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War in Ukraine and sport's difficult questions

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has required a reaction from the international community. Craig Beeston looks at the difficult situation global sport has found itself due to uneasy links with regimes and powerful interests.

Date: 4th Mar 2022

Author: Craig Beeston, The Chartered Governance Institute

There have been many repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For Ukrainians themselves these are horrific; for those of us watching from a distance they are simply unimaginable.

Actors of all types – from governments and political parties to companies and individuals – are looking for an appropriate response and in many cases are facing up to some uncomfortable questions about their own links and the ways in which they have allowed themselves to be used. Sport is doing precisely this.

The week since the invasion has seen a spectrum of responses from the sport sector: individual and collective gestures of solidarity, decisive statements of intent, unequivocal withdrawals from competition, and more hesitant, uncertain attempts which have attracted condemnation and reversal.

It has laid bare once again the uneasy, and all too often not uneasy, relationship that sport has with geopolitical actors and with powerful interests around the world. But to be clear, by ‘sport’ in this context is meant more particularly what might be termed ‘big sport’, with its global reach and complex commercial connections. Sport in the sense that most of us engage with it continues with its work of enriching lives and setting positive examples. Moreover, the reaction of national governing bodies to the crisis, both here in the UK and internationally, has often been clear and sometimes strident, throwing into even starker relief the predicament in which sport’s global operators find themselves.

There is perhaps some understatement in the International Olympic Committee’s observation that ‘the current war in Ukraine puts the Olympic Movement in a dilemma’. One such dilemma is that the IOC’s Fundamental Principles of Olympism sometimes jar with reality and with its own actions. How to uphold for example the second principle – to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity – when the nation to which you and the IPC awarded the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games is now bombarding the cities of a neighbouring country and when China, the host of the Winter Games we are currently in the middle of, was last year sanctioned by the EU, UK, US and Canada over its treatment of the Uighur population of Xinjiang, described by the UK Foreign Secretary as ‘one of the worst human rights crises of our time’.

But the IOC is not alone. FIFA, world football’s governing body, whose president received the Russian Order of Friendship from Putin in 2019, is also on the horns of a dilemma over its closeness to a regime against which international public opinion is now so firmly set.

FIFA’s initial response to the invasion was to adopt an approach borrowed from the IOC when dealing with Russia’s state-sponsored doping of athletes. It determined that Russia would play upcoming fixtures as the Football Union of Russia, in neutral territories and without the Russian flag or national anthem. The IOC’s not uncontroversial justification for its position had been that individual and innocent athletes should not suffer for the decisions of their state. FIFA, however, found that such a stance would not wash this time. The declarations of a number of national football associations that they would not play against Russian teams at any level or anywhere rendered the fudge unworkable and off the pace. The International Paralympic Committee fell into a similar trap ahead of its winter Games.

Sport’s ability to either hold its nose when embracing unpalatable interests or to embrace them willingly often rest on the twin shibboleths of ‘growing the game’, the almost missionary zeal with which ceaseless expansion is pursued, and the fiction that sport somehow sits outside of politics and the real world. To be fair, both of these could be argued to come from a good place. The benefits of sport as an activity, a cultural event, a shared ‘language’ are unparalleled. Sport can – and does – bring light in dark times and places, improves lives and reaches across divides. Why wouldn’t you want to bring that to as many people as possible? But like anything, it can be used for good or ill. Its popularity, drama and spectacle make it a vehicle of soft power, of legitimisation. And this brings with it a third factor. Money.

There are many who are complicit – to different degrees and in different ways. From the fans on the terraces who are not minded to look too deeply into the sources of their owner’s money as long as it puts talent on the pitch, to those who commodify the product which that talent creates. From those who vote to stage marquee and reputation-cleansing, status-enhancing events in places that feature highly on international watchdogs’ watchlists, to those who tune in when the events hit our screens but at the same time tune out the uncomfortable noise (and on that charge I am far from blameless). 

As with all sanctions, sporting punishments will fall on the innocent: in this case, the people of Russia (and Belarus) who do not support the invasion – the distinction between ‘regime’ and ‘country’ must be emphatically drawn – and the athletes, coaches, staff, administrators and volunteers who are being denied the opportunity to see the fruits of their labours or to realise their competitive dreams. They will pay a price for actions in which they had no say. This is all the more galling when it is considered how difficult it is to speak out under regimes which are brutally intolerant of dissent – making the outbreak of anti-war protests within Russia still more impressive. Yet there is no equivalence between the punishment of not competing at a Games or not hosting a football match in your home town and that of your home town being besieged by troops and pounded with artillery.

The invasion of Ukraine is clearly a watershed moment and of necessity precipitated a response. But taken in the round, is the Russian regime markedly worse this week than it was last week, at which point it was considered a suitable host of the Uefa Champions League final, a Formula 1 Grand Prix, the volleyball world championships and a host of other international events? Or worse than when it basked in the reflected glory of Sochi 2014, at the close of which it launched its annexation of the Crimea? Or when FIFA rolled into town, World Cup in hand, in 2018? Probably yes and no.

After seeming long-hidden, the line in the sand, the ‘this far but no farther,’ oddly previously obscured in sport’s relationship with the regime, has made an appearance. It begs the question whether, for example, China’s reported human rights violations fall within an acceptable range, but that a different position would be required should it ever make a Putin-style advance on Taiwan.

This all raises the question of what disqualifies a nation, or more accurately its governing regime, from being handed sport’s glittering showpieces and what awarding bodies should take into account when bestowing them. The revised European Sports Charter, agreed by the Council of Europe in October 2021, may point the way. The Charter calls for the due diligence behind sport-related activities to ‘uphold human rights in the context of the organisation of sports events and introduce human rights considerations and objectives into the whole life cycle of major sporting events, starting with the bidding process and including planning for a lasting positive legacy’.

Closer to home, the English Premier League is reported to be considering adding a human rights component to its owners’ and directors’ test as part of a wide-ranging assessment of the League’s governance. Further, the UK Government is currently considering its response to the fan-led review of football governance and has accepted in principle the key proposal for an independent regulator. The review called for the regulator to be empowered to make an assessment as to whether a prospective owner or director is ‘of good character such that they should be allowed to be the custodian of an important community asset’. The recommendation does not stipulate considerations that could explicitly be applied to current events, but offers scope for closer scrutiny of the individuals, public investment funds and private equity funds that are now woven into the highest level of the domestic game. It is a measure of the transformation of the game and its direction of travel that it’s not clear which is the more dispiriting: that there is at present no test as to whether a football club owner has violated human rights, or that one is needed!

Regardless of current events, 2022 will be bookended by the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing and a football World Cup in Qatar. In each of these, the sporting competition will no doubt be outstanding and fans, sponsors and broadcasters will revel in the spectacle. But perhaps the real winners will be their hosts, political leaderships seeking legitimacy and prestige on the world stage. In the meantime, sport will grapple with its conscience and the associations it has forged. Very little good can come from the ordeals being endured at present. At the very least it is time for a serious conversation – and the seeds appear to be there – about the message that patronage sends and its true cost. But the grown up version of that conversation excludes the fairytale where sport and politics are, to misapply a phrase from a different debate, some form of non-overlapping magisteria.

It is an opportunity for leadership to be shown and for the values that adorn the walls of organisations’ foyers or their websites and promotional material to make their way into the very actions that are taken.

Craig Beeston is the SGA Programme Manager at The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland