By Sasha Matar
For athletes and fans, sports can be an outlet to decompress from life stressors. Professional sports are supposed to be an outlet for entertainment and friendly competitions (even when it's competitive). They are also supposed to be a forum where professional athletes can be their truest selves. So how is it that the Russia/Ukraine war has become an athlete's war too?
In February, just days after the Russia/Ukraine war erupted, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced in an official statement that the IOC "recommends that International Sports Federations and sports event organizers not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions". The IOC did not only implement an Olympic ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes, but also encouraged all sanctioning bodies in the Sports world to do the same.
As the months passed by, more athletes, teams and international sports organizations moved to boycott Russia, thus affecting Russian athletes as well as athletes in surrounding countries. However, different sports organizations have reacted to the war differently. Let's take a closer look at some sports.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has announced that athletes will be able to participate in ITF tour events, but they can't compete under Russian or Belarusian flags. However, Wimbledon announced that they will ban Russian and Belarusian players from participating in the June tournament. As a result, the World Tennis Association and ATP tour announced that they will not be awarding ranking points from this year's Wimbledon tournament.
Both FIFA and UEFA announced that Russia's national team and club teams are suspended from all international competitions until further notice. The 2022 Champions League final was supposed to take place in St. Petersburg, Russia and was eventually moved to France as a result of the war and sanctions.
International Paralympic Committee
Few months ago, the IPC announced that Russian and Belarusian athletes will be allowed to participate in the 2022 Beijing Paralympic Games under a neutral flag, but they quickly reversed that decision and expressed that those athletes are "the victims of their governments' actions".
The International Federation of Automobile (FIA) announced that Russian and Belarusian drivers are allowed to compete under the "FIA flag", considered as the neutral flag. Nevertheless, there will be no FIA competition in Russia or Belarus.
Following the IOC recommendation, the International Ski Federation (FIS) also banned Russian and Belarusian skiers from competing in any competition until further notice, and they proceeded to cancel all remaining 2021-2022 tournaments in Russia.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) also suspended all national teams and clubs from Russia and Belarus as well as withdrew Russia's hosting rights for the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championships.
Russian and Belarusian professional athletes are definitely suffering from the aftermath of this war, but what about Ukrainian athletes and other professional athletes caught in the political crossfire? In a figurative and literal sense, this has become an athlete's war too. Half of the athletes are left with no courts/fields/gyms to train. The other half are wondering how they can continue to participate in international tournaments while their country is at war. Ukrainian professional athletes are now swapping their sports equipment and sportswear for weapons and body armor. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Vasiliy Lomochenko, star tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky, and Olympic Skier Dmytro Mazurchuk are among the many athletes who left the comfort of their homes (outside of Ukraine) and families to sign up to the Ukrainian military.
Professional athletes all over the world are also affected by this war. The ATP tour's decision of revoking Wimbledon's rankings has turned this prestigious event into a simple exhibition. Players who performed very well last year are being punished by this decision and big tennis stars like Naomi Osaka are considering sipping the Wimbledon tournament altogether. Novak Djokovic is expected to lose his No 1 ranking, while a lot of mid-ranked players will be out of the top 100. With more international tournaments coming up, decisions can be made and changed at any time.
The sports world does not have a united front as to how to deal with this situation nor does any decision seem fair to all parties involved - in the end, this is a war between two nations. Russia's most recognized athletes have gone to social media expressing their support for Ukraine and urging for the war to stop. Fedor Smolov, a recognized soccer player on the Russian national team, posted a black square on Instagram with the hashtag #NOtowar. This gets even more complicated for people and athletes with mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage that are caught in the midst of it all. Tatiana Volosozhar, Russian-Ukrainian Olympic figure skater and world champion, was born and first skated in Ukraine but has Russian parents. She also posted a black square with the hashtag #NOtowar.
Not to mention that this war will have detrimental damage and wreck athletic capabilities of Russian sports teams and sports in general for decades to come. Financially, teams and athletes won't be allowed to participate in international leagues, thus affecting revenue tremendously. More importantly, athletic youth will be affected the most as this is their time to shine and learn from participating in different international tournaments and camps.
How will this continue to unfold? What will Russian and Belarusian professional athletes do as their professional sporting career comes to a halt with no foreseeable positive outcome? How will International Sports Federations deal with the unknown? Well, those are questions for yet another blog.