Russian Athletes Banned Across the World

Annabel Andre and Sanwi Sarode

On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated the invasion of Ukraine. Russian troops had been hovering around Ukraine for two months before the invasion, but it still came as a surprise when Russia crossed the line between making a threat and following through with it. Millions of Ukrainian citizens have already fled the country, and thousands of Ukrainians have been killed or injured in the conflict so far.

As a response to the attack, many countries have taken steps to prevent Russia’s invasion by hurting their economy without direct military involvement. A variety of companies worldwide put a hiatus on their activities connected with Russia to show their objection to the war. Athletics organizations are no different. In order to show disapproval of Russia’s actions, they are using a variety of methods, including banning Russian athletes from participating in several global sport events.

Many organizations have already banned Russia, including the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), who plans the World Cup and is the highest governing body of soccer worldwide. The invasion started just weeks after the Winter Olympics in Beijing, so Russia had also been banned from participating in the 2022 Paralympics. In other events, such as tennis, Russian athletes are banned from team competitions and are only allowed to compete individually if they abandon their flag, stripping Russia of any representation. The reasoning behind these enforcements is to use the symbolic power of sports as leverage against Russia to get them to reconsider the attack. This concept is called “soft power,” where governments and organizations attempt to persuade an opposing group of something without using military force, or “hard power,” which is much more direct. Soft power often appeals to cultural interests like sports because it is a source of pride and patriotism for citizens. Hopefully, these regulations will send the message to Russia that they are no longer a part of the global community after their actions in Ukraine. 

These tactics have been used many times before, often at the Olympics, a highly anticipated and heavily politicized event, as it allows countries to compete directly against each other. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), for example, had banned Russia from competing because of a doping scandal, although this still didn’t prevent another scandal from occurring at the most recent Olympics, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The scandal centered around a fifteen-year-old Russian figure skater who tested positive for a banned substance weeks before the Olympics. However, because of her age she couldn’t be held responsible for this incident. A more successful example of this method was during the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo when the IOC banned South Africa from attending that year’s Olympics due to their system of apartheid and the fact that their athletic teams were divided by race. This ban lasted through the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and relayed a strong message of political protest.  

The director of the Center for Sports Communication and Media at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) Michael Butterworth gave some insight on the impact of these organization’s actions in the political world. 

“Organizations like FIFA and the IOC are not governments, obviously, but they have significant influence,” Butterworth said. “The World Cup is the biggest single-event sporting event in the world, and the Olympics are the largest and most televised sporting event of any kind in the world. Not being able to play is embarrassing and disappointing.”

Athletics also have the potential to soothe a country during a conflict or crisis. In 1980, the United States’ Men’s Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviets, dubbed the “Miracle on Ice” game, which came at a moment of several domestic and foreign crises. Another example of this came after the shock of 9/11, where multiple sports gave people a communal site for mourning and healing in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. However, this does not always have a lasting impact. 

“We have a tendency to talk too romantically about how much of an influence sports can have in these moments,” Butterworth said. “I think sports can be good for us as individuals, communities, and nations, but only to a point.”

While many people are on board with the idea of banning Russia from participating in team events, or for athletes to compete but not under the Russian flag, there is still much debate about whether this is fair to those athletes who individually had nothing to do with the war, as this can negatively affect the careers they worked so hard for. Nevertheless, they have already been banned from all triathlons, archery events, skiing competitions, and many more. Despite the arguments against banning Russian athletes altogether, many athletes are willing to sacrifice their careers to do what is right. Athletes like Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Russia’s top female tennis player, have spoken out publicly against Russia’s actions. “I’m not going to be selfish and talk about sports and my career, which is very important to me, but I think right now it’s more about our future and our life, really,” Pavlyuchenkova told CNN. “It’s more than a sport right now.” Many Ukrainian athletes have acted similarly. Vladyslav Heraskevych, an Olympic skeleton racer, has been an active supporter of banning Russia from athletics since the beginning and has even registered for territorial defense and is waiting to be called for military duty in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. While he waits, he and his father have gathered food, medical supplies, and clothing in a van and heroically distributed them throughout Kyiv. 

Although there are many athletes from countries all over the world advocating for change, some choose to support the war in athletic settings. During a medal ceremony at the Apparatus World Cup, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak taped a ‘Z’ to his uniform before receiving the bronze medal next to Illia Kovtun, a Ukrainian athlete who won gold at the competition. The letter ‘Z’ is a symbol in support of the war and Valdimir Putin because it has been painted on Russian tanks and vehicles throughout Ukraine to show their support. Kuliak is now facing a lengthy ban for his actions during this competition and could lose his medal. 

Sports are often considered to be beyond politics, but the importance of sports in the lives of citizens can turn athletics into another political warzone. Currently, spectators are still waiting to see how Russia will respond to the restrictions and global pressure placed on them by sport and athletic organizations. 

“It’s hard to gauge if the correct tactic is effective to the extent that it will change the outcome of the war,” Butterworth said. “Regardless of its material effect, though, I think the symbolic value is meaningful. What Russia has done and is doing warrants a global response, and it’s important not to go along with sports, entertainment, [and] media as if it’s business as usual.”