario voters are the economy and the environment, at 23 percent and 21 percent respectively.

With the election approaching, the major parties are already jockeying for position on these issues.

On Tuesday, NDP leader Andrea Horwath drew attention to the surgical backlog in the province and urged the government to hire more nurses. Liberal leader Steven Del Duca also targeted the “health-care staffing crisis” on Monday and castigated Ontario Premier Doug Ford for not yet signing a child care agreement with the federal government, framing it as a “pocketbook issue” for Ontarians.

Ford’s government is putting considerable effort into framing the ballot question of the upcoming campaign and, in his memo, Bricker argues there are two ways for a party to do this.

“The first is to seize an issue the electorate already has as a top concern and to present your party’s solution as the most viable option,” wrote Bricker.

With housing weighing on the minds of the electorate, the Ford government struck a task force on housing affordability, which submitted a report earlier this month.

Some of the recommendations, like encouraging more development and ending exclusionary municipal rules, will be more palatable to Ford’s party than his progressive opponents, if the federal election is a guide.

Bricker said housing is a complicated and volatile issue because “it is about more than just the cost of a home.”

“It is ultimately about how difficult it is for people to afford to live in Ontario today, especially in the cities and suburbs,” wrote Bricker. “The party that connects with the emotional content of this issue… will be in a strong position to own it for the election.”

Ford’s government also announced this week that it would scrap license plate renewal fees, saving Ontario residents about $120 annually, for each car they own. The government will also be refunding any fees paid in the last two years by mailing out cheques to vehicle owners.

This may be evidence of Bricker’s second approach to owning the ballot question, in which a party is clearly identified as a leader on a certain issue and succeeds in making that issue more important to voters during a campaign.

Ford’s 2018 victory centred around reducing “the cost and effect of government policies,” wrote Bricker. Although the pandemic seems to have downgraded those concerns in the minds of voters, Ford’s team could attempt to make them salient on the campaign trail.

It also shows the challenge ahead for the opposition parties, who don’t have the levers of government at their disposal.