History will judge the IOC and Fifa as opportunistic hypocrites on Russia | Sports policy


IIt only took eight days, and a war, for the International Olympic Committee to pull off a daring aerial maneuver 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 insisted there is no room for politics in sport. “As far as the Uyghur population is concerned, the position of the IOC must be to give political neutrality,” the president, Thomas Bach, said in early February.

Yet just a week after the curtain on the Winter Olympics, the IOC has dramatically reversed course. “In order to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all participants,” the IOC Executive Board decided on Monday, Russian and Belarusian athletes should be excluded from international competitions. “The IOC reaffirms the IOC President’s call,” the statement continued. “Give peace a chance.”

All of this begs the question: Why are the crimes against the Uyghur people and human rights abuses in China acceptable, yet pervading Ukraine beyond pallor? After a Winter Olympics filled with recourse to neutrality, this blatant hypocrisy provokes a certain feeling of whiplash. Through this inexplicable sports lens, it seems that some atrocities are acceptable, but Russia has crossed the line by marching on Kyiv.

The IOC has finally done the right thing. Given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Russian participation in international sports competitions would be unthinkable at the present time. Fifa also deserves some credit for excluding Russian teams from international competitions. The human cost is unfortunate – ordinary Russian athletes, many of whom have no connection to President Vladimir Putin’s regime and play no part in this current madness. Yet a sports ban from Russia is the only reasonable course of action as missiles rain down on Ukrainian civilians.

But what took these athletic bodies so long? Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, a year after the IOC awarded the 2014 Games to Sochi. Curiously, given recent events, the IOC was silent at the time. Six years later, on the day of the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, Russia’s annexation of Crimea began. In the following months, Russia invaded eastern Ukraine.

Rather than condemn the violence, the Olympic governing body gave honors to Putin loyalists (whom they ridiculously scooped up on Monday). Fifa followed with the Men’s World Cup, in 2018, despite Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea, its proxy separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk and, just months before the tournament, a failed assassination attempt. on English soil.

Sports washing has consequences – events in Ukraine over the past week have made this clear. By allowing their crown jewels to be used to restore Russia’s image, the IOC and Fifa have been complicit in Putin’s wanton acts over the past decade. It’s arguably possible that even if the 2014 Olympics or the 2018 World Cup had been scrapped, we would still be where we are today. But the inaction of the IOC and Fifa did little to help.

Vladimir Putin watches an alpine skiing competition at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Photograph: Alexei Nikolsky/AP

When they should have acted, the governing bodies lacked the conviction to make difficult choices. It is now easy for both to express themselves; they had their sports jamborees – funded by the Russian taxpayer, enriching the Russian oligarchs – and went home. It is prudent to condemn Putin today, from their Swiss palaces, with nothing at stake. By their latest actions, the IOC and Fifa have shown themselves to be simply opportunistic: neutral when it suits their commercial and political ambitions when they feel the need to align with world opinion.

With the Qatar 2022 World Cup later this year, the turnaround is unlikely to last. The tournament will continue using infrastructure most likely built on the back of forced labor, in a nation classified as “not free” by rights watchdog Freedom House, where the rights of women and LGBTQI+ Qataris are restricted. Russia may not be there, but neither are the 6,500 migrant workers who have died in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded. FIFA’s guilt runs deep.

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Sport has always been political, dating back to the first Olympiads in ancient Greece, when city-states jostled each other, sometimes even resorting to violence, for the influence that came with hosting the Games. To insist otherwise, as the IOC, Fifa and other global sporting bodies have long done, shows a deliberate disregard for reality.

Yet they have persisted in the myth, including just a week ago when the last Olympic circus ended in Beijing with barely a cry about human rights. Their banning of Russia is welcome, if cynical. But this only underscores their enormous duplicity, failure of leadership and moral vacuum that sees the brutal repression of the Uyghur people, Tibetans, Hong Kongers as justifying nothing more than “political neutrality”. History will judge the IOC and Fifa as complicit hypocrites – no amount of backtracking on Russia will stop that.


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