Russia Sanctions: Could Sports Have an Impact?

In a month’s time, the roar of Formula 1 engines will replace the clatter of downhill skies in Sochi as the Russian Grand Prix gets underway. The names of the competing teams will sound familiar in the West:  Mercedes, Red Bull, Renault, Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus, and now, Force India-Mercedes. While major sport is truly international, its genesis, its rules, its headquarters and much of its financing comes from the West.

The return of world sport to Sochi so soon after Putin violated the Olympic Truce with his invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula is paradoxical. Tickets for the Formula 1 event are apparently in high demand, and the $315 million dollar Sochi track around the former Olympic Village is ready to receive thousands of visitors—just as if nothing has happened in the intervening months.

It is not too late for Western countries to encourage its nationals not to take part in the Russian Grade Prix in Sochi this October.

Analysts have been speculating that Putin wants to restore the influence of the former Soviet Union and establish a sphere of influence over Russia’s neighbours to the west  (particularly Ukraine), and to the east through the establishment of an Eurasian Economic Union.

But Mr. Putin also has much more prosaic interests. For over 10 years, both as Russia’s President and Prime Minister, Putin has been advancing his interest in having Formula 1 in Russia. Apparently, Russia’s ‘“action man”’ leader counts driving race cars along with tracking tigers among his sporting passions. Having Formula 1 at Sochi can only fulfill his dreams. Putin lavished $52 billion on this once- small resort town on the Black Sea. (Tellingly, it was also Stalin’s favorite vacation spot; his villa can still be seen close to the seashore.)

Western sanctions directed against Putin, his oligarch friends, state banks and technology for the oil and defence sectors are starting to bite. While the flow of international capital into Russia has fallen, the Moscow -man-on-the-street has not yet felt its effects. Putin’s popularity continues to rise. His “I could take Kiev in two weeks” rhetoric seems to be striking a popular chord.

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On the eve of the opening of the Sochi Games in February, the Washington Post ran an article titled “What 1980 Moscow says about the Sochi Olympics.” It recalled that following the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the United States led Western nations in boycotting the 1980 Olympic Games. The article quotes the then-Moscow correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, Anthony Barbieri:  “[T]he boycott really infuriated Soviet officials, although they publicly brushed it off as capitalist arrogance. They had this thing about the US and the West. If only their friends came, it wasn’t the same for them.”  As the Post puts it, “Now Putin wants to show off the successful we-can-do-anything nation he has created from the ashes of the destroyed Soviet Union, which collapsed just 11 years after the Olympics. And Sochi, made grand by billions of dollars in Olympic investment, will draw vacationers from around the globe”.

The 1980 sports sanctions wounded Soviet pride under Brezhnev—just as similarly targeted Western sports sanctions can bring home to the Russian people that Putin’s Russia is now going backwards to his KGB past.

It is true that sports sanctions are complicated, running afoul of concepts proscribing mixing sport and politics, and inevitably, the large financial sums involved in international sport. The Olympic movement has tried to come to terms with this by reviving the 9th century BC tradition of the Olympic Truce at the time of each Olympic Games “to encourage searching for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world.” The International Olympic Committee extends the period beyond the Games with a series of ‘sport for peace’ activities through its National Olympic Committees.

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This would include, of course, its Russian one. Putin’s takeover of Crimea occurred on February 23 during the Sochi Paralympics’ Games.

It is not too late for Western countries to encourage its nationals not to take part in the Russian Grade Prix in Sochi this October. Formula 1 no doubt has contracts in place with Russia; however, they cancelled the 2011 Formula 1 in Bahrain because of human rights abuses. Russia now has the dubious distinction, in the words of NATO Secretary General Rasmussen, of being the first European country since the end of World War II to try “to grab another’s territory by force.” Surely that should give Formula 1 and those who support it pause for thought.

Sports sanctions should target not Russian players but international sporting events taking place in Russia. Recent news reports indicate the European Union has asked its member states to consider such a possibility. Russia should understand that the next FIFA World Cup (to be held in Moscow in 2018) is in jeopardy if it does not demonstrably heed the words of former IOC President Jacques Rogge: “Sport alone cannot enforce or maintain peace. But it has a vital role to play in building a better and more peaceful world.” For Russia, that peace has to start in its own neighborhood. To use a sports phrase, the ball is in its court.

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