Adolf Hitler dragged politics into sports big-time in 1936 when Germany hosted the Summer Olympics in Berlin.
After the Second World War, when then-communist countries began taking part, with their master, the Soviet Union, joining the Olympic fray in 1952 (Norway’s capital Oslo for the winter, and Finland’s capital Helsinki for the summer), Olympic Games would become unabashedly politicised. Winning medals would no longer be a sign of the winners’ athletic prowess. It would signal whose political system is better.
The parallel between fascism, Nazism and communism is intentional: they are but three branches of the same tree.
With the communist countries falling into the toilet during the late 1980s and early 1990s, most international sports, and the Olympics in particular, would turn into outright business, with a dash of outright nationalism thrown in for good measure.
Yes, nationalism. What’s an athlete running faster than others got to do with patriotism?
Here’s what: biased media whip nationalism up into literal jingoism (our runner is better than your runner, nyah nyah nyah nah nah). Passionate fans, united behind the flag, do what? Yes, they buy tickets, they watch television, listen to radio broadcasts (including commercials), and they buy newspapers or visit their papers’ websites, paying for beyond-the-paywall access, with advertisements galore all over the place, and they buy shirts and other merchandise like there’s no tomorrow.
And into this din, some athletes (and sports officials) would try to impose all kinds of political slogans du jour. Some scribes covering sports would try to sound like social scientists, asking athletic stars and starlets for their opinions on this or that hot political topic of the day.
It has now swollen into a crescendo of hysteria, with one political movement trying to outdo all others, trying to paint professional sports and professional athletes as hotbeds of socially aware ideologies. An athlete serves as what they call “role model,” and that now includes proper opinions and stands on proper issues, instead of serving as a role model in, say, shooting the puck from any point in the opponent’s zone, or back-checking, or whatever else is important to and in the game.
Whether their fans really care seems to have become less than an afterthought.
Except: a war that fills newscasts and newspapers’ front pages has broken out, and it so happens that athletes from the warring sides happen to be employed in sundry professional leagues all over the world. Most of those host countries have decided that one of the warring sides is guilty. True, Russia did fire the first shot, but in the scheme of things, so far as sports go, this debate is not as important. The important question is: how to treat athletes born in Russia, and still citizens of the generally acknowledged aggressor?
Skating around the issues
In North America, it is the National Hockey League (NHL) that has the most Russians on their teams’ rosters.
Tensions flared up when someone who couldn’t write if it saved his life asked Alexander Ovechkin, a legitimate NHL superstar and captain of the Washington Capitals, for his opinion on the war between Russia and Ukraine.
The poor guy danced around it as if he was a trained diplomat. One of those who don’t tell their interlocutors that they are lying like nobody’s business but use instead sentences such as, “Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems to me that your statement can cause serious doubts in a more serious conversation.”
Whether that scribe was aware that Ovechkin just happens to be on friendly terms with Russian president Vladimir Putin doesn’t matter much. In fact, if he did know and still asked, it would show a considerable level of insensitivity at a time when all and sundry have to undergo so-called sensitivity trainings so as not to annoy people with their questions or statements, or just simple looks, even.
Of course, in today’s atmosphere of political correctness, Ovechkin was taken to task for not blasting his country’s president and personal buddy to pieces. Not so much by fans but by the media and, shockingly, by a former goaltender, and Hockey Hall of Fame member, Dominik Hašek. Confirming the accepted view that hockey goaltenders are generally crazy, because only crazy people would voluntarily face barrages of projectiles shot in their direction with alarming speed and precision, Hašek called poor Ovechkin all kinds of names, some bordering on expletive. And, while he was at it, he demanded that all Russian players currently employed by NHL clubs be suspended (at best) or outright fired (at worst).
That some of the Russian athletes are no particular friends of their country’s president, didn’t matter. Artemi Panarin, a Russian-born forward many hockey fans would pay a lot to see in action, has been open about his negative views of all Vladimir Putin stands for. Yet, in Hašek’s book, he’s still guilty as charged. Just because he was born where he was.
