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Olympics, FIFA bans won’t stop Russia invading Ukraine. But it hits Putin where it hurts

Russia loves sports and pours billions of rubles into it every year. And Putin loves being a judo-playing, horse-riding Tsar.

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For all those who claim that ‘sports should not be mixed with politics’ and have miraculously avoided reading about the outcomes of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, here’s the lowdown: numerous sports federations and governing bodies have banned Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams from major sports competitions until ‘further notice’. The list includes football governance bodies FIFA and UEFA, the International Olympic Committee, Formula One body Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile and many more. In fact, many sportspersons, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a heartfelt message, have condemned Kremlin’s actions.

It’s undoubtedly a blow for the regime that spent billions organising the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and then devised an elaborate doping scandal to be at the receiving end of all the glory and prestige that comes the victors’ way at the grandest stage in sports — just to portray itself as a sporting superpower.

You might ask what sports boycotts mean in front of international economic sanctions — a lot, especially in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russia loves sports and produces some of the best from Daniil Medvedev to Maria Sharapova.

Also Read: There’s no Russia at the Olympics, but its athletes are winning medals in Tokyo. Here’s how

Sports and sanctions on Russia

Sports sanctions may not have major economic effects to deter the Russian regime from changing its stance on Ukraine but it sure does feel like a collective and cultural boycott of the sports-loving nation due to its bloody invasion. And this matters to Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. The money crunch that arises from these sanctions and boycotts will take a toll on the grassroot sports institutions and clubs in Russia. This might directly affect the future athletes that these small clubs nurture and train, and may alter sports in the country for years to come. For a country that spent 148.8 billion rubles on sports last year, this is a significant development.

It is also well known that Putin employs sports as a tool to flex and maintain his well-manufactured macho (bare-chested horseback riding, judo slamming) persona internationally and at home as a popular strongman leader. He has been an ardent judo practitioner from a very young age, and it must’ve bothered him when the International Judo Association stripped him of the title of honorary president.

While the Kremlin ruler might see the fact that these sports sanctions play into his narrative of ‘us against the world’ well in Russia as a silver lining, he must also aware of the backlash if they continue in the long haul. As in the absence of all the grand sporting spectacles that Russia organises for its vanity, and to con the masses into believing in Putin’s larger than life persona, his regime is left vulnerable to the only audience that matters to him — his own countrymen and women.

Russia navigated its way through the annexation of Crimea in 2014 without any major sporting consequences. But the game seems different this time around.

Also Read: How Vladimir Putin keeps everyone guessing


In a rare move, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has historically been pro-Russia, called for blanket bans against Russia and appealed to cancel or move any event that was to be held in the country. The Paralympics committee also boycotted Russian and Belarusian athletes from the event recently, after it had first allowed their participation. These moves, however, came after other athletes threatened to abandon the games.

It followed in the footsteps of FIFA and UEFA, which were one of the first ones to react to the Russian atrocities. FIFA kicked the Russian men’s team out of the Football World Cup’s qualifying match and the tournament that is to be played in Qatar, while UEFA announced that no Russian clubs would be allowed to compete in its three international club competitions — Champions League, Europa League and Conference League — until ‘further notice’, and also ruled it out of the Women’s European Championships in England this summer.

UEFA also relocated the Champions League final from St. Petersburg to France and terminated its sponsorship deal with Russian energy firm Gazprom and expelled Russian club Spartak Moscow from competing in this year’s Europa League.

The actions of IOC, FIFA and UEFA, however, have garnered special attention and calls of hypocrisy because of their neglect of human rights violations like what Uyghurs Muslims face in China and migrant workers face in Qatar.

Meanwhile, English Premier League giants Chelsea F.C. has been feeling the effects of the sanctions imposed on its Russian owner Roman Abramovich. Chelsea, due to the sanctions on its owners by the British government, has been feeling more like a outlier in the footballing world. The club has been barred from the transfer window and the expense on the organisation of football matches in its home ground has been reduced massively.

The Russian Grand Prix, scheduled for 25 September, has also been cancelled by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).

Boxing organisations, including World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association, World Boxing Organisation and the International Boxing Federation, came together to announce that they would refrain from sanctioning any boxing bouts or championships in the country and called for peace. Meanwhile, the mayor of Kyiv and heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, along with his brother Wladimir Klitschko (also a legendary heavyweight champion in boxing), called for a ban on the upcoming match between boxing superstar Canelo Alvarez and his Russian opponent Dmitry Bivol.

Also Read: Russia is under a memory spell. It’s why Putin can’t give up on Ukraine

Ukrainian athletes ‘heroes’

On the other hand, Ukrainian athletes have listed themselves to fight against the Russian invasion and are on the front lines. They are being hailed as heroes to the dismay of the Russian regime and Putin.

Celebrated Ukrainian boxing legends like the Klitschko brothers, recently crowned heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, Vasilly Lomachenko, among others, have joined the fight.

But there has also been some sigh of sympathy for the Russian athletes — as this situation seems to be imposed upon them. Even for the ones that have been historically close to Putin and his regime — like NHL’s legendary player Alexander Ovechkin.

Sports sanctions may not get Russian tanks from rolling into Ukraine, but it has quite the long-term cost for sports-loving Russia.

And Putin won’t like that.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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