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Opinion

Ukraine invasion shows big sport can't be non-political

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
27th February, 2022
3

As the world watches on in horror at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world’s biggest sports organisations need to start taking a hard look at who they are jumping in bed with.

The goal of being a non-political organisation promoting peace and love has been exposed to be at best a naive utopian dream and at worst a justification for taking money from the most morally corrupt despots around.

People using sporting events and influence to legitimise power – known as sportswashing – is not new. The Romans built colosseums to appease populations, show force and reinforce the social hierarchy. The most extreme example is of course the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, used by the then reigning Nazi party to promote its antisemitic ideology.

High-profile international sporting events have never stopped being used for political ends. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has already hosted a Winter Olympics and World Cup despite ongoing issues with doping, human rights abuses and clear suppression of democracy. It also exercises indirect influence, like the state-owned gas company Gazprom, which has sponsored the UEFA Champions League since 2012

Putin has been playing a long game of building national pride and political capital for when he needed it.

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It’s not just Russia either. China, with a similar rap sheet, has hosted both a summer and winter Olympics this millennium. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, chairs his nation’s sovereign wealth fund, which now owns a majority stake in Premier League club Newcastle United.

At least we have Qatar, host of this year’s football World Cup, to give some moral guidance.

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What needs to change?

Obviously high-profile players need to come out with a real position on key social issues. They can no longer claim an issue is politics when the consequences go beyond that realm. There must be ways to become sustainable without needing dodgy cash. The flip side is that they could flex their own muscle and drive civic development.

FIFA has made some reactionary changes by moving big games, like the Champions League, and cutting ties to the Russian regime by banning international matches in the nation and forcing the national team to play under the Football Union of Russia moniker.

The IOC has only gone as far as to encourage the governing bodies of Olympic sports to move or cancel events planned to be held in Russia.

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These are all the right things to do, but the reality is the converted are already converted. Putin had already built up enough political capital to get as far as he has.

This can’t be a matter of reaction anymore. Sportswashing must stop. World sport’s biggest players need to get their heads out of the sand and make sure that next time they haven’t been a card in a bigger and more dangerous game.

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