Long read: Russia pushes for return to international sport

Zenit Saint Petersburg
Zenit Saint Petersburg Source: Siim Semiksaar. ERR Sport

Shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) instructed sports federations to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from their competitions. However, more recently, there have been increasing suggestions that they may soon return to top-level international sport. Indrek Kannik, head of the International Center for Defense Studies, Tallinn University senior lecturer in recreation management Kaarel Zilmer, Estonian Ice Hockey Federation President Rauno Parras, and basketball legend Heino Enden discussed the situation on Vikeraadio.

A few weeks ago, IOC President Thomas Bach said: "Since athletes from aggressor countries will return to international sport at some point whatever happens, it is time to consider when, and under what conditions this might happen."

Last week, Back went even further, saying that Russian athletes who condemn the war could be allowed back into top-level international sport.

At the same time, European football's governing body UEFA, has confirmed that the Russian team will not participate in the 2024 European Championships, and both the International Biathlon Union (IBU) and International Skating Union (ISU) have extended their bans on Russian and Belarusian athletes.

However, there are sporting federations, which have from the outset, taken a softer line towards Russia. In some cases, this may be due to a heavy reliance on money linked to Russia, while for others, the war in Ukraine appears to be a rather distant concern.

Former Estonian Minister of Defense Indrek Kannik, who is now director of the International Centre for Defense Studies and a keen sports fan, does not believe there will be a fundamental change in the attitude of the sporting community towards Russia in the near future.

"It seems to me that Russian (athletes) will not be allowed back to compete in the near future. There is too much opposition to it in most Western European countries. If most of the leading athletes and federations say they don't agree with it, it simply won't happen," Kannik said.

"Why this kind of speculation consistently arises is not, in my opinion, due to governing bodies of sporting organizations in lots of nations being corrupt, but rather because they are heavily influenced by totalitarian superpowers. I am not just talking about Russia, but also China. The influence of these countries on sporting organizations is huge, and they are probably also trying to use them as a means of influencing other international organizations too."

Do IOC Chief Thomas Bach's statements suggest Russian influence?

"Thomas Bach has been on good terms with President Putin for a long time. In March 2022, Bach was able to express his opposition more clearly, but I tend to think that this was largely a result of public pressure. If we look at the Chinese tennis player (Peng Shuai - ed) who was in the news in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics for disappearing, so to speak, Bach later took part in the operation to absolve China by doing an interview with Shuai herself on TV. We all know that once he (Bach) was in China, there was nothing else she (Shuai) could say. She had no chance to say: "Yes, I told the truth." Bach plays this game very well, but I have no confidence in him."

According to Kannik, sport is a key area for totalitarian regimes. "Totalitarian regimes are very keen to show their power through sport. This is nothing new, it has been done by the leaders of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, East Germany and modern-day China. In the case of Russia, the question is, whether it is worth giving them the chance at all, because, as we (also) know from recent years, doping in Russia is state-sponsored. I am quite sure that it has not gone away and will continue to happen. The Russians are doing a lot to absolve themselves of any responsibility, but the game continues."

Indrek Kannik Source: Kirke Ert/ERR

Michel Vion, head of the International Ski Federation (FIS), attracted a great deal of attention recently, after announcing that Russian and Belarusian athletes may soon be allowed to return to the international arena. Vion's suggestion that they could return at next February's FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia at the latest, brought anger from both the Norwegian Skiing Federation and retail giant Coop, the main sponsor of the FIS.

Last week, the FIS technical committees met in Zurich for their annual fall meeting. Kaarel Zilmer, a senior lecturer in recreation management at Tallinn University and ski instructor, has decades of experience dealing with a range of ski teams and the FIS. Zilmer, who previously served as general secretary of the Estonian Ski Association (ESA), has also led the Estonian national team in international competitions and written extensively on skiing.

"With regard to Vion's speech, I think you have to be careful when you convey these kinds of messages. When the Secretary General of the FIS says something and the next day there is a rush to correct it, it firstly shows the weakness of the current FIS leadership and, secondly, that the Secretary General does not coordinate his statements with the (rest of the) leadership," said Zilmer.

What are the views of other ski federations when it comes to Russia?

"They are very different. In March, for example, a former Finnish national team coach said it would be a big blow if Russian skiers were excluded from international competitions. However, in general everything is accepted calmly. The Norwegians didn't go to the Congress in Zurich and let's just say there wasn't much point in being there (The Norwegian Ski Federation refused to participate in the annual FIS meeting this September in protest at the presence of the Russian and Belarusian federations – ed.). The Finns stayed calm and went about their business. It should be pointed out, that the Russian delegation that went to Zurich, there were only about 10 or 15 skiers, and no one except the federation president has an important enough role in FIS to potentially complicate or threaten its activities."

