War in Ukraine: Can Sports Sanctions Derail Russia’s Invasion?

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys ice hockey and judo, but his country has been out of international sport since ordering the invasion of Ukraine in February.

Can sporting sanctions have any bearing on ending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? BBC World Service reporter and cricket historian Mo Allie is looking at the role sporting sanctions can play in politics, particularly how they helped end apartheid in his native South Africa.

European and world football’s governing bodies, Uefa and FIFA, have banned Russia and its clubs from participating in any of their competitions, with many others following suit.

Those responsible for motorsport – including Formula 1 – track and field, tennis, rugby and many others excluded Russian athletes, officials and teams.

Last week, the Wimbledon Championships banned players from the country in an attempt to “limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible”.

South Africans know all about the impact these sanctions can have after different sports in the country suffered varying periods of isolation from the 1960s to 1991, when the end of apartheid began.

“General sanctions, including sport, worked to bring down the apartheid regime, so it makes sense to do that with Russia as well,” former South African cricket chief Ali Bacher told BBC Sport Africa.

In 1948, laws in South Africa segregated people on the basis of their race and governed all aspects of life to benefit white minority rulers in a policy that came to be known as apartheid (Afrikaans for ‘apartment’).

Sanctions – especially in the areas of sport, economics, education, arts and culture – played a decisive role in the eventual end of apartheid and the installation of a democratic order in South Africa in 1994.

“You can’t face the world – that’s what they’re doing,” Bacher said.

“Unfortunately, Russian athletes have to suffer because of their leader, but so did we as South Africans. Many, including myself, did not support apartheid, but we also suffer the effects of isolation.”

The Doctor.  Ali Bacher, Executive Director of CWC 2003, welcomes the crowd to the opening ceremony of the 2003 Cricket World Cup at Newlands Cricket Ground in Cape Town.
Ali Bacher, pictured in 2003, organized rebel tours of South Africa during apartheid but led the country’s unified cricket council in its creation.

Bacher, 79, played a controversial rule in South African sport, organizing rebellious tours of the country in the 1980s – through countries including England, the West Indies and Australia – in a bid to maintain a certain level of cricket in his homeland.

These trips to a pariah nation so isolated by its apartheid policies drew angry headlines, but Bacher was also taking steps to develop cricket in black neighborhoods at the same time.

His role in creating a unified cricket board in 1991 – after contacting and building a close friendship with the head of the African National Congress’ sports bureau – resulted in South Africa’s readmission to international cricket more than two years earlier. the official end of apartheid.

“It wasn’t just sports sanctions that played a role in overthrowing apartheid,” added Bacher.

“Economic and other sanctions also helped, but the impact of sporting sanctions was very important considering the popularity of the sport among South Africans.

“We had the best (cricket) team in the world in 1970 and we didn’t come back to world cricket until 1991, so for 21 years world sanctions have impacted South African cricket, there is no doubt about that.”

However, they did not stop apartheid quickly.

Three decades of sports isolation

Introduced after the National Party’s electoral victory in 1948, apartheid laws were enforced for more than a decade before South Africa’s white-only national sports organizations’ membership of international bodies was gradually discontinued.

During this time, their unfettered access to international sport – while their black compatriots were denied these opportunities – began to stall.

A demonstration outside the Lord's Cricket Ground in London during the First Test between England and South Africa, UK, 24 July 1965. They are urging others to boycott the match in protest against Africa's apartheid policies southern.  (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
A demonstration outside the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London as South Africa visited England in 1965

Things started to change in the late 1950s, when South Africa’s all-white football association was barred from the first African Cup of Nations, before being suspended from FIFA in 1961 (and expelled completely in 1976).

When the white minority government refused to allow a team from England that included Basil D’Oliveira – a ‘Cape colored’ South African who had fled apartheid – to carry out a scheduled tour in 1968, the huge scandal triggered South Africa’s international sporting isolation.

Banned from the 1964 and 1968 Games, the white-only National Olympic Committee was kicked out of the Olympic movement in 1970 when South Africa was barred from a range of sports from track and field to wrestling.

Meanwhile, the 1969-70 visit to Australia – where Bacher’s white team recorded a famous 4-0 – was the last official tour organized by the South African Cricket Association, which was suspended indefinitely shortly afterwards.

The ‘soft dimension’

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was enormous pressure across the world for South Africa to release Nelson Mandela, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1964 after being found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government.

Anti-apartheid demonstrations took place across the world, with a sold-out concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in honor of the freedom fighter’s 70th birthday. Magnifying the problem when broadcast to 60 countries around the world.

Given the interests of many South African countries at the time, the sport became an incredibly useful way to harm many of those who ruled the country or lived as a supposedly superior race or both.

“The growing international calls for Mandela’s release were a universal movement that helped tremendously to isolate the apartheid regime – sport played a very important role in this,” said Professor Andre Odendaal, one of South Africa’s leading historians of sport, to BBC Sport Africa.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) celebrates Tagir Khaibulaev of Russia's gold medal in men's judo -100 kg on day 6 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL on August 2, 2012 in London, England.
In the photo celebrating a Russian gold medal in judo at the London 2012 Olympics, Putin defends sporting success

“Western interests were linked to South Africa’s economy and countries like Britain and the US supported the regime against liberation movements in the 1970s and early 1980s.

“Asking for lenient sanctions like sport were more acceptable than the grand appeal for economic sanctions and oil supply cuts.

“A key part of the sports boycott’s success was that it was a soft dimension of society that had a massive impact on white South Africans. They always felt part of the colonial world – ‘the supremacy of western civilization in darkest Africa’ as they called.”

Adequacy of sanctions?

During his long Russia presidency, Vladimir Putin has pushed the sport forward, with the country hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the last football World Cup in 2018, both at great cost, among a host of events.

The country’s attempts to achieve success in athletics through a State-sponsored doping regime it also clearly indicated the importance attached to giving Russians a sense of proud nationalism in their sporting success.

Although the Russian state forbids talking about “war” in Ukraine, calling it a “special military operation”. cannot help but question its citizens as to why sportsmen and women, and events, were effectively eliminated.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach (L) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the 2014 Winter Olympics on February 6, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Putin’s Olympic Order presented by the International Olympic Committee – the movement’s highest award – has been withdrawn

Professor Odendaal, whose work has helped rewrite the history of South African sport to include the role played by the country’s black majority, warns that sporting bodies need to be consistent in their use of sanctions.

“I have sympathy for those who try to use sanctions to help save the plight of the Ukrainian people. Can you imagine children lying in bomb shelters and basements living in terror of destruction?” he said.

“But if you’re going to use the outbreak of war as a reason to institute sanctions, then you have to be consistent about it.

“Apartheid was a clear situation of moral responsibility for people in a world where human rights and the right to human dignity for all were realized.

“But if you start supporting this or that country depending on which war is going on, we run the risk of not having the Olympics anymore.

“There are many conflicts, for example Saudi Arabia, an ally of certain people, being in Yemen and conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but there is no talk of introducing sanctions to help normalize these situations.”

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