Russia uses sports as a tool of aggression. How is the world reacting?

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After the Russians, with the assistance of the Belarusians, launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, their athletes were suspended from participating in international tournaments. But in early 2023, despite the ongoing war, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus began to return to the world of sports.

T hus, in January, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended admiting Russian and Belarusian athletes who do not support the war to the upcoming Olympics in Paris. Russians and Belarusians were also allowed to participate in the Wimbledon tournament, the oldest tennis competition. This decision caused outrage among Ukrainians: they held rallies abroad and called for the suspension of representatives of Russia and Belarus from sports competitions while the war continues. And Ukrainins gained huge support worldwide — Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway, and Denmark also opposed the decision of the IOC.

Ukraїner tells more about the current restrictions for Russians and Belarusians, explains why sports cannot be left out of politics, and shows why it is necessary to continue the boycott against the occupiers in all possible spheres.

Russia has been using sports to promote its propaganda for years

Russia is actively using sports to promote its invasive policy. For example, Russian athletes openly support the war against Ukraine: they participate in propaganda events, deliver speeches justifying the armed aggression of the Russian Federation, and they even receive military ranks.

Hitler and his henchmen during the opening of the Olympic Games in Berlin. Photo from the archives.

The champion of the 2021 Summer Olympics, Russian gymnast Nikita Nagorny holds a military rank and leads the children and youth organization “Yunarmia” (form Rus. — Youth Army), which is subordinate to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. The bronze medalist of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, biathlete Eduard Latypov belongs to the Central Sports Club of the Russian Army. In the spring of 2022, the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, Sergei Shoigu, awarded him the rank of lieutenant and the Order of the 2nd Class “Order of Merit to The Fatherland”. Other Russian military athletes include skiers Alexander Bolshunov and Denis Spetsov. In 2022, they became captains of The National Guard.

Russian gymnast Nikita Nagorny and war criminal Putin.

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Russian gymnast Nikita Nagorny and war criminal Putin.

Russian gymnast Nikita Nagorny

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Russian gymnast Nikita Nagorny

Olympians skier Alexander Bolshunov, gymnasts Dina and Arina Averina, and Victoria Listunova spoke at a rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in March 2022 in response to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The event was hosted by Dmitriy Guberniev, who had worked as a commentator for several decades during the Olympic Games.

Russian athletes at a rally at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium in March 2022 in response to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Screenshot from the video.

Two-time Olympic champion and representative of IOC from the Russian Federation, Elena Isinbayeva, received another army rank from Sergei Shoigu in 2015. In 2016, she joined sports training for the Russian military in Syria. During the same year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused the Assad regime and Russia of bombing residential buildings in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Two-time Olympic champion Isinbayeva receives another military rank from the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, Shoigu. Photo: Ukrinform.

The war against Ukraine also found support from gymnast Ivan Kulyak, chess player Roman Shyrokov, Olympic participants skier Aleksandr Legkov, swimmer Yevgeny Rylov, figure skaters Vladimir Morozov, Nikita Katsalapov, Victoria Sinitsyna, and gymnast Vladislav Urazov.

The Russian Federation has involved even minor athletes in propaganda activities. Thus, among the students of sports schools of the Central Sports Club of the Army, an exhibition of drawings titled “Za Pobedu!” (from Rus.— For the Victory!) was organized to show support for Russians fighting against Ukraine.

Russians not only participate in competitions but also hold leadership positions in the international sports institutions. For example, on May 13, 2022, while the Russian troops were destroying Mariupol, Russian Umar Kremlev was re-elected as the president of the International Amateur Boxing Association. Since 2018, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) has been headed by Russian Arkady Dvorkovich. Russian chess player Sergei Karjakin, who had blamed Ukraine for the war, was suspended from participating in tournaments under the auspices of FIDE for only six months. Notably, this athlete is originally from Simferopol and had previously competed for Ukraine. However, in 2009, by order of the then President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, he received a Russian passport and began to support the regime of the Russian Federation, in particular, the occupation of Crimea. As for the chess player Serhii Shypov, who also welcomed the war against Ukraine, the FIDE Ethics Committee did not impose any sanctions.

Umar Kremlev.

Russia uses its athletes not only to promote imperial policy, but also to entice Ukrainians. For instance, the 2008 Summer Olympics champion, Artur Ayvazyan, and the 2012 European champion in javelin throw, Vira Rebryk, received Russian passports after the occupation of Crimea. However, in 2016, they were unable to compete in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics (Brazil). Artur Ayvazyan did not fulfil a three-year quarantine period due to a change in citizenship. Vira Rebryk, along with the entire Russian athletics team, was suspended from competition as a result of a doping scandal.

