April 3, 2015

Politics in sports


A year after Crimea was annexed by the Russian Federation, a celebratory President Vladimir Putin admitted that Crimea was of interest to him prior to the so-called referendum that had been the ostensible basis for annexation. Mr. Putin boasted that the subject of Crimea’s return to Russia came up when he acted in February 2014 to save the life of Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was on the run, abandoned and about to be captured by the Ukrainians. It was then, according to Mr. Putin, that he gave the order to reunite Crimea with the motherland and personally acted as commander-in-chief. The concept of reunification itself is as specious as Russia’s connection with Crimea is historically tenuous and replete with crimes.

Between annexation and the admission, an even more ominous specter appeared: an accumulation of Russian nuclear weaponry on the peninsula with Mr. Putin threatening its use. Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov weighed in that Crimea was no longer a nuclear-free zone in view of the annexation and Russia’s nuclear status.

In tandem with Mr. Putin’s Crimean celebration, Russia integrated South Ossetia militarily and economically after seven years of Russian occupation. The empire is being reinstated. The European Union decided to extend sanctions against Russia for the Ukraine conflict until the end of 2015. In fact no democratic country has recognized the annexation of Crimea or the integration of South Ossetia.

President Petro Poroshenko has called on Ukraine’s allies to consider boycotting the 2018 World Cup to be held in Russia. FIFA President Sepp Blatter has insisted that “a boycott of any sporting event has never brought any solutions” and has called for an end to “political interference” from the European Parliament. He has even suggested that holding the event in Russia would stabilize the situation in the region.

Currently, Ukraine and Russia are competing to qualify for UEFA European championship scheduled for France in 2016. Ukrainian players have been put at a disadvantage as players from the Donbas area (Donetsk Shakhtar) have not been able to practice for almost a year now at their facility. Shakhtar stadium has been damaged by the Russians. Several of the Ukrainian players, including its goalkeeper, originate from Shakhtar. Shakhtar has been compelled to train in Kyiv and play its home games in Lviv. No such disadvantage has been suffered by any of the players from team Russia or from any other team for that matter. How’s that for politics impacting sports, Mr. Blatter?

While sports are not inherently political, they often are influenced or manipulated by politics and exploited for political ends. Certainly political events impact sports as they impact everything else in life. And sports events at which the participants represent countries are even more political. The opportunity to host a global sports event in which the competitors are nations is overwhelmingly politicized. Mr. Putin played that card very well in February 2014 in Sochi during the Olympic Games and will do so again in 2018.

Russia has relinquished any rights to belong to the civilized (meaning playing by the rules) community of nations. Bombing an opponent’s training facility, depriving it of its home base and killing its fans should certainly qualify for a red card. But Russia has gone well beyond that. It has invaded, murdered, annexed and integrated members of the international community. It has impeded international monitoring, breached international agreements, and violated international norms and boundaries. Lest we forget, it has murdered 298 innocents from countries that are not parties to its conflict. How can any of these nations, or anyone for that matter who considers himself an honorable and moral human being, play on the same field as the Russians?

The only logical solution is that Russia should be disqualified from international competition in which nations wronged by Russia are participants. Certainly, Russia cannot be permitted to host any international competitions or events.

The president of FIFA is simply wrong if he thinks that sports and politics are not related. Perhaps he believes that Crimea and Donbas are simply internal Ukrainian conflicts, but Mr. Putin’s admission on Crimea certainly dispelled that propaganda. Forensic findings to date that leave no doubt that a Russian Buk missile fired from Russian-occupied territory brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 have exposed a blatant attempt by Russia to literally get away with murder. In the future the arrogant Mr. Putin and Mr. Lavrov will no doubt admit Russia’s role in the Donbas, which already is clear to everyone.

FIFA’s president has no choice but to rescind Russia’s hosting of the World Cup in 2018. Otherwise, Mr. Blatter should not be president of FIFA. The 79-year-old is running for another four-year term in May. Unless he does what is right, he should not be re-elected and his successor should correct his mistakes.