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HomeSportsOpinion - Marina Izidro: It is right to punish Russian athletes

Opinion – Marina Izidro: It is right to punish Russian athletes


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Imagine one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events at risk for lack of athletes. It almost happened at the Beijing Paralympics. There were so many delegations threatening a boycott if Russians and Belarusians competed that the president of the International Paralympic Committee, Brazilian Andrew Parsons, decided to exclude athletes from both countries hours before the opening ceremony.

This week, FIFA did the same. It had allowed Russians to compete in the Qualifiers for the World Cup in Qatar neutrally, without using the country’s name, but there was so much pressure from federations that the entity suspended Russia from international competitions, which leaves the country out of the World Cup. The cases continue in the courts.

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In recent days, virtually all sports have punished Russian athletes in some way. Some will allow them to participate as neutrals, without a flag or anthem, which ends up being a more symbolic punishment. This is the case with tennis (and have the courage to expel the new world number one, Daniil Medvedev). Others, like FIFA and Uefa in football, and volleyball, opted for exclusion. Organizations and federations have also withdrawn their competitions from Russian territory, such as the Formula 1 Sochi GP. That’s right. There is no alternative.

Athletes from Ukraine have already died in combat, and the country’s football team has asked for the playoff match against Scotland to be postponed because of the war. It doesn’t feel right to let Russia compete while Ukrainians can’t train, they’re running away, losing their lives.

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Many Russian athletes, in fact, are not to blame, they are victims of Putin’s system and war. Those who have the courage to speak out, like tennis player Andrey Rublev, who wrote “no war, please” on the camera lens at the ATP in Dubai, need to be applauded. But then is it right to penalize them for something over which they have no control? What difference does it make in war? Yes, punishment matters.

It matters because authoritarian regimes use sport as a tool of power to improve their own image. It matters because giving a country the privilege of hosting international events generates money and prestige. It matters because talking about the issue outside the political sphere allows people to see that something is wrong and to ask questions. It is important for athletes –many of them Brazilians– who work in Ukraine not to feel alone and forgotten. And because it’s not fair to criticize sportspeople when they don’t take a stand and, if they decide to unite for a cause, complaining that it won’t do any good.

I understand who considers it hypocrisy to punish Russians and not “such a country responsible for such a conflict, or that other that disrespects human rights…”. But perhaps this shows that the debate must continue. Taking a stand against Russia does not mean supporting other injustices. If they can no longer be corrected, what can be done going forward? Should Russia be punished indefinitely? Certainly not. So until when? How can we include sport as part of the change we want in the world but, at the same time, not be naive?

The fact is that the war put an end to the myth that sport and politics do not mix, a speech sometimes used for convenience when countries and sports organizations prefer not to act. A firm stance can influence decisions by powerful leaders. Athletes and public opinion have more power than they sometimes realize.

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