Most of the media reported on Hašek’s outburst with politically correct admiration.
How this approach fits in politically correct abhorrence of racism and nationalistic chauvinism remains unexplained.
All kinds of international sporting bodies have imposed sanctions on Russian teams’ participation in their competitions: Russians are banned from soccer events, the popular hockey under-20 world competition has banned Russia (and Belarus, as Russia’s alleged ally), and they all feel smug about themselves. They’ve contributed to what they think is justice.
Yes, these bans and boycotts may cost Russian sporting organisations a few dollars here and there, but anyone who thinks Russian government is bothered, they should have their heads examined. This kind of behaviour only confirms the traditional Russian view of the surrounding world: we’re not paranoid but here you can see that everybody’s against us.
Not only that, in the propaganda war context, it justifies Russian government’s view that their country is within her rights to put the stinking Ukrainians in their place.
There’s one word for the western reaction: counterproductive.
A strange request
A few groups of Canadians of Ukrainian origin have asked the Canadian government to stop granting new visas and work permits to Russian athletes.
Coincidentally, these groups have no issue with Ukraine’s security services showing their enthusiastic admiration for Nazi ideology and methods of governing. The fact that official Ukrainian view promotes the Second World War criminal Stepan Bandera onto a national hero pedestal doesn’t matter to them one iota, either.
And this is not a one-in-a-million case of nation-wide worship for Hitler’s Nazi collaborators among the Ukrainian population. While, granted, there have been many reasons why the Ukrainian dislike all things Russian, and a huge share of them very valid (the artificially-induced famine, a.k.a. Holodomor, of the 1930s comes to mind), this still does not justify making these individuals national heroes.
Of course, when Putin speaks of his desire to de-Nazify Ukraine (this is his own expression), perhaps he should start by cleaning up the anti-Semitism that pervades in his own country. After all, the word pogrom (attacks by frenzied masses on peaceful Jewish communities) comes from Russia.
Still, none of this justifies, for example, the decision by the world’s top soccer body, FIFA, to grant Team Poland a walkover win over Team Russia in the qualifiers for the World Cup. And none of this makes correct, for another example, the newest decision by the NHL to cancel its cooperative agreement with its Russian counterpart, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
Nothing in the world justifies the New York Metropolitan Opera’s decision to fire one of today’s greatest soprano ladies, Anna Netrebko, either. This happened, word from the Met’s top ranks says, just because she is Russian and happens to have Putin’s private telephone number on her speed-dial. She was hired, after all, to sing and attract thousands adoring opera lovers to enjoy her art.
Russian athletes, artists or scientists currently in North America won’t talk too much (and too openly) about what’s happening. Those who agree with Putin fear North American reprisals based on politically correct hysteria. Those who disagree with Putin fear repercussions imposed by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s top censorship office.
The tide is growing: a Russian F1 driver was banned recently from the British Grand Prix. Norway is banning Russians from upcoming skiing competitions.
Does it make any sense other than making those issuing these directives feel they are ahead of the stream, punishing people who have nothing to do with the events other than their nationality?
This kind of international behaviour didn’t help much with South Africa’s apartheid: the shoe is on the other foot now, and the old racial wars continue. The only thing that has changed is who owns more guns and controls the system.
Proponents of the banning game speak of collective responsibility. This is definitely not a brand new idea. Just look at atrocities imposed on losing nations by victors throughout history.
Does the fact that this kind of collective solidarity-based revenge has been an accepted rule make it acceptable?
For an answer, look up North American governments compensating the children and grandchildren of people of German, Japanese or Italian descent who were living on this continent during the two World Wars, and who were detained as potential enemy supporters during those conflagrations.
So, one more time: does the fact that this kind of collective solidarity-based revenge has been an accepted rule make it acceptable?
Be honest when answering: what would you think if it were to happen to you?