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How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shook sports’ foundation

Political neutrality, a contested pillar of global sports

The principle of political neutrality is one of the fundamental principles on which the global organization of sports is based.Footnote 1 The principle is often associated with Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the ‘father’ of the modern Olympic Games. Coubertin dreamed of creating “a apolitical meeting venue where loyalty to the rules of the game and the beauty of the competition would enable people otherwise known as enemies to become friends”,Footnote 2 and the principle of political neutrality was central to this dream. Whereas the capacity of sports to foster peace can be and has been questioned,Footnote 3 it has been a point of some pride that states have been able to compete in sports despite heavy political tension or even engagement in war. This is supported by the Olympic Truce, or Ekecheiria, which dates back to the ancient games but has a modern-day equivalence supported by the international order.Footnote 4

However, the principle of political neutrality is not only a mean for promoting peace (or at least suspending war) in its own right. The principle is also closely connected to and supports the autonomy of the sports movement.Footnote 5 As an expression of this connection it has been claimed that sports “is universally accepted because it does not make judgements.”Footnote 6

Although the principle of political neutrality is in this sense foundational to sports as it is currently organized, it is not uncontroversial and has been the object of debate for some time. One highly salient issue is how the principle, when converted into practice, entails significant restrictions of athletes’ freedom of expression. One notable and noticeably broad restriction of athletes’ right to free speech can be found in Rule 50 of the IOC Charter which states that “[n]o kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”Footnote 7

There is a long history of the IOC applying Rule in a way that prevents athletes from using the stage that sports provide to highlight pressing political issues. One of the most famous examples of this is the lifetime ban of Tommie Smith and John Carlos for protesting racial injustice during the 1968 Olympic Games.Footnote 8 In recent years, especially in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement, it has become increasingly obvious that complete bans on political speech and draconian punishments of violators are no longer acceptable and a viable avenue.Footnote 9

Besides athletes demanding greater freedom to express themselves, pressure on Sports Governing Bodies (SGBs) to abandon their (supposed) political neutrality and to take a position on pressing issues has increased over time. In particular, SGBs have been pressured to stand up for human rights and to speak out against human rights violations, especially those conducted by states that host sport mega-events.Footnote 10 The SGBs have been reluctant to do so, justifying inaction with the principle of political neutrality. For example, in response to questions regarding FIFA’s responsibilities in relation to human rights violations in Qatar in light of the country hosting the 2022 World Cup, FIFA President Infantino stated that “[t]he essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics”.Footnote 11

Sports’ response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Thus, at the beginning of the year, the pillar of political neutrality had begun to show some cracks.Footnote 12 However, no one would have predicted that it would effectively crumble within the span of a few days after holding up the edifice of sports for more than a century. On Thursday February 24, 2022, Russia, aided by Belarus, invaded Ukraine. Sports stakeholders reacted to this with unprecedented speed and determination. The actions taken are too numerous to list, and still unfolding, but a few examples are in order.

The very next day following the invasion, on February 25, the Executive Board of the IOC recommended that all International Sports Federations (ISFs) and event organizers prohibit all Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in competitions,Footnote 13 and on Monday, February 28, UEFA removed Spartak Moscow from the Europa League. A number of ISFs have followed suit and banned Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials from participating in competitions, including the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), the International Skiing Federation (FIS), the International Biathlon Union (IBU), the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), and the International Skating Union (ISU).

Some of the actions in response to the invasions were taken with obvious reluctance on behalf of the SGBs, and clearly as a response to external pressures emanating from other sports stakeholders and the general public. For example, on Sunday, February 27, FIFA announced that the Russian football association, FUR, would be allowed to continue to participate in competitions, albeit with no home games and not under the Russian flag.Footnote 14 However, the football associations of Poland, Czech Republic and Sweden, who were scheduled to play Russia in the qualifier for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, jointly declared that they refused to play Russia. In response, FIFA overturned its decisions the very next day and suspended Russia.Footnote 15 Similarly, on Thursday, March 3, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) decided to bar all Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, overturning its own decision of the day before that the athletes would be allowed to compete under a neutral flag, citing as the reason for its changed decision multiple federations’ threats to otherwise boycott the games.Footnote 16

In connection with most of these measures the responsible SGBs have made it clear that actions are taken in support of Ukraine and intend to help expedite an end to the armed conflict. Thus it is clear that the suspensions are intended to serve as sanctions on Russia and Belarus, complementary and similar in kind to those implemented by states and international organizations.

