Posted inOxford News

Ukraine, Russia and Sports

Zoe Abereoje investigates the impact of the Ukraine war on the sporting community.

Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and the initial shock horror of the atrocities being committed by the government eventually settled into a raging disapproval. Many countries turned their attention to what they could do to stop the destruction being carried out. Settling into a universal stance to minimise the financial power of oligarchs with assets outside of Russia, countries including the UK started seizing assets. This unsurprisingly trickled into the sports industry, notoriously supported by many foreign financial backers. 

Imposing sanctions on oligarchs seemed to be a pretty uncontroversial move. With most of the pushback to the action taken by the government being due to the inconvenience that the sanctions would have, as opposed to the sanctions themselves. A prominent example of this is the government’s sanctions on the assets of Abramovich, eventually leading to him confirming that he was selling Chelsea Football Club. Despite pushback on how this might negatively affect the club financially, as well as competitively, public opinion seems to be positive. The relationship between Putin and Abramovich appears to have made ties with Abramovich untenable. Importantly, this move seemed to affect the players. But it was not the players themselves who were barred from competing. 

The same could not be said in Formula 1. After the FIA’s decision to remove the Russian Grand Prix from the race calendar, Russian oligarch and significant financial backer of the HAAS formula 1 team, Mazepin’s future in the sport seemed unlikely. The day after the invasion Dmitry met up with Vladimir Putin to discuss western sanctions. This painted a terrible picture for the American-owned HAAS team, who needed to make a decision on whether Dmitry’s Russian company could continue its sponsorship. Unsurprisingly HAAS made the decision to part ways with Mazepin, but unlike the situation in Chelsea, this did not solely affect the owner alone, but also a competitor in the sport. Nikita Mazepin, son of Dmitry and a HAAS driver, was removed along with his father’s sponsorship, and was unable to compete in F1. This move, while directly affecting the ability of the Russian athletes to compete, was met with considerable praise. This is easy to understand however, Mazepin’s seat in the super competitive world do F1 was rumoured to be explicitly related to his father’s financial backing, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine immediately created a negative perception of the Russian oligarch, who is considered to be supporting Putin financially. To add to this, the general perception of Nikita Mazepin was never truly favourable. Considered a significantly inferior driver from the offset, Mazepin’s removal combined with the return of fan-favourite Kevin Magnussen, elicited an unsurprisingly positive reaction.   

Looking at the response that UEFA and FIFA have taken with regard to Russian players however, it is clear that it is not just for financial reasons that Russian players have been banned from certain sports. With UEFA and FIFA banning Russian football clubs and national teams from competing. For example, Spartak Moscow was kicked out of the Europa league in February and the women’s national team will be barred from competing in this summer’s Euro 2022.  Similar action has been taken by World rugby. Much opinion to these actions has still been in support. This view lends to the idea that playing in these competitions under the Russian flag draws direct attention to a country that has committed atrocities. Many argue that while these moves may be considered unpopular, they are important in applying direct influence on the government, and essential in limiting the soft power the country is able to exercise through showing off its sporting prowess. Significantly this argument focuses on the influence of competing under the Russian name and how that is problematic. While public sympathy for athletes who have no control over the actions of their government and have worked tirelessly to be able to compete at such high levels is present, the opinion is that the attention that competing in these events generate would be inappropriate. 

The most controversial view on the issue of Russian Athletes came as a result of Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing. Significantly, the option to compete neutrally has not been allowed. This is significant for numerous reasons, primarily because men’s number two, Daniil Medvedev, will be unable to play, which for many tennis fans will be disappointing considering his last grand slam appearance was in the final of the Australian Open, where he lost against Nadal in a five set thriller. There are concerns that, especially as nationality seems less important in grand slam events, Medvedev and other players have been treated unfairly. Fellow competitors, like Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic, have spoken out against this decision, with the latter likely relating to the feeling of being barred from a Grand Slam. Even so, the decision by Wimbledon, while harsh, was motivated by the implication that the atrocities committed by the government require them to take such action, with an aim to “limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.”

It remains to be seen whether sport and politics can ever truly exist outside the sphere of the other. While many are adamant that the two should not intersect, or suggest that the prevalence of the intermingling of the two is a recent phenomenon. Looking at the difficulties of regulating Russian involvement in sport proves that sport and politics will always be inextricably linked. Despite this, it must be noted that while different organisations and different Russian athletes carry out and experience different sanctions, this must not detract from the fact that Ukrainian athletes and sports are suffering far more as a result of the conflict. It is clear that the actions of the Kremlin seem to have consequences that are causing widespread distress and sorrow.