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You Can’t Keep Politics Out of Sports – Especially in Russia

Pekka Kallioniemi says Russia should be excluded from the 2024 Olympics even as neutrals, for their presence will be manipulated yet again in Russian propaganda

Then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with “neutral” medal winners from Russia, 28 February 2018. Photo: Wikipedia

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes could participate as neutral individuals at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. This decision was a big disappointment to many Western countries, and especially to Ukraine.

In 2018, when Russia was organizing the FIFA World Cup, Putin said that Russia is committed to the principle that “politics and sports don’t mix.”

Naturally, this was all a lie, as Russia and the Soviet Union have used sports as a political tool since they first started participating in international competitions, and one could even claim that it is one of the key elements in Russian propaganda. But what separates Russia from most other countries is the deep connection between the athletes, the Government, and the military.

For decades, the Russian Defence Ministry has been running various programs to train award-winning athletes for the international arenas. The best-known program, the Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA), is training over 10,000 athletes with hundreds of coaches. CSKA athletes won most of the medals for Russia in the 2021 Summer Olympic Games held in Tokyo – 45 out of the 71 medals were awarded to members of CSKA. These athletes were later met by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who promised that the academy would “do all we can so you can properly prepare for the next games.”

Probably the most famous involvement of the Kremlin in sports was the doping scandal exposed after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Practically every athlete from the Russian team was caught using forbidden substances, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) declared that it had found evidence of “direct intimidation and interference by the Russian state”.

A Wada-commissioned report claimed that over 1,000 Russian athletes had benefitted from the allegedly state-run program. Russian newspaper Vedomosti claimed, that sports are a tool to keep the people happy when things are not going so well elsewhere, and that “victories are part of state policy”.

Russian athletes wearing the “neutral” uniform of Russian Olympic Committee at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. (Photo: Wikipedia).

The Role of the IOC President

There has been one individual who has been strongly supporting Russia’s participation in Paris. His name is Thomas Bach, and he has served as the president of the IOC since 2013.

After he got involved with the IOC, the Olympic Games became much more commercial – something that Bach might have planned long before while he was still working for Horst Dassler, the father of sport sponsorship. The organization has grown from employing a few dozen people during the 1980s to over 600 today. Throughout his presidency, Bach has consolidated control and minimized external accountability, making him the most influential president in the history of the Olympics.

As allegations of Russia’s widescale doping program emerged, Bach declared that there would be “zero tolerance” for those who have cheated. After the overwhelming evidence of the program was reported and Wada recommended banning Russian athletes, that quickly turned into “zero consequences” for the Russian Olympic team – the IOC decided not to ban Russia from the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.

A year later, after a second part of an independent report was published, IOC banned Russia as a country, but Bach made sure that Russian athletes could still compete as “neutrals”. He has ensured that Russia suffers minimal sanctions from the doping scandal, and IOC only toughened their stance after the evidence got overwhelming.

Once Russia started their full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the IOC announced that Russian and Belarussian athletes should not be allowed to participate in the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. After the brutal war had been going on for a year, Bach suddenly disagreed with this statement, arguing that politics should be kept separate from sports. Ukraine, the Baltic countries, and the EU Parliament along with 35 sports ministers from four continents criticized Bach’s stance.

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“In a Russian context, there is no difference between sport and politics, and any sports performance is pure propaganda,” said Anette Trettebergstuen, Norwegian Minister of Culture and Equality. “Saying the athletes should be able to compete as neutrals … Neutrality is not possible. It’s a dead end,” she continued. 

In March 2023, Bach lashed out at his critics, calling European governments “deplorable” for demanding a ban on Russian athletes, and called them on their “double standards”, since they had not commented on the other 70 wars and armed conflicts around the world. He concluded that since both Ukraine and Russia were unhappy with the IOC’s decision, they had found a “middle ground”. 

The Principles of Olympism

It seems that Bach has forgotten to re-read the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, which clearly state that “The practice of sport is a human right,” and that “Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

By March 2023, at least 228 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have been killed by Russia since they launched their full-scale invasion in Ukraine. Russians have also bombed training facilities and stadiums around Ukraine. At the same time their military programs are preparing Russian athletes for the next Olympics, with full support from the IOC president Thomas Bach. 

The tradition of Ekecheiria, or the Olympic Truce, is a UN resolution, signed by all 193 UN members. It calls for a truce one week before and one week after the Olympic Games. This truce has been violated three times, and each violation was committed by Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

One of these violations occurred during the 2014 Sochi Games when Russia first invaded Ukraine. At the same time, Bach praised Putin and Russia for their “extraordinary success” in organizing the competitions.

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