Several sanctions have been imposed upon Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine a year ago, on the 24th of February 2022, which initiated the ongoing war that is estimated to have killed so far over 7,100 civilians and 200,000 soldiers. As a consequence, Russia has been the target of sanctions aimed at weakening its economy, such as the European Union’s ban on imports of oil and coal, on the export of ammunition and military vehicles, and on the SWIFT ban for 10 Russian banks, among others.
With little over a year before the Paris Summer Olympics, a political question looms over the event: will Russian athletes be able to compete? At the beginning of the war, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) encouraged their ban from international competitions. However, more recently, this decision appeared to be partially reversed. The IOC did in fact impose sporting sanctions on both Russia and Belarus, which included the prohibition of athletes of both nations to represent their countries – a decision deemed to be “non-negotiable” – but they would still be allowed to participate in the diverse competitions and events as “neutral athletes” – as justified through the following phrase: “No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport”. As a response, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the terrorism could not be “covered up with some pretended neutrality or white flag”.
On the one hand, 40 countries, including Ukraine, Poland and the United States, have adhered to the boycott of the Games if Russian athletes are allowed to participate. On the other hand, the IOC states that this action would be a violation of the Olympic charter, as it mandates the countries to send athletes and that “As history has shown, previous boycotts did not achieve their political ends and served only to punish the athletes of the boycotting countries”. A fact to remember is that the 2024 Olympics, under normal circumstances, would see the return of Russian athletes competing under the Russian flag, after their 2-year ban due to doping.
The Olympic Games go all the way back to Ancient Greece, with the first written evidence being from 776 BC, showing the measurement of time in Olympiads – equivalent to the duration between each edition of the Games. Back then, they were held every 4 years to honour the god Zeus through various activities ranging from music and singing to the discus throw. However, they were eventually banned by Roman Emperor Theodosius I and were not revived until the 19th century. After several attempts due to the lack of coordination between countries, the first Olympic Games of the modern era, in 1896, would revisit its originating country, having been held in Athens. Through the link of sport and culture, the Olympic Games have as principle the construction of a better world through sport without discrimination, leading to the development of physical and mental qualities.
Going back in time
Since then, the Games have developed throughout the years with women starting to compete in the 1900’s Paris Games. Yet, only in the London 2012 Games would women be able to compete in all sports of the programme. The 1904’s St. Louis Games saw the first known disabled person to compete, with the 1912 Games being the first to have competitors from all 5 continents. 1936 saw the Games being broadcasted for the first time, but, as a result of being held in Berlin at such a turning point in history, they ended up serving as a way to disseminate propaganda of the Nazi regime. Having been cancelled in the meantime due to two World Wars and postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming Games are expected to take the stage in Paris next year.
Politics & The Olympics
Although the Olympic Games have been widely viewed as a success, uniting people from diverse nations to celebrate various sporting events, they have not been immune to controversies. Some critics have accused the Olympics of allowing politics to infiltrate what was intended to be a neutral environment, with territories such as China, Brazil and Russia leveraging the event’s favourable image to boost their own international image whilst often engaging in questionable human rights and environmental practices. More crucially, however, the Games have also had a long history of politically charged boycotts.
Following the World Wars, the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics marked the first great challenge to the modern Olympics, as the first attempts to boycott began to rise, with states from Europe, Africa and Asia choosing not to send their athletes to the event. Protesting the Soviet Union’s quash of Hungarian attempts of independence, Spain, The Netherlands, and Switzerland skipped the event, eventually joined by Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon. At the same time, Cambodia was protesting the Israeli invasion of the Sinai Peninsula and the People’s Republic of China the participation of Taiwan in the global event as an independent country.
Tensions remained high in the lead up to the 1964 Tokyo edition, as Indonesia mounted a competing sports competition for the emerging economies, GANEFO, calling the Olympics and the International Olympic Committee “an imperialist tool”. In response, Indonesia was temporarily banned from the IOC and GANEFO participants were barred from attending the Olympics. The Tokyo edition also marked the start of South Africa’s 28-year ban, following the country’s segregation policies and refusal to send multiracial teams to the event. The Cold War incited yet another wave of boycotts, as the opposing superpowers avoided each other’s Games, with a record 65 nations refusing to participate in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, leaving it with the lowest number of participating federations in almost 30 years.
Despite the numerous attempts, many still question the point of political challenges to Olympic participation as there has rarely, if ever, been a significant political shift as a result. Hungary only gained independence more than 30 years after the first boycott in their support, the Suez Canal crisis still happened, emerging nations eventually all embraced the “imperialist” Games and South Africa´s Apartheid still lasted for almost 3 decades in spite of their ban.
While many can agree that a protest in one of the biggest stages in the world can certainly bring awareness to these issues, most had already been widely covered by the media by the time the issue reached the sporting world. The efforts’ lasting impact, sadly, has only been leaving national athletes to wait for 4 more years to follow their dreams, and a permanent dent on the Olympic legacy. With the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on its first-year anniversary, and with the Paris 2024 Olympic preparations well underway, calls for boycotts have been rising once again. The question now raised is whether in an effort to show solidarity for the Ukrainian people we are letting history repeat itself by penalizing Russian athletes for the ongoing war their president has started.
Sources: Statista, BBC News, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, International Olympic Committee, RTP, BBC Sport, NPR, Paris 2024, HISTORY, The New York Times, Britannica