However, actions taken in response to the invasion have not been limited to suspensions; sports stakeholders have also taken actions more closely related to the commercial aspect of sports and by terminating contractual obligations.Footnote 17 For example, immediately following the invasion, UEFA decided to move the 2022 Champions League final from St. Petersburg to Paris,Footnote 18 and FIA cancelled the 2022 Russian Grand Prix.Footnote 19 UEFA has also cancelled its sponsorship agreement with Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom,Footnote 20 the FIA permanently cancelled its agreement with the Russian Grand Prix,Footnote 21 one Formula 1 team terminated its contracts with a Russian driver,Footnote 22 and FIFA has granted foreign players and coaches employed by Russian clubs a unilateral right to suspend their employment contracts.Footnote 23 Some of these actions are arguably at least partially motivated by security concerns, but they also have a clear punitive character, similar to suspensions.

These types of measures are not completely without precedent. For example, Germany and Japan were not allowed to compete in the 1948 Olympic Games as a result of their roles in World War II. However, any comparison to previous actions is at best weak. The recent actions against Russia, and to a lesser extent Belarus, are substantially different in terms of scope and strength. They are taken in the middle of and in response to an on-going conflict. Moreover, they are clearly intended to function as sanctions and are thereby effectively part of a package of sanctions that includes state-based sanctions of a political and economic nature. This form of interference in geopolitics is much deeper than, for example, FIFA speaking out against human rights abuses in Qatar.

Where do we go from here?

By abandoning the principle of political neutrality, SGBs can perhaps, somewhat paradoxically, achieve what the principle claimed to achieve but for which there is scant evidence of success: promote peace.Footnote 24 If recent actions in sports adds to the pressure placed on Russia by the international community, it might actually help save lives.

Sports now find itself in unexplored territory. While the expectation that SGBs take political stances have increased, their staunch refusal to waver from the principle of political neutrality means that there is limited guidance on what room exists in sports for legitimate and justified political action. This may change in the relative short-term as the legality of the aforementioned actions is called into question. For example, the Russian Olympic Committee and FUR have challenged the legality of decisions against them  before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).Footnote 25

Such legal actions will raise and require answers to a number of difficult questions. To the extent that actions taken are not mandated by national, regional, or international law, are sanctions and contractual terminations supported by the rules, regulations, and statutes in sports? Is such regulatory support required, or do such actions fall under the discretionary powers of SGBs? Are actions targeting individual athletes and teams justified and proportional responses to actions committed by states unrelated to sports? To what extent must SGBs be consistent in the use of their sanctioning power and to what extent can the invasion of Ukraine be distinguished from other state violations to which SGBs have refused to respond? What role, if any, does the principle of contractual stability play when answering these questions?

The greatest challenge, as well as the greatest opportunity for systemic change, may, however, be unrelated to the specific actions taken in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine: what will now become of the principle of political neutrality? Even before the war it was obvious that the head-in-the-sand approach or, as Hoberman would have it, the “hysterical denial of reality”,Footnote 26 was untenable and that there was a pressing need for substantial change. The present situation and recent actions make undeniable what was already obvious: that no clean division between sports and politics is possible; that being passive is not the same as being politically natural; that staying silent serves the interests of those who commit injustices and seek to prevent discussions about injustices; and that sports stakeholders have an ethical responsibility to use the power provided by sports to speak out and act against injustice.Footnote 27

The actions by leading SGBs in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have effectively obliterated the pre-existing neutrality doctrine. The situation that prompted these actions is undoubtedly an extreme one. However, it cannot easily be isolated and explained away as a one-off. ISFs, national sporting federations, teams, and individual athletes that want to speak out and take actions against other injustices are now less likely to accept being barred from doing so by reference to the principle of political neutrality. After the IOCs and FIFAs of the world have broken their silence so totally, so loudly, one thing that is clear is that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle.

Notes

  1. See e.g. IOC, Code of Ethics, Art. 1.2.

  2. Naess 2018, p. 147.

  3. Hoberman 2011.

  4. Kidd 2013, pp. 418–419. Relatedly, Russia’s invasion ran blatantly counter UN Resolution 76/13, “Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal”, which calls for an Olympic Truce during the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games of 2022.

  5. Di Marco 2019, pp. 521, 633; Naess 2018, pp. 145–147.

  6. Hoberman 1986, p. 6.

  7. The absolute language of Rule 50 remains unchanged. However, the IOC has pragmatically resolved some of the tension by providing for some accommodations through game-specific ‘guidelines’ on the ‘implementation’ of Rule 50.

