It is easy to show support for Ukraine. Wear a ribbon or a badge. Use the up-to-date pronunciation — “Keef” not “Kee-yef”. Tell people how you have turned down the heating and take cold showers several days a week. But give up your favorite sporting show? Perhaps not.
The International Olympic Committee says Russian and Belarusian athletes may take part in the Paris 2024 games as “neutrals.” That would mark a step back from the boycott imposed on most sporting competitors from these countries since Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine nearly a year ago. In effect, it will be business as usual. At the Winter Olympics in 2018 and 2022 and the Summer Olympics in 2021, Russian athletes were also allowed to compete but without flags or national uniforms. This was a token punishment for their country’s systematic use of illegal drugs in sports and for the Russian state’s extraordinary efforts to conceal its misdeeds. That was bad. But invading another country is considerably worse.
Ukraine is furious. Sporting sanctions should drive home to the Russian and Belarusian people that the outside world abhors aggression. They would also reflect the fact that Russia’s invasion means Ukrainian athletes must train for Paris in dark, cold, and frightening conditions. Some cannot even do that. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, notes that since the onslaught in February 2023, Russians have killed 231 athletes and coaches. A further 15 are wounded, 28 taken prisoner, and four are missing. Sporting facilities have been among the civilian infrastructure devastated by Russian missile strikes.
On the other side of the front line, things are different. Some Russian athletes have close ties with the military; others have been pictured at pro-war rallies, sporting the loathed Z symbol. Are Ukrainians really expected to share the changing rooms, tracks, and podiums of Paris with them?
If the IOC won’t impose sanctions, others will. Some key Ukrainian allies, such as the Baltic states, Denmark, and Poland, have already said they will boycott Paris if competitors from the aggressor country and its accomplice are allowed to come.
But such pressure goes down badly on Mount Olympus, or rather at its modern-day equivalent in Lausanne, Switzerland. The IOC says an all-out ban would breach the Olympic Charter and other principles that prohibit “discrimination.” It could also lead to “further escalation.” Politicians should stop “misusing” athletes and sports for political reasons, it intones.
Yet, from 1970 to 1991, the anti-apartheid movement successfully isolated South Africa from international sports. Complaints about unfair discrimination and politicization made little impact. However admirable or innocent individual South African contenders might be, we did not want to bestow any legitimacy on the racist regime in their home country.
Three decades later, however, the post-apartheid “rainbow nation” cozies up to Russia and China, shunning the Ukrainian and Tibetan causes. It is a similar story elsewhere: countries with first-hand experience of colonialism are strikingly uninterested in helping victims of the Kremlin’s imperialism. This stems not from mere ignorance. Ukraine is paying the price for the West’s long-standing neglect of the rest of the world on everything from global trade rules to dealing with planet-cooking emissions and provision of public-health goods such as vaccines. Justified resentment against the West on these issues is fanned by Russian and Chinese lobbying and dirty tricks.
The big lesson here is that the West’s support for Ukraine is broad but shallow. We are willing to spend billions, but not to interrupt our voters’ pastimes. Nor are we willing to think seriously about the flaws in the international system we are so keen to defend. No prizes for that.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.