Russia interfered in Ukrainian sports on a global level as welll. In 2013, the Gazprom office presented the project of the United Football Championship of Russia and Ukraine, which was intended to involve nine clubs from each country. Gazprom planned to sponsor the event and promised participants monetary rewards exceeding those offered by the Champions League. The prize fund of the competition was supposed to be $800 million.

All athletes who deliver speeches at propaganda events, write posts on social networks in support of the invasion, or downplay the crimes of the occupiers contribute to the continuation of the war and the killings of Ukrainians. These people should not be part of the sports community, as their presence would imply tolerance for such positions.

Russia kills Ukrainian athletes

While athletes from the Russian Federation support the war, Ukrainians defend their homeland with weapons in their hands and fall victim to Russian shelling. Vadym Hutzeit, Minister of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, stressed that as of April 1, 2023, Russians destroyed 263 sports facilities in Ukraine and killed 262 athletes. These outstanding Ukrainians could have continued competing, educating the next generations of athletes, and developing their sports. Their deaths are not only a significant blow to the Ukrainian sports industry but also to the world.

Fencers in the completely destroyed Unifecht Hall. Photo: Mykola Synelnykov.

In the spring of 2022, boxing coach, Roman Zakharov, and football coach, Viktor Tkachuk, were killed in Mariupol due to Russian shelling.

In March 2022, in the then-occupied Motyzhyn near Kyiv, Russian troops kidnapped football player Oleksandr Sukhenko, his father and coach Ihor, and his mother, Olha, the head of the village. They were taken to the forest and shot, and the bodies were found during the exhumation after the de-occupation of the Kyiv region. When the full-scale invasion began, Oleksandr Sukhenko stayed in his hometown of Motyzhyn, helped to evacuate his fellow villagers, and delivered humanitarian aid.

On January 14, 2023, a rocket attack on a high-rise building in Dnipro took the life of the honoured Ukrainian boxing coach Mykhailo Korenovskyi. He had a wife and children who were out for a walk at that time. During the same missile strike, 15-year-old dancer Maria Lebid and Anastasiia Ihnatenko, trainer, acrobatics judge, and master of sports in jumping on the acrobatic track, were also killed.

Remains of Mykhailo Korenovskyi's apartment. Photo: Yurii Stefaniak.

Numerous Ukrainian athletes have given their lives at the front lines. In the battles at Azovstal in Mariupol, Greco-Roman wrestler Mykhailo Popov, powerlifter Yurii Luchechko and world champion in Thai boxing Oleksii Yanin were among those killed. During the terrorist attack in occupied Olenivka on July 29, 2022, Russians killed prisoners of war jiu-jitsuka Oleksandr Babenko and boxer Stanislav Artemenko.

A Japanese martial art that consists in conducting close combat with one or more opponents with or without weapons.

In September 2022, during the exhumation of mass graves in the newly liberated Izium, the body of a man with a blue-yellow bracelet on his arm was found. The deceased was Serhii Sova, a Ukrainian military man and master of sports in boxing. During the occupation of Izium, the Russians tortured him and other defenders of Ukraine.

Bracelets on Serhii Sova's arm after exhumation. Photo taken from open sources

While defending the country from Russian invaders, climber Mykola Tymoshenko, high jumper Roman Polishchuk, volleyball player Viacheslav Shakhov, figure skater Dmytro Sharpar and kickboxer Vitalii Styba were also killed.

The Russians are killing not only Ukrainian athletes. In July 2022, while defending the Donetsk region, Tomasz Wałętek, a Polish volunteer, a fighter of the International Legion of Territorial Defense, was killed. He came under enemy shelling during the evacuation of his fallen brother-in-arms. In civilian life, Tomasz Wałętek was a children’s paramedic and MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter. His fiancée, Martha, said that after the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, he immediately became a volunteer to help Ukrainians in their fight for freedom.

In early 2023, the restrictions against Russian and Belarusian athletes were removed

At the end of February 2022, Russians and Belarusians were suspended from international sports competitions. Despite official statements, some organizations only formally prohibited athletes from Russia and Belarus from participating in various events (for example, tennis associations prohibited only team performances, and individual athletes could participate in tournaments). But already in 2023, IOC President Thomas Bach opposed the ban on Russians and Belarusians from participating in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. According to him, excluding athletes from competitions based on their passport “does not align with the values and mission of the Olympic Charter.” Thomas Bach suggested that Russians and Belarusians could participate in the Olympic Games under a neutral flag, rather than under a state one. He added that the IOC’s mission is to unite athletes from all over the world.

