COLUMN: Will sport ever stop getting closer to strong men?

Strongmen and sport have always been a hellish match, but that had never bothered the august members of the International Olympic Committee before. Besides, who could have predicted that Russia and China would use the Games as a pretext to suppress dissent or invade a neighboring country?

Everyone except the unwitting dupes of the IOC (and FIFA, for that matter, but more on that in a moment).

Never mind that history is replete with examples of tyrants using such spectacles to signal their lofty ambitions or, at the other extreme, pretending to be die-hard supporters of a rules-based society. Apparently the IOC members skipped those unfortunate chapters. So imagine their disappointment to learn that Russia actually went ahead with its invasion of Ukraine just days after the closing ceremonies in Beijing. Even Germany waited three years after the end of the 1936 Berlin Games to start war against Europe.

Better late than never – at least it beat Switzerland to the punch – the IOC finally fought back. On Monday, he called on sports federations and organizers around the world to “not invite or allow” athletes and officials from Russia and its ally Belarus to participate in international competitions. According to the same statement, the committee’s executive board made the decision “with a heavy heart,” as if all the previous times the Russians had been caught cheating at the Olympics and got away with a slap on the wrist. fingers weren’t sad enough.

No matter.

To date, the list of sports banning Russian athletes has exceeded a dozen and reads like an Olympic list, unsurprisingly and a scathing indictment of the IOC’s desire to award the Games to any nation that would show up with a big checkbook, no matter how ill-gotten the gains are. It’s the same approach employed by FIFA, the international governing body of football and the IOC’s only real rival to get closer to the autocrats.

But there’s no looking away now. However, it remains to be determined whether this is the end of “sportswashing” or just a temporary hiatus. We’ll know more in November, when the World Cup kicks off in Qatar, an oil-rich emirate with zero footballing tradition and, according to Freedom House, a population largely without political rights, few civil liberties and limited economic access. It should be a lot of fun.

Still, the practice of sportswashing – organizing or sponsoring sporting events to distract from sins ranging from the denial of basic human rights to targeted killings – had until recently managed to stay out of the headlines.

Phil Mickelson caught a few last month when he announced he was considering quitting the PGA Tour to join a rival tour organized by former golfer Greg Norman and backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. And Lefty got a lot more headlines than he ever bargained for two weeks later, when it was revealed he knew exactly who he was dealing with.

“We know they killed (Washington Post reporter and US resident Jamal) Khashoggi and they have a horrific human rights record,” Mickelson said in an interview last fall with the journalist Alan Shipnuck for an upcoming unauthorized biography.

“They execute people there because they are gay,” he continued. “Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?”

It wasn’t a trick question.

The answer is money, boatloads of money, the same seduction that despots use to seize morally bankrupt souls in the increasingly interconnected worlds of business, sport and entertainment. The harm caused by corruption is hard to fathom when it comes to something as terrifying as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Easier to grasp is the solitary image of 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva sobbing uncontrollably at the end of her Olympic program, an unwitting puppet in a drama where men and women with incredibly dirty hands pull the strings .

Strongmen have always been obsessed with sports because, unlike every other twisted business they are involved in, the myth of a level playing field lives on.

“Our country has always adhered to the principle that sport is beyond politics,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernychenko said when the ban was announced, “but we are constantly being dragged into politics. , because they understand the importance of sport in the life of our Russian people.

If they knew.


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