The soft touches of sport slowly unpick elaborate web with Putin’s regime | Andy Bull
Early last Thursday, overcome by the desire to do something, anything, however petty, to try to fight off that sense of desperate futility, I started sending out emails to the sports federations who had events scheduled in Russia this year asking if they were going to cancel them. There were already reports that Uefa was talking about moving the Champions League final, later that day the FIA announced it was cancelling the Russian GP, and Rugby Europe that it was calling off Russia’s upcoming match against Georgia. A lot of the Olympic sports, though, were moving a little more slowly.
Fina, which was due to hold two international swimming championships in Russia in the next few months, said it was “closely monitoring the situation” but “at present, there are no plans to change the current competition schedule.” The FIVB, which was due to hold the men’s volleyball world championships in Russia in August, replied that its event was “progressing as planned” and that “the FIVB believes that sport should always remain separate from politics, we are closely monitoring the situation to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all participants at our events.” It is still hard to read those words without wondering exactly which channels they were watching that day.
There was a lot of this public relations pabulum going about, there were euphemistic statements from the International Judo Federation, which said it was cancelling an event in Kazan because of “the current international situation”, and Fina, again, which said it was calling off a water polo match between Russia and Greece because of “the escalation of the conflict,” and the International Boxing Association, which said it was considering rescheduling a tournament in Russia without mentioning the reasons why at all. They were weasel words, instead of the plain ones needed: invasion, war, murder. Over the past, long, five days, this, at least, has started to change.
The International Olympic Committee’s executive board has urged all international sports federations to relocate or cancel events currently planned in Russia or Belarus, and told them to exclude the athletes representing those countries too. It is a significant moment in Olympic history. The IOC’s creed that sports and politics don’t mix, repeated in that email from the FIVB, has finally been laid bare as the myth it is, and always has been. The IOC, the “Olympic family”, has been hiding behind this for years. The IOC president, Thomas Bach, repeated it just last month: “If we get in the middle of intentions and disputes and confrontations of political powers, then we are putting the Games at risk.”
It has been a convenient myth. It has benefited them, and Vladimir Putin. It allowed him, in the memorable phrase of the German journalist Jens Weinrich, to lead the IOC around the ring by the nose for the past 15 years, ever since he turned up at the IOC session in Guatemala in 2007 and persuaded the delegates to award the 2014 Winter Olympics to a resort which at the time had only a single functioning ski lift. A year later Putin invaded Georgia during the Beijing Olympics, six years after that he invaded Crimea during the Sochi Olympics – a Games which, by that point, had turned into a $50bn grift. In between, he oversaw the largest state-sponsored doping program in history.
The IOC responded to all this by awarding its “highest honour”, the Olympic Order award, to two of Putin’s apparatchiks, the deputy prime minister Dmitry Chernyshenko and the deputy chief of staff Dmitry Kozak. The IOC had already given Putin his own, in 2001. It has just announced that it is taking them all back, a move which, at this point, only highlights how stupid it was to give them in the first place. The IOC wasn’t the only governing body to do it. The IJF made him its honorary president, World Taekwondo gave him an honorary black belt, Fina awarded him the “Fina Order” in recognition of his contribution to “the fraternity between nations.”
They have all been revoked or suspended, too. Chernyshenko says the decision to take back his award means the “IOC has opened a Pandora’s box”. He’s right. These are the first stitches in an elaborate web of connections between Putin’s regime and organised sport. Others will take longer to unpick. Like Bach’s own friendship with the oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who was awarded the IOC’s “Trophy of Olympic Values” after he bought the original Olympic charter and donated it to the Olympic museum. Just last year, Bach gave a statement praising his “friend” Usmanov on his re-election as president of the International Fencing Federation. He hasn’t yet said anything about the news that Usmanov has now had his assets frozen by the EU because of his “close ties to Putin”.
On Tuesday morning this week, by the way, the FIVB finally did announce it was cancelling those world championships in Russia, and was banning Russian and Belarusian athletes from competition, too, “because of the war in Ukraine”. Fina has cancelled its world junior championships too, although it says it is going to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to continue to compete as neutral athletes, without national colours, anthems, or flags.
The IOC has left its options open, too, it hasn’t yet expelled Russia, or Belarus, or banned them for the next Olympiad, an equivocation that hints at its lack of understanding, even now, of how the world has changed in the past few days.