Football, hockey, the IOC are finally punishing Russia. But it’s too late


Five days too late? Make it five years. Hell, five decades.

The sport finally found its red line on Monday. He was apparently buried somewhere under the rubble of Kharkiv’s carpet-bombed city center.

Shortly after the cluster munitions were dropped on residential buildings in Ukraine’s second largest city, the International Olympic Committee finally did something that could be defined as action. Russia, and with it Belarus, should not be present at international sporting events, the IOC has said, urging international federations to ban athletes from the countries from all competitions.

Within hours, football’s world governing body, FIFA, effectively kicked Russia out of this year’s men’s World Cup and women’s European championship squad. Club teams have also been banned from UEFA continental competitions. Expelled “until further notice”.

This triggered a torrent.

The IIHF mirrored FIFA’s decision and banned both nations from hockey tournaments in all age categories – this year’s men’s and women’s world championships and the rescheduled youth world championships in August are the most in sight. As the torrent became a deluge, the NHL cut all commercial ties with Russia and the 2023 World Juniors were pulled from Novosibirsk.

A red line… but only after the streets of Kharkiv also turned crimson.

And even then, the IOC in its statement lamented that “the current war in Ukraine places the Olympic Movement in a dilemma”. A dilemma, of all things? How awful. Won’t someone send a little solidarity their way? When you figure out how to put an Olympic flag in your Twitter account, let us know.

For decades, the IOC and FIFA have faced their dilemmas and quickly resolved them by considering morals and then choosing the money. It is not hyperbole to say that this is partly why we are where we are…or more precisely why ordinary Ukrainians are where they are, huddled in metro stations and hospital basements, expecting the worst.

At best, big sports days and nights can be a heady mix of communal joy, unity, and shared experience: the eyes of the world on one place, one player, and one time. But at worst (often simultaneous), they repackage all of the above and auction it off to the bidder with the deepest pockets and the most to gain from wrapping themselves in all the legitimacy that the Olympics and World Cup offer. world.

It’s been just four years since the term sportswashing was popularized by Amnesty International, the same year Vladimir Putin hosted the world in Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They had won the right to host the biggest event sportsman on the planet in 2010 and Putin had traveled to FIFA headquarters in Switzerland to celebrate that night. He was asked about his hopes for the event and what it could mean for his country.

“A lot of stereotypes from times past, from the Cold War era, are circulating all over Europe and they scare people,” Putin said. “The more contact we have, the more these stereotypes will be destroyed.”

Many things have been destroyed since then. And before, in fact. Russia had invaded Georgia two years before being handed the keys to the World Cup. Four years after that night at FIFA headquarters, Putin annexed Crimea, just weeks after the IOC demolished its own five-ring circus at its playground in Sochi. Yet FIFA President Gianni Infantino grew close to Putin in the summer of 2018 and held him close as he scoffed at unity and inspiration and all that chanting funeral.

Where did this lead him and his sport? The road to qualification for the very next Men’s World Cup is now chaotic as the world can no longer accept being on the same playing field as Russia. And even then, as recently as Sunday, FIFA had tried one last trick for the road and argued that stripping Russia of home advantage and having them compete as RFU would suffice as punishment.

It wouldn’t. The sport and the world let them know, and that’s how Monday’s too small, too late gesture came about.

As hockey, fencing and curling rowed forward, I briefly felt like the whole of world sport was moving as one – in the direction of morals, not money. But there is madness in such hope. There is also danger. Because four years after the invention of sportswashing, dirty money is springing up.

The World Cup Russia was expelled from will take place in Qatar, a country with a brutal human rights record and repressive laws on forced labor and same-sex marriage. This means that 2022 will be a year reserved for Beijing and Qatar, with Saudi Arabia determined to whitewash its bloody reputation through sport too, buying Premier League football club Newcastle United and, until the mouth of Phil Mickelson prevents it, by trying to take control of world golf. than some labeled soft. Much milder than the Saudi decimation of Yemen, at least.

Can the horrors in Ukraine over the past five days (and the ones you fear are yet to come) change all that? Can they change anything? We won’t hold our breath.

Russian authorities, apparently not busy enough with illegally invading and slaughtering their neighbors and cratering their own economy in the process, found time to hint late Monday that they could appeal FIFA’s sanctions to the Arbitral Tribunal. of sport, where they have seen sanctions quashed and watered down before.

That’s the thing. For despots and demagogues, sports lines have always been mobile, there to fade. Even now they will try. Monday’s red line could somehow turn out to be more stubborn. Anyway, the bodies on the streets of Kharkiv told us it was too late.


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