  8. O’Bonsawin 2015, pp. 202–204; Lindholm 2017.

  9. See e.g. Di Marco 2021, pp. 621–623; Lindholm 2017; Barry Svrluga, “Higher, faster ... tone-deafer? The IOC needs to wake up on its protest policies”, Washington Post, 11 June 2020; Thiel et al. 2016.

  10. See e.g. Di Marco 2021, p. 636; Naess 2018, pp. 148–149; Gauthier and Alford 2019, pp. 22–23.

  11. Newsweek, “World Cup 2022 Not Threatened by Qatar's Diplomatic Struggles, FIFA Chief Says”, 11 June 2017. Available at http://www.newsweek.com/world-cup-2022-not-threatened-qatar-struggles-fifa-624118 (accessed 7 March 2022).

  12. See e.g. Di Marco 2021, p. 639 (“It could be argued, for instance, that the very tolerant interpretation of the anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd represents the first historical breach of the Olympic ‘golden rule’ of neutrality of sport...”).

  13. IOC, “IOC EB recommends no participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials”, 28 February 2022. Available at https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-eb-recommends-no-participation-of-russian-and-belarusian-athletes-and-officials (accessed 6 March 2022).

  14. FIFA, “Bureau of the FIFA Council takes initial measures with regard to war in Ukraine”, 27 February 2022. Available at https://www.fifa.com/tournaments/mens/worldcup/qatar2022/media-releases/bureau-of-the-fifa-council-takes-initial-measures-with-regard-to-war-in (accessed 7 March 2022).

  15. FIFA, “FIFA/UEFA suspend Russian clubs and national teams from all competitions”, 28 February 2022. Available at https://www.fifa.com/tournaments/mens/worldcup/qatar2022/media-releases/fifa-uefa-suspend-russian-clubs-and-national-teams-from-all-competitions (accessed 7 March 2022).

  16. David Waldstein and Amy Chang Chien, “In Reversal, Paralympics Bars Athletes From Russia and Belarus”, New York Times, 3 March 2022. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/03/sports/olympics/paralympics-russia.html (accessed 7 March 2022).

  17. Such actions have even been taken by non-sport stakeholders. For example, Electronic Arts is removing Russian and Belarusian national and club teams from its popular football and ice-hockey video-games.

  18. UEFA, “2022 UEFA Champions League final to be held at Stade de France in Paris”, 25 February 2022. Available at https://www.uefa.com/uefachampionsleague/news/0272-14876a9f349c-c61e3670721f-1000--stade-de-france-to-stage-final/ (accessed 7 March 2022).

  19. FIA, “Formula 1 statement on the Russian Grand Prix”, 25 February 2022. Available at https://www.fia.com/news/formula-1-statement-russian-grand-prix (accessed 7 March 2022).

  20. UEFA, “UEFA ends partnership with Gazprom”, 28 February 2022. Available at https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/mediaservices/mediareleases/news/0272-148df50f5c71-e40e92534a4b-1000--uefa-ends-partnership-with-gazprom/ (accessed 7 March 2022).

  21. Formula 1, “Formula 1 terminates contract with Russian Grand Prix promoter”, 3 March 2022. Available at https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/article.formula-1-terminates-contract-with-russian-grand-prix-promoter.5geFNbONEePwRCSQj25Xg3.html (accessed 7 March 2022).

  22. Formula 1, “Haas part ways with Nikita Mazepin ‘with immediate effect’”, 5 March 2022. Available at https://www.formula1.com/en/latest/article.breaking-haas-to-part-ways-with-nikita-mazepin-with-immediate-effect.nmmqyclyJjFNkPJjQyiyF.html (accessed 7 March 2022).

  23. FIFA, ”FIFA adopts temporary employment and registration rules to address several issues in relation to war in Ukraine”, 7 March 2022. Available at https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/organisation/fifa-council/media-releases/fifa-adopts-temporary-employment-and-registration-rules-to-address-several (accessed 7 March 2022).

  24. Hoberman 2011.

  25. The President of the Appeals Division of the CAS has declined to suspend FIFAs and UEFAs suspension of FUR on a interim basis.

  26. Hoberman 2011, p. 20.

  27. Cf. Kidd 2013, pp. 422–423; Naess 2018, pp. 154–156; O’Bonsawin 2015, p. 215; Thiel et al. 2016, p. 254. See also Boykoff 2019, p. 4 (“the idea that the Olympics and politics don’t mix is fanciful fantasy, a mere fairy tale that IOC members tell each other around the evening fire. Nearly everything about the Olympics is political.”).

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Lindholm, J. How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shook sports’ foundation. Int Sports Law J 22, 1–4 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40318-022-00211-8

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