Zilmer believes the war must end before Russian athletes can be allowed to compete in international competitions again. "The war has to end, the aggression has to stop, normal life as such has to return to some extent. Then we can start to develop sport, culture and other areas. This cannot happen in the current climate."

Kaarel Zilmer Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Last week, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) also held its congress, during which the surprise decision was made to allow Russia and Belarus to return to international competitions, once the war in Ukraine is over. Rauno Parras, chair of the board of the Estonian Ice Hockey Association (Eesti JäähokiLiit), who was present at the congress, described the mood in the ice hockey community.

"There was one item on the agenda, which resulted in the congress giving a mandate to the IIHF Board to reinstate Russia and Belarus in the top division. That is, of course, (only) once the war is over, which is perhaps the most important message of this decision. However, it came as something of a surprise, and after the decision had been made, many said they had no idea of the seriousness. In total, around 100 unions voted, 10 of them against, 18 abstained and the rest agreed with the mandate," Parras recalled.

"We were against it, because the war should be over before a matter like this is even discussed. Unfortunately, our vote was not enough. In itself, this decision is not entirely wrong, because it presupposes the fact that the war will be over. Nor did anyone expect Russia and Belarus to start again from the lower divisions, because in terms of level, their place is in the highest division. We just felt that it was the wrong time to give this kind of mandate, which in turn sends out the wrong signal."

"There are different points of view, but the truth is, that even some European countries do not take this debate as seriously as we do. After the vote, we were told that for us the war is much closer than for them. It was the opposite case for New Zealand, which voted against the mandate, even though they are very, very far away(from Russia). Yet, they see the current situation in the same way we do. The main thing we also said was, that the agenda item for the mandate should have been sent to the unions at least a week in advance. Then everyone would have had enough time to formulate their positions. Clearly, there is a financial motive behind this decision, because one of the IIHF's major donors is (sports marketing company) Infront, for whom the Russian market is very important."

How do countries feel about players who earn their living in the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League – an international ice hockey league comprising of teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and China)?

"Let's put it this way: the predominant approach is that KHL players have no place in their national teams. One of France's best players opted to stay in the KHL, even though they tried to talk him out of it. The player himself said, that he is 33 years old, earns three times as much in the KHL as he would elsewhere in Europe, and that the national team is no longer important to him. There must be more players like him, because the money paid in the KHL is very high compared to the rest of Europe."

"On the other hand, Slovakia hasn't put any restrictions on its players, so anyone who wants to play in the KHL and represent the (Slovakian) national team can do so. This has, allegedly, caused a rift between their star player and the president of the (Slovakian) federation," Parras said.

While Parras said he believes that the KHL will be able cope under the current circumstances, it is clear that the sanctions will have an impact on Russian sport.

Head of the Estonian Ice Hockey Association Rauno Parras Source: Personal Collection

Heino Enden, who was part of the Soviet Union basketball team which won gold in both 1982 World Championships and the European Championships in 1985, knows the Russian sporting community and clubs very well.

"Certainly, the current situation is affecting Russian sport, and very strongly. Particularly as they have no outlet on the international stage, and athletes are generally noticed and judged on the basis of (their performances in) international competitions. If we take basketball, their absence from the EuroLeague is having an impact because top clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona are no longer coming to play in Russia. In the KHL, you can see that there has been a noticeable drop in attendance levels, because there are not as many top players as there were before," Enden said.

"I was talking to a well-known Russian sports journalist the other day and he said that he had always had all the sports packages on TV, but now he's giving up on them because there's just no sport on. Or if there is, it's really obscure, just to fill up the screen time."

How long can top Russian clubs like CSKA or Zenit survive before their sporting standards start to significantly decline in comparison to other top European clubs?

"Their level will drop regardless, because the interest of sponsors will start to wane. Also, if you don't have an audience, which is how club's make a significant amount of their income, you can't buy players like you used to. You have to remember, that the primary concern of a club like CSKA is not to become champions of Russia, but to achieve something more, and it is getting harder and harder to do that."

Only time will tell how long Russian and Belarusian athletes will be excluded from international sporting life. However, as recent developments clearly show, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the international sporting community to find a common stance on the issue.

Heino Enden Source: ERR


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Editor: Michael Cole

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