Show caption The Fifa president, Gianni Infantino (centre), with Vladimir Putin at the final of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Photograph: Mikhail Tereshchenko/Tass via Getty Images History will judge IOC and Fifa as opportunistic hypocrites over Russia Kieran Pender By allowing their crown jewels to be used to burnish Russia’s image, the sports bodies have been complicit in Putin’s acts Thu 3 Mar 2022 08.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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It took just eight days, and a war, for the International Olympic Committee to pull off an audacious mid-air manoeuvre that would not have been out of place on the slopes of the Winter Olympics. For much of February, as Beijing hosted the 2022 Games, the IOC was insistent: there is no place for politics in sport. “With regards to the Uyghur population, the position of the IOC must be to give political neutrality,” said the president, Thomas Bach, in early February.
Yet just a week after the curtain fell on the Winter Olympics, the IOC radically backflipped. “In order to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants,” the IOC executive board resolved on Monday, Russian and Belarusian athletes should be excluded from international competition. “The IOC reaffirms the call of the IOC president,” the statement continued. “Give peace a chance.”
All of which begs the question: why are crimes against the Uyghur people and human rights violations in China just fine, but invading Ukraine beyond the pale? After a Winter Olympics replete with resort to neutrality, this blatant hypocrisy provokes a certain feeling of whiplash. Through this inexplicable sporting lens, it seems as if some atrocities are OK, but Russia crossed the line by marching on Kyiv.
The IOC has at last done the right thing. Given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Russian participation in international sporting competitions would be unthinkable right now. Fifa, too, deserves some credit for excluding Russian teams from international competitions. The human cost is regrettable – ordinary Russian athletes, many of whom have no links to President Vladimir Putin’s regime and play no part in this current insanity. Yet a sporting ban on Russia is the only reasonable course of action as missiles rain down on Ukrainian civilians.
But what took these sporting bodies so long? Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, a year after the IOC had awarded the 2014 Games to Sochi. Curiously, given recent events, the IOC was mute at the time. Six years later, on the day of the Winter Olympics closing ceremony, Russia’s annexation of Crimea began. In the following months, Russia invaded eastern Ukraine.
Rather than condemning the violence, the Olympic governing body dished out honours to Putin loyalists (which, on Monday, they laughably clawed back). Fifa followed with the men’s World Cup, in 2018, notwithstanding Russia’s continuing occupation of Crimea, its proxy separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk and, just months before the tournament, a botched assassination attempt on English soil.
Sportswashing has consequences – events in Ukraine over the past week have made that abundantly clear. By allowing their crown jewels to be used to burnish Russia’s image, the IOC and Fifa have been complicit in Putin’s wanton acts over the past decade. No doubt it is possible that, even if the 2014 Olympics or 2018 World Cup had been scrapped, we may still be where we are today. But the IOC and Fifa’s inaction hardly helped.
Vladimir Putin watches a downhill ski competition at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. Photograph: Alexei Nikolsky/AP
When they should have acted, the governing bodies lacked the conviction to make hard choices. It is easy now for both to speak out; they have had their sporting jamborees – funded by the Russian taxpayer, enriching Russian oligarchs – and gone home. It is safe to condemn Putin today, from their Swiss palaces, with nothing on the line. By their latest actions, the IOC and Fifa have shown themselves to be nothing but opportunistic: neutral when it suits their commercial ambitions and political when they feel the need to swing in line with global opinion.
With the Qatar 2022 World Cup later this year, the change of heart is unlikely to last. The tournament will go ahead using infrastructure quite likely built on the back of forced labour, in a nation ranked as “not free” by rights watchdog Freedom House, where the rights of women and LGBTQI+ Qataris are limited. Russia might not be there, but nor will the 6,500 migrant workers who have died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded. Fifa’s culpability runs deep.
Sport has always been political, dating right back to the first Olympiads of ancient Greece, when city states jostled, occasionally even resorting to violence, for the influence that came with hosting the Games. Insisting otherwise, as the IOC, Fifa and other global sporting bodies have long done, shows wilful disregard for reality.
Yet they persisted with the myth, including just a week ago, when the latest Olympic circus ended in Beijing with barely a squeak about human rights. Their Russia ban is welcome, if cynical. But it only underscores their tremendous duplicity, their failure of leadership and the moral vacuum that sees the brutal repression of the Uyghur people, the Tibetans, the Hongkongers as warranting no more than “political neutrality”. History will judge the IOC and Fifa as complicit hypocrites – no backflip on Russia will stop that.