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Opinion

Russia’s position in world sport has become untenable

Russia competing at home at the 2018 world cup. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Expert
7th March, 2022
10

One of my most vivid sporting memories as a young boy is watching the Moscow Olympic Games. It was the first edition of sports’ greatest and most symbolic gathering that I can recall, with the 1976 games in Montreal just a tad too soon for me to have taken in and committed to memory.

At 4pm local time on the 19th of July 1980, as General Secretary of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev, International Olympic Committee President Lord Killanin and the world watched on, the Soviet Union forever changed the way opening ceremonies were to be produced.

It was a showcasing of efficiency, organisation, power and precision, intended to inform the west as to just how wealthy, successful and happy people in the Soviet Union were, whilst also seemingly designed to soften a global image that continued to fuel the Cold War of the time.

Most notable was the presence of the games’ mascot Misha, one of the most memorable in Olympic history; a cute and cuddly caricature of a far more threatening wild bear for which the Soviet landscape was well known.

Designed by illustrator Victor Chizhikov, Misha ended up being launched rather curiously into the air during the closing ceremony, a symbolic and artistic moment of which the true meaning and purpose remains something of a mystery to me.

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Six years prior, the Soviets had been awarded the games ahead of the bid made by the city of Los Angeles. As the only hats in the ring, the situation further enflamed relationships between the two superpowers and the final decision undoubtedly infuriated the Americans.

1984 would present Los Angeles’ opportunity to one-up their counterparts, yet neither games would be complete, as the reality of sport and politics never being able to exist in comfortable vacuums bubbled clearly to the surface.

Against a backdrop of the 1979 Soviet-Afghan War, the games went ahead with a total of 66 nations involved in a U.S led boycott. Many, including Australia and New Zealand, marched under the Olympic flag, refusing to sanction the event as a competition in which athletes would officially represent their country and hundreds of brilliant medal hopeful competitors from around the globe chose simply not to attend.

With systematic doping programs now the norm across Eastern Europe at the time, in a sporting sense, the Games were something of a farce.

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A total of 97 world records were achieved across 204 events that saw the host nation and East Germany win 127 of the gold medals on offer.

The Soviet Union managed to win 80 of those, many with ease due to the absence of the powerful United States team and others who simply could not justify competing considering the political events taking place at the same time.

The record books tell us that the Olympic Games’ of the 1970s and 80s were of the dirtiest kind, with the dramatic decline in Australian success a clear result of much of the sporting world moving briskly ahead with the research and development of artificial substances, designed to maximise athletic performance.

It would be naïve to deny that almost every nation involved in the 1980 Games most likely had an athlete or athletes fuelled by something other than hard work, yet the dominant nations did appear to be well ahead of the game when it came to perfecting the art of cheating and the subsequent avoidance of punishment for doing so.
Although later on, history and truth would catch up with them.

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Daniil Medvedev of Russia celebrates with the championship trophy

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

With the globe in constant fear of a world leader using his index finger to launch a nuclear weapon in the direction of a fully expectant rival, the Cold War festered in people’s consciousness as the games moved on to Los Angeles four years later.

This time, it was the Soviets and 14 Eastern Bloc allies that would refuse their invitations to attend.

With the shoe now well and truly on the other foot, the United States athletically cashed in. Australia finally enjoyed some encouraging success with four gold medals and a total haul of 24, as the home team dominated just as emphatically as the Union had done four years earlier, without its two most significant rivals around to put up resistance.

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A total of 83 gold medals, 61 silver and 30 bronze were snapped up by the locals, as the U.S of A exerted its increasingly formidable sporting prowess on the globe. It is hard to believe that many of those successes were not also doped, such were the times.

Yet global political tensions and a well-crafted western image that rather cleverly painted the Eastern Bloc as the bad sport, in what was actually a shameful and embarrassing time for athletic pursuits in general, ensured that Americans cheered home their athletes as clean, free and sitting on the right side of sporting history.

Such branding and the subsequent fuelling of it had its roots in the two nations’ social and political differences, as well as the most certain of ways to maintain a chasm between entities, a distinct lack of empathy for and knowledge of, the other.

The bitterness in both editions of the games saw American media-mogul Ted Turner create the Goodwill Games. As a symbol of friendship, the first incarnation was hosted in Moscow in 1986, where 182 events were held and the world was given the chance to see Soviet and American athletes compete against each other after failing to have that opportunity in the previous two Olympics.

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As such, the Goodwill Games, with a lingering distrust still clearly evident and international political weight on offer for the victors, became a race in two. The Soviet Union was to convincingly win that race, dishing out a thumping to the visitors with a total of 241 total medals to the Americans 142.

The East German team’s third place finish and 28 total medals, highlighted the space that had now been created between the two ideologically opposed countries, with sport perfectly imitating art as the rest of the globe stood aside watching and hoping that the seemingly inevitable flare-up never occurred.

The Cold War was of course to end, the peace pipe to be smoked by two men who did more to repair U.S – Soviet relations that anyone before or after and a subsequent hope born that perhaps there could be a foreseeable future in which the then two most powerful nations on earth could co-exist in peace.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union nigh and just two years before Communist Eastern Europe crumbled to the ground in late 1989, when the weight of humanity descended upon the Berlin Wall, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev drew their nations together more closely than at any time before or since.

Along with the events of 1989 in Berlin and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Republic by the end of 1991, their signing of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty helped to reshape a continent.

For many, that reshaping has been lasting, with Germany a prime example. However, the political, economic and ethnic issues that played a key role in the eventual destruction of the U.S.S.R, would seemingly never be truly vanquished.

