Column: Banning Russian Sports Probably Won’t Stop Putin’s War


“It’s naive for anyone to think that sports and politics don’t mix,” Olympic historian Bill Mallon said Friday. “In an ideal world, they wouldn’t. But I don’t know how you are doing.

When Germany and its allies were banned from the Olympics after World War I, it did little to prevent an even more gruesome conflict from erupting less than two decades later.

Along the way, Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Summer Olympics to score major propaganda points for a regime that was already well on its way to starting World War II.

South Africa was first banned from the Olympics in 1964, but it would still take a quarter of a century for its diabolical system of racial segregation to fall – and there is no indication that sport played a major role in the epic transformation.

“I don’t think the boycotts contributed to the end of apartheid,” said Angelo Fick, a political analyst in South Africa.

Ditto for the 1980 American Olympic boycott, which mainly led to the Soviet Union launching its own boycott of the Los Angeles Games four years later. The Soviets did not bail out Afghanistan until 1989.

That’s not to say the International Olympic Committee and most other major governing bodies were irrelevant when they swiftly ousted Russia and its accomplice, Belarus, for waging a seemingly unprovoked war against a neighboring country.

But no one should look at these sporting sanctions through rose-colored glasses.

“I don’t think it’s as influential,” said Usha Haley, a professor of international business and management at Wichita State University, who has extensively studied the effects of sanctions in South Africa. . “Yes, there is a symbolic influence, and symbolism matters. Appearing fair is important. But will it really change anything? It’s unlikely.

Mallon even predicts that Russia will attempt to launch its own Olympic-style competition if the IOC ban remains in place ahead of the 2024 Paris Games.

Although such an undertaking is particularly difficult given the financial difficulties that Russia is feeling and the chances of surviving against the monster that is the Olympics are extremely slim, Putin’s ego could very well lead him down this chimerical path. .

“I think they’re going to end up having an Olympic breakaway if they keep being banned for a really long time,” Mallon said.

Again, history provides some guidance.

In 1936, a People’s Olympiad was planned in Barcelona to protest the Summer Olympics being held in Nazi Germany, attracting support from a significant number of athletes as well as the Soviet Union.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War scuttled these plans, and the alternate Olympics became a footnote in history when World War II broke out three years later.

Mallon brings up another Olympic-style event that actually kicked off in the middle of the Cold War.

After being suspended by the IOC for its politically charged organization of the 1962 Asian Games, which Taiwan and Israel were denied entry to, Indonesia launched its own sports organization, GANEFO, or New Emerging Forces Games.

Indonesian leader Sukarno, who said the Olympics were “a tool of imperialists and colonialists”, welcomed a total of 51 nations to the first GANEFO in 1963, although many did not send their best athletes for fear of retaliation from the IOC.

The People’s Republic of China, which at the time was not recognized by the IOC, topped the medal table. A team from “Arab Palestine” also participated.

An Asian-only GANEFO was held in 1966, but plans for further large-scale games the following year in Cairo, Egypt were scuttled.

While the world seems largely united against Putin’s Russia at the moment, Mallon can predict that Moscow will hold some sort of GANEFO-style competition in 2024 if the Olympics are banned.

Countries like Belarus, Syria and North Korea would likely participate, Mallon said, and don’t rule out China and India – which have been reluctant to fully condemn Ukraine’s invasion – sending teams in a competition run by Moscow although they are also taking part in the Paris Games.

In the meantime, the IOC-led sanctions against Russia and Belarus will no doubt raise more questions about the relevance of sports taking sides in such conflicts.

As always, the brunt of the impact will be borne by the athletes, many of whom have no stake in the political machinations of the country in which they were born. Again, this pain is nothing compared to the horrors faced by Ukrainian citizens.

Moreover, there will certainly be accusations of double standards in favor of Western nations, accusations that Putin will no doubt try to use to rally support at home.

“The US-led Olympic boycott (in 1980) was a US objection to the invasion of Afghanistan, when just five years earlier it had backed down from its own disastrous misadventure in Vietnam,” Fick said. “It’s not an impartial situation.”

In an ideal world, it would never be necessary to mix sports with political machinations or the horrors of war.

Unfortunately, this ship sailed a long time ago.

Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at) or and check out his work at

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