BEHIND THE SCENES: Russia reveals the impossibility of sport being apolitical

Thomas Bach himself is convinced that sport and politics are inseparable. He explained this in 2014, a year after becoming president, in a speech at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.

Thomas Bach and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky (IOC Greg Martin)
Thomas Bach and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky (IOC Greg Martin)

Anyone who has followed the Olympic world throughout his or her life will have grown tired of hearing the same statement over and over again: sport and politics are different things, they should not be mixed.

And Thomas Bach himself, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), returned to the subject a few weeks ago during an interview with the German news agency DPA: “Expecting that the Olympic Games can fundamentally change a country, its political system or its laws, is a completely exaggerated expectation. The Olympics cannot solve problems that generations of politicians have not solved”.

“What is our responsibility and what are our limits? Our responsibility is to run the Games in accordance with the Olympic Charter and the Host City Contract, and to bring together the athletes from 206 teams and the IOC refugee team under one roof”,

Bach was talking about China, but at this point we have to forget about all that. On the last day of February 2022, the IOC executive committee made a decision based on “a dilemma which cannot be solved” and erased Russia and Belarus from the Olympic landscape, both in terms of representation and as organizers. The decision did not come after state doping like Sochi 2014 or due to the malfunctioning of a national Olympic committee.

Not at all. The IOC reacted to the invasion of one country, Russia, into another, Ukraine. A more political event than that should not exist. Thus, February 28, 2022 marks, in a way, the day when the IOC lost the political innocence it always sought to preserve. The days, too, when FIFA was dragged by UEFA into a snub that Vladimir Putin will not forget.

The striking thing is that this, in reality, should come as no surprise. Bach himself is convinced that sport and politics are inseparable. He explained this in 2014, a year after becoming president, in a speech at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.

“In the past, some have said that sport has nothing to do with politics, or they have said that sport has nothing to do with money or business (...) And this is just an attitude which is wrong and which we cannot afford anymore. We are living in the middle of society and that means that we have to partner up with the politicians who run this world.”

That “partnership with the politicians who run the world” was clearly seen in these days: the IOC, a deeply European body, reacted politically to a threat to the heart of Europe.

People fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine stand near a refugee shelter, in Tiszabecs, Hungary, March 2, 2022. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
People fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine stand near a refugee shelter, in Tiszabecs, Hungary, March 2, 2022. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

And that partnership could also be clearly seen in Bach’s first year at the helm of the IOC, when he met with a staggering 81 heads of state or government.

However, six years after that speech in Incheon, Bach wrote a column, published in Around the Rings and on the official IOC website, in which he separated the Olympic world from politics.

“The Olympic Games are not about politics. The IOC, as a civil non-governmental organisation, is strictly politically neutral at all times. Neither awarding the Games, nor participating, are a political judgement regarding the host country.

“The Olympic Games are governed by the IOC not by governments. The IOC issues the invitation to NOCs to participate, the invitations do not come from the government of the host country. It is the NOC which then invites their political authorities to accompany their athletes to the Games. The host country’s head of state is only allowed to say one sentence, scripted by the IOC, to officially open the Games. No other politician is allowed to play any role whatsoever, not even during medal ceremonies.”

But theory is one thing, practice is another. As in that Wynona Ryder and Ethan Hawke movie, “reality bites”. Just days after Kamila Valieva squeezed the hearts of many and raised the level of disgust at the manipulations of Russian sport, a situation overwhelmingly superior in its gravity confirmed what had already been difficult to hide: the impossibility of sport being apolitical.

The “Wall Street Journal” summed it up with acuity: “When the invasion of Ukraine began, the era of Russian ‘sportswashing’ abruptly ended, at least for the foreseeable future. As the global economy froze Russia’s assets, the sports world froze out its athletes (...). The last ban of this scale was issued to apartheid-era South Africa”.

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