What lies behind the return of Russian athletes to the Olympics?

Proponents of the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes to the Paris 2024 Olympics say that sports and politics are separate. They constantly repeat the thesis that sport contributes to international peace. They emphasize the great mission of sport – that sport promotes unity and reconciliation. But it doesn’t. Corruption, gambling with authoritarian regimes, and propaganda are among the many reasons behind the fine phrases about peace, friendship, and unity.

The scandal over the possible admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes to international competitions has not subsided. We have reported on the nature of the scandal.

On February 2, there were two loud statements at once. 

Ministers of Sports of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland opposed the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the Olympic Games in 2024 and 2026. This is reported in the official statement of the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport of Lithuania:

“At a time when free and democratic countries unite their forces to increase support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia‘s war of aggression supported by its ally Belarus and impose more sanctions on Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, the IOC launches the search for special forms of participation for athletes from Russia and Belarus in international sports competitions including the Olimpic Games in Paris in 2024, allowing the sport to be used to legitimize and distract attention from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine”.

The Baltic States and Poland have a negative attitude to any manifestations of participation of athletes of the aggressor state in international competitions, even in a neutral status, which the IOC talks about.

“Efforts to return Russian and Belarusian athletes to international sports competitions under the veil of neutrality legitimize political decisions and widespread propaganda of these countries also through the use of sport as a distraction from the illegal aggression against Ukraine.”

For its part, the IOC continues to defend its position. “The IOC rejects in the strongest possible terms defamatory statements of this kind made by some Ukrainian officials. They are totally unacceptable and cannot serve as a basis for any constructive discussion,” the official IOC website says.

In addition, the IOC is blatantly manipulating the issue of non-admission of countries. The Committee insists that the request to exclude Russia and Belarus from the Olympics is the only such case. It points out that other participants in military conflicts around the world have not made such requests. 

At the same time, the IOC points out that there have been cases of countries being excluded from competitions. For example, with South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. 

However, here the Committee covers itself with the fact that the South African team was excluded based on the UN sanctions against South Africa for the crime of apartheid. The Committee points out that “there are no UN sanctions in place against Russia and Belarus at this moment in time.” 

Unfortunately, this is an example of manipulation. The UN General Assembly condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but we should not expect sanctions from the UN. This is another problem of international law and international security, which the Ukrainian authorities constantly claim

Obviously, there will be no sanctions from the UN against Russia because Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power. Obviously, Russia will never vote against itself. Obviously, the IOC understands this and uses the standard technique of manipulating the law to cover up and explain its actions.

Nevertheless, the IOC remains committed to its decision of 9 December 2022 that

  • no international sports events being organized or supported by an IF or NOC in Russia or Belarus.
  • no flag, anthem, colors or any other identifications whatsoever of these countries being displayed at any sport event or meeting, including the entire venue.
  • no Russian and Belarusian Government or State official should be invited to or accredited for any international sporting event or meeting.

Accordingly, the IOC is trying to distinguish between Russian and Russian athletes, between Belarus and Belarusian athletes: 

“We are not talking about Russian or Belarusian athletes, we are talking about neutral athletes respecting the strict conditions we have set, including no identification with their country and NOC whatsoever, and full compliance with the anti-doping regulations.”

FAKE NEUTRALITY

We have already talked about why the neutrality of Russian athletes is questioned by many. Among other things, we tried to provide arguments as to why big sports and politics are inseparably linked, and that depriving Russian athletes of participation is not discrimination, but an incentive. 

Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, provided statistics according to which Russia won 71 medals in Tokyo Olympics. 45 of them were won by athletes who are also members of the Central Sports Club of the Russian Army. The army that commits atrocities, kills, rapes, and loots. This is whom the ignorant IOC wants to put under the white flag allowing them to compete.

The Ukrainian sports portal Tribuna.ua collects a database of Russian athletes who supported Russia’s full-scale invasion. The IOC statement sparked anger and a campaign in social media under hashtag #BloodyOlympics.

If previously we gave examples of Russian athletes who actively supported Russian aggression, now we want to give the example of the Russian four-time Olympic artistic gymnast champion Maria Paseka. She has not visited the Russian military on the frontline, she has not been seen at Russian pro-government rallies and actions in support of aggression. Let’s see if she can be counted among those athletes who can be allowed to compete under a neutral flag.

Here’s Maria’s Instagram post. 

“The sanctions imposed on Russia have already reached the point of absurdity. Everyone understands that. Big sports and politics have always been separable, at all times. Moreover, sports have united and been a symbol of reconciliation, especially during the Olympic Games. The IOC and the IPC have compromised themselves completely by succumbing to the general anti-Russian hysteria. The IOC!!! … whose job it is to ensure neutrality for all participating countries. Alas and ah, we live in a new reality… But this only makes us, Russian athletes, stronger and more ready to win, stepping onto the podium to the National Anthem of Great Russia.”

Maria accompanied this post with such hashtags as “Great Russia” (#великаяроссия), “For peace” (#zамир), “For sport” (#zаспорт). It should be noted that Z is a symbol of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

This is an example of the standard for authoritarian states’ doublethink, the principles of which were formulated by George Orwell. It is quite immoral to talk about peace when your country has become the aggressor. It is immoral to talk about the neutrality of sports and the Olympic movement, and then declare one’s intention to “go to the podiums to the anthem of great Russia.”

After all, the argument about neutrality in sports is fiction. By its very nature, international sports cannot be apolitical and neutral. Wherever there are flags and symbols of states, wherever there are teams of these states, there will be competitiveness. Including between countries.

And even if among hundreds of countries in the new Olympics there will be one or two teams without a flag (as an exception to the general rule), it will be obvious who they are and what country’s interests they represent. 

 It is natural that citizens of their countries can be patriots, love the symbols of their country, and carry the values of their country to the world. And even if we let the fact that Russia unleashed the most massive war in Europe since World War II go unnoticed for a while, we will realize that Russian and Belarusian athletes will not be completely neutral. They will be inextricably linked to the state from which they came. Here is a photo from Maria’s Instagram from November 2022, where Russian symbols are recognized.

Source: Instagram

Such is human nature. Accordingly, the neutral status of athletes, and their participation in competitions without their flag and the anthem would be something similar to the principle of Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter universe. The main villain has been called “You-Know-Who,” “He Who Must Not Be Named,” but his nature has not changed from that.

It’s a Polichinelle secret, nothing more. Recently, Belarusian tennis player Arina Sabalenka, playing in a neutral status, won the Australia Open. After winning, she told reporters, “I think everyone still knows that I’m a Belarusian player.” Later, the press service of the self-proclaimed president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko congratulated the tennis player on her victory. This proves that any victory of athletes, even in neutral status, will be used by dictators for their purposes.

And that’s why we should go back to the position of the IOC. Why do they keep talking about sports as a platform without borders and a platform for reconciliation?

#BloodyOlympic campaign poster

CORRUPTION WINS, AND SPORT LOSES

The Olympic movement is a very big machine. Each country that desires to participate in the Olympic Games must have a national Olympic committee accepted by the IOC. By the early 21st century there were more than 200 such committees.

A national Olympic committee (NOC) must be composed of at least five national sporting federations, each affiliated with an appropriate international federation. 

For each Olympic sport, there must be an international federation (IF), to which a requisite number of applicable national governing bodies must belong. The IFs promote and regulate their sport on an international level.

All such a structure is not only people but also equipment, buildings, machinery, etc. The larger the structure, the greater the cost of maintaining it.

According to the rules of the NOCs, they must be not-for-profit organizations, must not associate themselves with affairs of a political or commercial nature, and must be completely independent and autonomous as well as in a position to resist all political, religious, or commercial pressure.

But then where does the money come from? There are official sources of income – membership fees, donations, sponsorship, and the sale of advertising rights or broadcasting of the games. And there are unofficial sources of money – for example when selecting the next city that will host the Olympics. The Olympics itself as an event is a way for the Olympic Committee to make money. 

It is a whole framework for possible corruption. The Olympics are expensive. It costs enormous money to build sports facilities and all the necessary infrastructure. It is likely that even in building the facilities there may be interest from unscrupulous officials, both the IOC and national bureaucrats.

There have been many corruption scandals in the history of the IOC. 

For example, as The Guardian reports, Japanese police this summer arrested Haruyuki Takahashi, the former head of the Tokyo Olympics, on suspicion of accepting bribes in exchange for helping companies become official sponsors for last year’s event. Takahashi, who is believed to have played a key role in choosing sponsors, was indicted for the fourth time, and the former senior managing director of Japan’s largest advertising agency Dentsu is suspected of accepting 198 million yen (£1.2 million) in bribes from five firms.

Global Investigative Journalism Network published a compilation of the 8 most high-profile investigations into Olympic-related corruption crimes where, among others, the massive doping scandal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia is mentioned. Reportedly the Russian FSB was involved in the cover-up of doping sample swapping.

No less scandalous is Beijing’s choice to host the Winter Olympics amid reports of Chinese repression of the Uighurs.

Constant scandals, corruption, and the high cost of the Olympics lead to a loss of interest in the main sporting event among the audience. A shrinking audience is a shrinking profit. Including a whole range of actors, from advertisers and corporations to the IOC.  

The Atlantic reports that the economic challenge of hosting the games also explains another recurring issue: the weaponization of the Olympics by repressive states. Despite the high cost of running an Olympics, the Games grant the host country the ability to showcase its might and launder its reputation on the world stage.

Therefore, the IOC has attracted criticism for its record of partnering with authoritarian regimes, but that hasn’t been enough to compel the governing body to change tack. Part of the reason is that, in some instances, authoritarian states have been the only bidders left standing. Such was the case in the bid for the 2022 Winter Games, after Oslo, the favorite, withdrew over cost issues, leaving just two contenders: Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Summer Games, and Almaty, in Kazakhstan. Beijing won.

But perhaps the primary reason the IOC hasn’t excluded autocracies from the Games is because it’s simply not in the committee’s interest to do so. According to a 2017 report by Thomas Könecke and Michiel de Nooij, “keeping good working relations with authoritarian governments helps the IOC to secure the future of its main revenue driver, the Olympic Games, thus providing for its own future.” Put simply, partnering with autocracies pays. 

And any attempts to influence the IOC remained unanswered. Almost in the same way as the current attempts of Ukraine to influence the IOC.

The IOC “is completely undemocratic; it’s completely nontransparent,” David Goldblatt, the author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, told to The Atlantic.

“It doesn’t appoint critics; it doesn’t listen to its critics; it doesn’t engage with its critics. And yet, it has a privileged position in the global governance of sport.”

Thus, the question of the admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes to international events is not a question of apoliticality, neutrality, and the principles of the Olympic Charter. It is a question of money.

Without Russian athletes, there will be no Russian sports federations and their fees. Without Russian athletes there will be no 140 million audience, which means no sponsorship and advertising revenue because Russian businesses will not finance it. 

The IOC needs money, and Russia, as an autocracy, needs a platform to promote and magnify Russia. This is what the Olympics are for.

That is where their interests meet.  

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