Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted people to choose sides, and athletes and their governing bodies are no exception.
As Russian tanks roll into Ukraine, athletes around the world are using their platforms to speak up, with their messages often amplified by social media.
The global organizations that regulate tennis, football, the Olympics — even the Ontario Hockey League — have been involved. They have gone from signs of support for Ukraine, to outright competitive bans for Russian athletes.
“I immediately thought of the athletes,” said Danielle Campo McLeod, a Paralympic swimming gold medalist and world record holder from Windsor, Ontario.
“I can really empathize with how devastated I would feel if that choice was made for me.”
Sports bubble burst
On Friday, the president of the Ukrainian Paralympic committee touted his team’s ability to carry a gold medal despite the turmoil at home.
The team barely made it to the Olympics due to problems caused by the war, and just before its opening ceremony, the International Paralympic Committee expelled athletes from Russia and Belarus.
The Olympics are often in their own bubble, says Campo McLeod, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that the world of sport is impenetrable to what’s happening.
“I think seeing this and everything in our hands lately, it just goes to show that it wasn’t the bubble, and I think we’ll see a change in the future from this, but I hope we can always remember the spirit of sport.” he said. said.
The International Olympic Committee has notoriously avoided political turmoil, as seen earlier this year when many condemned the competition in Beijing for ignoring civil liberties, making outright bans on Russian and Belarusian athletes relatively “unusual.”
That’s according to Ann Pegoraro, Lang Chair in Sports Management at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Many countries have historically been able to avoid political trouble at international events, he said.
“For a long time we have seen the idea that sport and politics cannot be united, [IOC] particularly like to make athletes apolitical when they compete, but I think the last few weeks have shown us that is no longer possible,” said Pegoraro.
“We are watching international sports federations grapple with their charter and regulations to see how they can enforce this ban, so they have to re-examine themselves.”
Athlete in the middle
As governing bodies figure out what to do, athletes recognize their own agency in a political situation like this, Pegoraro said.
“I think this is the beginning of more political activism from the athletes,” Pegoraro said. “I think we’re going to see an increase in athletes stepping forward in this situation because they have a voice, they have this platform now on social media, and they have a lot of agency when countries compete.”
Something Campo McLeod said is also becoming more common.
“I think there is a new confidence to be able to share and I think we are also giving a new responsibility to our athletes.
“We know they work hard and we know they have put in the dedication to reach such a high level, so there is a level of respect given, and people will listen and people will be interested in what they have to say.”
Earlier this month, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) issued a statement condemning Russia’s actions, saying it agreed with the move by the International Ice Hockey Federation and Canadian Hockey to suspend Russia and Belarus from international competition.
“OHL is in constant communication with its member teams, monitoring the well-being of all players and especially European players coming from countries directly affected by the conflict,” the statement said.
Windsor Spitfires OHL itself has two Russian players on its roster this season.
“These young student athletes have the full support of the Ontario Hockey League as they continue to represent their respective teams, regardless of their country of origin,” the OHL statement said.
While many athletes have spoken out against war, some – such as those from Russia – may not be able to freely share their opinions for fear of repercussions from their home country, said Craig Greenham, professor of kinesiology at the University of Windsor.
“I think in certain countries that don’t necessarily have our human rights record, athletes are bullied until they can’t speak, and we’re even seeing that with Russians in North America today,” he said. said.
“They live in a North American context where we expect them to stand up and say something, but they have a reality in Russia that I think makes them a little bit more introverted.”
There may be more desire for athletes to speak out now in the West, says Greeham, but that may not be the case around the world.
He also wondered whether the type of ban seen in the sporting world would now be sustainable, if Russia continued to occupy Ukraine.
“It will be interesting to observe how countries will treat Russia going forward,” he said.
“How long are we going to be moral about this? I don’t have much faith in our determination to isolate Russia for, say, 10 years if it stays in Ukraine that long.”
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