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Biased ‘protective’ steps and sanctions: Russian sports struggles with toughest year yet

It is noted that the fate of Russian athletes is currently in the hands of the IOC

MOSCOW, January 1. /TASS/. The outgoing year saw Russian sports ending up caught between the grinding wheels of the geopolitical standoff with the West.

Starting in March, national pro athletes were consistently deprived of their right to participate in international tournaments, and no one was spared, not even the top stars of the sports world. The Olympic Movement has throttled their careers while turning a blind eye to its own declarations on the inadmissibility of discrimination based on nationality.

Nevertheless, Russian sports managed to pull through following a devastating blow as it preserved top-notch athletes, replenished a depleted calendar of tournaments and established cooperation with friendly countries. Among its priority tasks now is to return to the international stage amid the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine. Russia’s executive sports management has no plans of pursuing a policy of isolation or to publicly boycott the Olympic Games.

The fate of Russian athletes is currently in the hands of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which is the cornerstone of the architecture of modern sports, barring professional leagues and associations. The owner of the rights to the Olympic Games is in control of the majority of sports federations and they risk ceasing to exist without its financial support.

The sovereignty of the IOC is murky because besides its humanitarian principles the organization boasts a significant budget having chalked up $7.6 billion in revenues over the past four years and the bulk of it came from commercial contracts with Western companies and TV broadcasters.

While carrying on a balancing act between promoting Olympic values and gaining commercial benefits, the IOC came up with an original interpretation on the need to suspend athletes from Russia and Belarus. It issued a recommendation, which in fact turned out to be obligatory for many international federations, calling for imposing “protective measures” regarding these countries’ athletes. The IOC announced that Russian and Belarusian athletes faced a threat under conditions of the countries’ large-scale standoff at the international tournaments, while the Olympic Movement was under the threat of politicization.

Protective measures

At the same time, IOC President Thomas Bach repeatedly lashed out against the British government for its interference in arranging the 2022 Wimbledon, when the local organizers of the Grand Slam tournament barred Russian and Belarusian tennis players. The Association of Tennis Players (ATP) and the Women Tennis Association (WTA) opted earlier against following the IOC recommendations.

The IOC's numerous statements concerning the suspension of Russia were dotted with contradictions and double standards, particularly in view of the fact that the “protective measures” were never enforced with regards to athletes representing countries involved in armed conflicts. Such rhetoric was handy to stall for time, which was necessary to solve the unfolding dilemma. The first attempt was in December, when the Olympic Summit approved a proposal against enforcing ‘protective measures’ in Asia. This step opened the path for Russian athletes to regional tournaments, including to the qualifying competitions for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. The IOC Executive Board is expected to come up in January with an updated recommendation regarding Russian athletes’ participation and this is when it should be clear, in which direction the situation would evolve.

It’s possible that the all-Russia sports federations would have no need to leave European confederations in order to participate in Asian competitions. However, some of the Russian sports federations have already voiced their intentions of switching their affiliation. Russian chess players (they preserved the right of participating in individual competitions at international tournaments) may be the pioneers on this path since the Russian Chess Federation (RCF) is expected to be accepted by the Asian Chess Federation (ACF). Talks are still underway about the Russian Football Union (RFU) also switching to the Asian side as the Russian organization is concerned with the participation in the qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The Russian national football team has already been sidelined from the 2024 UEFA Euro Cup due to political reasons.

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China was the most recent tournament where Russia participated and the national team of Russia finished in ninth place in the overall medals standings.

The Russian national team’s athletes clinched a total of 32 medals, including nine gold ones, in February at the Olympics in China. One third of the medals ended up being earned by cross country skiers with Alexander Bolshunov taking home three gold, one silver and one bronze medals. Russian figure skaters also showed decent results, but their Olympic performance was marred by mysterious doping accusations against Kamila Valiyeva and her case is still under review.

Russian Paralympians were deprived of any chance to fight for the medals in China. Under a pressure on behest of Western politicians and previously voiced threats of imposing a boycott, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) announced on March 3, a day before the Paralympics, a decision to reverse its previously issued permission to clear athletes from Russia and Belarus to the Paralympics. The suspension of Russian athletes from the 2022 Paralympics had been partially compensated by the organization of the “We Are Together: Sport” in Russia’s Khanty-Mansiisk. A similar tournament was organized in October for Summer Paralympians in the country’s resort city of Sochi.

Under sanctions

A huge transformation regarding the organization of sports tournaments on the territory of Russia also took place. The IOC recommendations had Part Two envisaging ‘Sanctions.’ The sanctions stated in particular that athletes were unable to compete at international tournaments under the national flag of Russia and to the tune of the national anthem. Russia was also stripped of the right to bid or organize any international sports tournaments.

