Presidents Message: Sport and politics – are they really separated?

03. May 2022 / Category: News

Major sport events, like the Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup, and Formula I  all, including equestrian events, are often held in countries with disputed track records in the areas of human and animal rights, environmental protection and military involvement. 

There is a lot of criticism of that from many countries and organizations, but mostly from the modern society and the public opinion. Nevertheless, these major sport events take place in these countries because, as is said, sports and politics are supposed to be two separate worlds. 

Having said that, and although Olympic Games have been boycotted  in the past for political reasons, it is only recently with the exclusion of Russian athletes in just about all sports because of the invasion of Ukraine, that sports and politics have suddenly become more intertwined than ever.

The question is therefore “why has such action been taken now and how should we understand that”?

To understand it, we have to define a term that seems to be related to this development and is called “sports washing”, and how this tactic is dependent on or part of politics in general and in sports.

“Sports washing” means that a country uses a major sport event to polish its image. We have seen this happen in countries with disputed track records and we have seen International Sport Federations (IFs) allowing or facilitating it solely on sport and also financial grounds, without further discussions.

Politics in a general are hard to follow, but in this case it is worth giving an  example: during the UEFA Football Championship 2021, Germany played against Hungary in Munich.  The city council wanted to illuminate the stadium in rainbow colors because Hungary, which was a co-host of the tournament, had just passed an anti-LGBTQ law.  But UEFA rejected the proposal because they wanted to remain politically neutral. In the same game, team captains were allowed to wear a rainbow band to show support to the LGBTG community. .

This seems to be contradictory, however in the eyes of UEFA, lighting the stadium in rainbow colors for that specific game would have been a political statement against Hungary, while wearing a rainbow band in the game, according to UEFA,  would only represent standing up for human rights, which that is not a political statement.

Is this a valid argument or just a way to excuse a necessary political decision?

Also, about the invasion in Ukraine:  After Russia invaded Ukraine, the IOC called within days on all international sports federations to cancel or reschedule events in Russia and Belarus.

After a second call from the IOC,  teams and athletes from Russia and Belarus were no longer welcome in many sports, not even under a neutral flag. Most of the IFs members of the IOC followed suit.  

This all was done at a fast pace that has never been done before. Also, these calls were quite striking, especially when one looks at the statutes of the IOC where it says that they have to apply political neutrality.

Does this mean that the IOC and its member IFs have let go of this principle? Although it has the appearance of that, it is a bit more nuanced, because what the IOC condemned was not expressly the invasion of Ukraine. It used the timing of it to support its decision, that has to do with the Olympic charter (a non-binding UN resolution from 1993), which urges Nations not to carry out military action from 7 days before the start of the Olympic Games until 7 days after the conclusion of the Paralympic Games. As everyone knows, the invasion took place within that period.

Again, is this a valid argument or just a way to support a necessary political decision?

Is it possible, that the IOC would have allowed everything to continue normally, if the invasion had taken place a few days later? Would we otherwise   continue to go to Russia to play sports while that country would be waging a war in the Ukraine?

Another point to argue is that, what Russia is doing now, can be compared to the situation in the Middle East where, among other things, most of the countries in the region and some from the outside are involved in one way or another in bloody conflicts, even during the Olympic Games. This is happening also in other parts of the world. However, the IOC is making no similar calls to the international sport community, like they did with Russia.

The reason why Russia is now boycotted and the others are not, is (according to expert opinions) due to a conflicting situation where the West is now seriously threatened, while the major IFs are mainly run by people from the West, who find themselves awarding big tournaments to countries with disputed track records, because these countries have financial and/or political leverage in the international scene and sports business.

This is how we arrive to “sports washing”, that has lately become the cause and the means behind most of politics in sports. IFs struggle with this because they want to remain politically neutral, while on the other hand the social pressure to stand up for human and animal rights, the environment and for “positive social change”  is increasing not only in the West, but all around the world.

Why are countries with disputed records allowed to host large sports events?  The first reply from IFs is probably “because one way to unite the world is through sports”. 

Again, is this argument enough or just highlighted to support their multi-factored decisions and politics?

The question for the sports IFs will henceforth be how they will behave in the future, where the “social license” will be the standard for every IF to be measured against on an everyday basis? Will IFs continue to assign major sports events to countries with disputed records and continue to use the insufficient, in our view, argument of separation between politics and sports? Or are IFs going to take responsibility for their decisions and actions and show leadership in forming a fair, respectful and inclusive world through sports based on the, otherwise always readily invoked but often compromised, Olympic ideals?

As EEF, we pledge to do the latter.


Theo Ploegmakers

EEF President