Russian athletes under a neutral flag. Photo taken from open sources

The statement from the International Olympic Committee states that the decision to allow the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus to compete was influenced by several factors. This includes a letter from the UN special rapporteurs on cultural rights and contemporary forms of racism, expressing concerns about the ban on Russians and Belarusians from participating in the Olympics. The IOC also appeals to the discussion during the 77th UN General Assembly in 2022, where the peaceful and unifying mission of world sports was discussed. The International Olympic Committee cited the precedent of independent athletes from Yugoslavia (now Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo) being admitted to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, despite the UN sanctions due to their desire of these states to gain independence.

This position of the head of the IOC seems even natural, especially given his “friendship” with Putin. Back in the summer of 2016, the German magazine Bild published an article about Thomas Bach called “Putin’s Poodle”, and a joint photo of the President of the Russian Federation and the head of the IOC. The article noted that even after Russian athletes’ confirmation of mass doping in 2015, Thomas Bach continued to support Russia, having a backstory of cooperation with Putin.

IOC chief Thomas Bach with war criminal Putin.

Friendship is friendship, but the removal of restrictions against Russians and Belarusians legalizes their war crimes against Ukraine. Each such step creates the illusion that the war has already ended, but it has not. Russians and Belarusians continue to kill and torture Ukrainians and destroy cities. That is why no concessions regarding the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus are acceptable.

What was the response of Ukrainian authorities?

In January 2023, the Ukrainian side reacted to the intention to allow Russians and Belarusians to participate in the competitions. The head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, said, що «МОК готовий розтоптати могили безневинних українців, убитих загарбниками». that “the IOC is willing to trample on the graves of thousands of innocent Ukrainians killed by the invaders.” Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov stressed that Russians are stained with the blood of Ukrainian citizens and cannot participate in the Olympics under any flag.

President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, pointed out that there can be no neutrality during the war, and discussions about Russia’s participation in the competition can only take place after its termination. He also expressed disappointment with Thomas Bach’s statement and announced the launch of an “honesty marathon” to cleanse international Olympic institutions from attempts to let Russians into international sports. The Ukrainian President reminded everyone that tyrannical countries use sports to promote their ideologies. He noted that Ukrainian athletes are defending their homeland from the Russian Federation and are also dying from enemy shelling. Mr. President invited Thomas Bach to visit Bakhmut.

In April 2023, the Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sports officially banned Ukrainians from participating in competitions in which there are representatives of Russia and Belarus. In case of non-compliance with this condition, participants of the Ukrainian delegations should be sent back home. The ministry also emphasizes that special commissions will consider cases of order violations and may revoke the national status of sports federations that do not comply with the ban.

The wave of allowing Russians to return to the sport increased after Thomas Bach’s statement

At the end of March 2023, the organizer of the Wimbledon tournament — the All-English Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) — allowed Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in the 2023 competitions in neutral status. According to the statement, those who are financed by the authorities of Russia or Belarus or who receive sponsorship payments from state-owned companies will not be allowed to enter the tournament. In addition, athletes should not support the war against Ukraine.

Putin at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, February 4, 2022. Photo: Sue Ogrocki for AP.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, called the decision immoral and said that AELTC was meeting two accomplices in a crime. He urged the British government to deny visas to Russian and Belarusian tennis players.

In April 2023, the International Judo Federation (IJF) also admitted the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus to the competition. Russians and Belarusians will take part in sports events under a neutral flag. In addition, an independent commission will check whether they have disseminated propaganda related to the war against Ukraine.

The International Federation said it promotes judo as a means of upholding human rights and supporting unity, friendship and peace, and advocates for the opportunity to be an athlete regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender. The ministry also called sport the main bridge for dialogue and reconciliation. By the way, Putin served as the honorary president of the IJF from 2008 to 2022, until he was suspended.

War criminal Putin on a tatami of the color of the Ukrainian flag. Photo: Getty Images

In May 2023, the European Judo Union supported the decision of the International Federation to return the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus to tournaments. It agreed on the participation of Russians and Belarusians in the qualifying competitions for the Olympics-2024, which will be held in Doha, Qatar. In the European Judo Union, it was noted that Russian and Belarusian athletes would be allowed to join competitions if they did not publicly support the war and are not military. They will compete under a neutral flag.

This decision was welcomed by the head of the Judo Federation of the Russian Federation Sergey Soloveychik. He said that the main task for his department was to get to the Olympics and that the Russians plan to participate in more competitions.

The National Olympic Committee (NOC) of Ukraine reported that the IJF violated the agreements and allowed judokas serving in the Russian army to compete. This contradicts the statements of the IOC that only those athletes who do not belong to the security forces can be neutral.