The reason for the introduction of sanctions at the issue was the violation of the Olympic Truce as Russia’s special military operation was launched in the period between the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing. This was IOC’s another catch since the UN Resolution has no obligatory effect in this regard and had been never exploited before. Moreover, over 20 countries refused to sign an Olympic Truce ahead of the Winter Games in Beijing, including the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Australia.

Practically every international sports federation followed IOC’s recommendation of sanctions, including tennis associations, where Russian players were cleared to compete under a neutral status. Simultaneously, Russia had been deprived of the right of previously scheduled international competitions, which included the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship, the 2023 IIHF World Championship, the 2023 Summer Universiade, the 2023 Bandy World Championship and many other tournaments.

International sports federations launched ‘cleanups’ putting on hold Russia’s membership. The so-called ‘blacklist’ included the Russian biathlon and the Russian Paralympic movement. International Fencing Federation (FIE) President Alisher Usmanov was forced to resign temporarily, Sergey Soloveichik left the post of the president of the European Judo Federation (EJF), Boris Skrynnik vacated the post of the Federation of International Bandy’s chief, International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) President Vladimir Lisin failed to be reelected for another presidential term.

But there were positive examples of political interference into sports as well. Arkady Dvorkovich was reelected to the post of the president of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), Tatyana Ardabyeva maintained her post as president of the European Confederation of Modern Pentathlon (ECMP). Natalia Galkina, who served as secretary general of the Russian Basketball Federation was promoted in August to working at the headquarters of the International Basketball Federation. Umar Kremlev is still at the helm of the International Boxing Federation (IBF) although his organization is still butting heads with the IOC, which stripped it of compliance status back in 2019 and is currently threatening to exclude the sport of boxing from the Olympic program. Unlike other international sports federations, the IBA not only refused to ban Russian and Belarusian boxers, but also allowed them to keep fighting at international tournaments wielding their national symbols.

Domestic market

The pressure of sanctions impacted Russian football clubs as well. The country’s national football team was deprived of the right to keep playing in the 2022 World Cup qualifying games after the world’s governing football body, FIFA, allowed foreign players to suspend their contracts with Russian football clubs leading to an exodus of legionnaires from Russia’s top-tier football league, the Russian Premier League. Krasnodar FC was the hardest hit Russian football club, losing four of its foreigners, including recently appointed Head Coach Daniel Farke of Germany. In all, about 40 legionnaires left and Russia’s attempts to get courts to overturn these decisions were turned down.

Similar requests were demanded by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in regard to legionnaires playing for the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), but no legal justification was found.

Despite all of the challenges posed by the lack of foreign sports equipment, sports life in Russia has not stopped. The Spartakiad tournament for summer sports competitions was successfully held, offering the winners and medalists prize money equivalent to what they were paid for outstanding achievements at World Championships. Kazan hosted the international watersports competition titled the “Friendship Games.” There is a busy schedule for winter-sports athletes as well.

The global sport of cross country skiing lost two bright stars, namely Olympic Champions Alexander Bolshunov and Sergey Ustyugov, who are now battling each other in the Russian Cup, while World Cup tournaments turned into a de facto ‘Championship of Norway.’ It is difficult to accept the victory of the new world champions in synchronized swimming, where Russia has dominated for more than 20 years. The situation in rhythmic gymnastics is similar.

In all, the Russian Federation organized some 13,000 sports competitions this year and the number is likely to grow next year. “We are not talking about any comprehensive isolation of Russia as all of our detractors have failed,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko, who oversees issues of sports, culture and tourism in the Russian government, said, summing up the results of Russian sports this year.

Work is underway to revitalize and develop sports on Russia’s new territories, namely in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR respectively) as well as in the Zaporozhye and Kherson Regions. Some 1,400 athletes and 200 coaching staff members regularly trained and participated in Russia’s 28 regions since February. Eleven sports facilities were restored and two new ones were built in the DPR.

Friendship Games

Russia is currently promoting development in the sports sphere with the quintet of BRICS economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as well as the member-states of the Commonwealth of the Independent States (CIS). This month the Chinese city of Changchun held the Russian-Chinese Youth Winter Games with participants competing in cross-country-skiing, alpine skiing, snowboarding, speed skating, short-track speed skating, figure skating and curling. Next year, Changchun is set to host the Russian-Chinese Youth Summer Games.

The outgoing year marks the end of the restrictive sanctions, imposed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in December 2020. On December 17, 2020, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland’s Lausanne partially upheld WADA’s (the World Anti-Doping Agency) previous ruling on a number of sanctions against Russian sports. Following the CAS decision, Russian athletes were deprived of their right to participate in all World Championships, Olympic and Paralympic Games under the national flag of Russia and to the tune of the national anthem for two years. The ruling of the Swiss-based court also stripped Russia of the right to bid for organizing any international sports tournaments for a period of two years. WADA’s sanctions will be in effect until December 2022.