The Georgian Civil War, conflicts in Tajikistan, Chechnya, Crimea and the ongoing and now escalating situation related to the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have all played a role in the west now seeing modern Russia as something remarkably similar to the former Soviet Union, and under current President Vladimir Putin, ruled by a man seemingly eager to re-establish it.

Iceland fan

An Iceland fan looks on during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group D match between Argentina and Iceland at Spartak Stadium on June 16, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Rather than embrace the opportunity and international demands for change, improved global relations and formally recognising the sovereignty of those newly born countries who sort individual identity after the dissolution, Putin has regressed to the fear, division, racism and violence that eventually drove 66 nations in 1980 to officially boycott the Moscow Games.

Ted Turner’s television fuelled games were not to last, with the 2001 edition in Brisbane the death of the experiment. That came off the back of poor ratings and general disinterest.

Putin’s first term in office as Russian President had begun just a year earlier. In spite of the dramatic upheaval of the early 1990s, any hope in the west that there was to be true and lasting change in the former Soviet Union should potentially have been quashed by the continued tensions and conflicts that continued to surface between now supposedly liberated peoples.

In retrospect, it is clear that the region remained incredibly divided along myriad lines and without a Russian leader determined to build relationships both internally and internationally, destined to remain fragmented and ironically, at the mercy of Russia as a direct result.

By the time the Sochi Winter Olympics were opened on the 7th of February 2014, Putin was in the early years of a second term in office and the global spotlight that was placed on the games highlighted an array of realities that reminded those old enough of the perceived lawless, warring and deceptive Soviet Union of decades earlier.

Sochi was a games that should never have taken place. Russian human rights abuses related to the LGBTIQ+ community were forefront in people’s minds, with Putin’s leadership overseeing clear efforts to criminalise what were described as ‘non-traditional’ relationships and sexual practices.

Allegations of corruption amongst officials involved in the organisation of the games became public knowledge and in the aftermath of what came across as a tense and unpleasant games, Russia was found to have cheated in the most systematic of ways.

A total of 43 athletes were implicated in the subsequent doping scandal and 13 medals were stripped from the Russian team. A painful few years of litigation followed as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) desperately sought justice for world sport, before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland weakened and lessened penalties that many felt were not stern enough to start with.

In the end, Russia was banned from competition at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

Well, sort of.

In the must insulting of situations, Russian athletes not implicated in doping scandals were still permitted to compete at both, with the absence of a national flag and anthem deemed sufficient punishment and ample statement by the International Olympic Committee.

Those athletes would compete as Russian Olympic Committee or ROC, similar to the hundreds of athletes that travelled to Moscow over 40 years ago and did the same in protestation of the Soviet actions at the time.

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It appears we have now come full circle.

Once again, world sport is being mocked by a major competitor seemingly ambivalent to rules and ethics that, when followed, make sport such a wonderful metaphor for life, relationships and universality.

Just as the destruction of the status quo in Europe presented the opportunity for a social and political rebirth in the early 1990s, so too in a sporting sense did an admittance of the doping and corruption being undertaken throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Sadly, neither of those opportunities have been grasped by a nation seemingly hell-bent on playing the role of a global rogue.

Recent incursions into Ukraine, as Russia seeks to take back control of another piece of the Soviet pie that was sliced 30 years ago, equate to a return under the cloak of subterfuge and suspicion that the post-Cold War era had hoped to discourage. The military and political moves underway at present appear once again to be mirrored by a concerted effort to succeed in sport through illegal methods.

The Soviet Union of 40 years ago appears to be somewhat reborn in Putin’s Russia, with more and more territory being claimed, small former Soviet nations now living in fear and wondering what comes next and the rest of the world faced with a decision as to exactly how to sanction Russia on the sporting field.

Individuals and teams have refused to play against Russian opposition, UEFA has been brisk in banishing Russian teams from European football competitions and ROC’s presence at upcoming World Cup’s and Olympics appears a hot topic of debate.

The global community has acted swiftly in terms of economic sanctions; steps bound to hurt the Russian people economically and socially, as well as financially hamstringing the country to the point of recession and subsequent poverty.

The question for sporting bodies around the globe is whether a similar approach should be taken.

Should an apartheid induced South African style banishment from world sport be applied in order to make the strongest of all statements to a country’s leadership that appears unconcerned by the moral outrage its current actions have created around the world.

Others might argue that footballers, sprinters and water polo players are not to blame and a severing of relationships with the entire Russian sporting community will do little more than divide further and potentially provide propaganda opportunities for a government that works in that space on a daily basis.

Moreover, others may suggest that sport could well be used as a means to build bridges and potentially, as a tool to unite. Frankly, that does seem a little far-fetched, with history repeating itself and Russian media lies suggesting that things may well escalate before subsiding.

Aleksandar Golovin

Russia’s midfielder Aleksandr Golovin controls the ball during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A football match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, 2018. (PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Whatever approach is decided upon when it comes to the medium term involvement of Russian sporting terms on the world stage, it must be a consistent one, firm and universally supported by the global sporting community.

Banishment is far from the worst option, with a stone cold reality existing that Russia appears determined to continue to cheat and lie in its attempts to achieve in sporting contests, whilst at the same time infringing on the sovereign rights of innocent neighbouring countries and deferring to war and violence in order to return the region to something like what it resembled half a century ago.

As a global community, a statement must be made. Russia was given every chance to change after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Sadly, it refused and despite the helplessness being felt by the Ukrainian people, sporting bodies can indeed take a firm and long term stand.

Russia refused to play ball over the last decade, now it’s time the world stopped kidding itself and ceased inviting them to the game.

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