The Judo Federation of Ukraine withdrew applications for the World Championship in Doha, Qatar, and informed the IJF about the violation of the conditions of neutrality of athletes from the Russian Federation. The National Olympic Committee sent the IOC a list of Russian judoka- soldiers. The NOC called the admission of such athletes to the competition an unprecedented disregard for the Olympic Charter.

IJF Director General Vlad Marinescu said that athletes from the Russian Federation and Belarus admitted to the competition do not disseminate propaganda statements. He also expressed regret over the protest of Ukrainians.

Putin and judokas.

The Youth Council under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine launched the #BoycottRussianSport campaign with the participation of more than 25 global communities. Its goal is to prevent Russians and Belarusians from participating in the Olympic competitions in Paris in 2024. As of March 28, 2023, the organization had sent 16 letters to the IOC, as well as filmed video messages from Italy, Romania, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain, Austria, Belgium, France, Canada, Poland, the United States, Switzerland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Moldova, and Ukraine. They reminded folks that the occupiers killed Ukrainian athletes and destroyed sports facilities, and Russian athletes supported the war. Members of the Youth Council called for the suspension of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus from sports competitions.

In Brussels, on March 29, 2023, Ukrainians rallied against the admission of Russians and Belarusians to the Olympics. They gathered outside the building of the representative office of the European Olympic Committees in the EU and brought sports things covered with red paint. The participants of the rally were intended to remind others: that the blood of Ukrainians is also on the hands of Russian athletes. The organizer of the event, Marta Barandii, said that they wanted to convey to the IOC the position of Ukrainians whose relatives are fighting or have suffered due to the invasion of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. The Delegation of the European Olympic Committees to the EU invited protesters to their office. The protesters called on diplomats to disallow Russians and Belarusians to participate in the Olympics.

Blood-stained sports paraphernalia as a reminder of the dead Ukrainians. Photo: Channel 24.

At the same time, in March 2023, in China, the organizers of the Fencing World Cup prevented the protest of Ukrainian swordswomen because they intended to allow the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus to compete. Ukrainian women unfurled a banner indicating the number of athletes killed during the full-scale war. They also put stickers on their masks saying that they did not agree with the decision to return Russia and Belarus to the tournaments. A member of the Ukrainian national team and Kharkiv authorities said that the organizers of the World Cup forced the swordswomen to remove the banner and stickers.

Kharkiv authorities. Photo credit: Suspilne media.

Not only Ukraine is fighting for a boycott of Russians and Belarusians in world sports. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia opposed the participation of Russians and Belarusians in the Olympics, including under a neutral flag. The head of the Latvian Foreign Ministry, Edgar Rinkevich, said that the Russian Federation uses sports to promote its policy and that the IOC should not be an accomplice to “propaganda efforts.”

Denmark was another state that opposed the termination of restrictions on athletes from the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. In March 2023, the country’s Fencing Association cancelled international competitions due to the admission of Russian and Belarusian athletes to international competitions. Its head Jan Sylvester Jensen predicted chaos at other tournaments because fencers may refuse to compete with Russians and Belarusians.

In April 2023, the Norwegian Fencing Association decided to boycott the competition with the participation of Russians and Belarusians. The organization explained that it expresses condolences to Ukraine and seeks peace. Norway, together with Sweden and Finland, is also planning to organize its own fencing tournament.

The French human rights organization Pour L`Ukraine, created to draw the attention of European governments to the war, published a statement in which it called the return of the Russian Federation to world sports unacceptable against the background of its crimes against Ukraine. In addition, the participation of Russians in competitions contradicts the Olympic Charter, which calls for “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles” and aims to “promote a peaceful society concerned with preserving human dignity.” The authors of the appeal called on the IOC and all sports associations not to allow Russians and Belarusians to compete until they withdraw their troops from Ukraine.

Ivan Kuliak. Photo: NPRORG.

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Ivan Kuliak. Photo: NPRORG.

Artem Severiukhyn. Screenshot from the video.

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Artem Severiukhyn. Screenshot from the video.

Sports cannot be left out of politics. The Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus use sports to promote their totalitarian regimes, and Russian athletes support the war against Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainians die from enemy shelling of civilian objects and on the battlefield. That is why boycotting Russia and Belarus in all spheres is necessary, and sport is no exception. It is necessary to continue to put pressure on the world community because it yields results: more and more countries and organizations are imposing restrictions against Russians and Belarusians in various fields due to the war against Ukraine.

The material is prepared by

Founder of Ukraїner:

Bogdan Logvynenko


Maryna Kulinich


Natalia Ponedilok


Lesia Bohdan

Compilation of information:

Vitaliі Poberezhnyj

Anna Sylman

Photo editor:

Yurii Stefanyak

Content manager:

Kateryna Minkina


Maryna Bakalo

Translation editor:

Sharon Henning Garland

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