Cannes v. Paris 2024: On The Difference Between Banning Russian Athletes Or Artists
While the IOC decides whether to let Moscow’s athletes compete in the 2024 Summer Games, Russian film directors will again be fighting for the right to show their films.
PARIS — Before the Cannes Film Festival started last May, festival officials said that, in light of the war in Ukraine, Russian delegations and anyone associated with the government were not welcome.
Still, one Russian director was invited to show his film at the festival: Kirill Serebrennikov, who made “Tchaikovsky's Wife,” had been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine.
But his anti-Putin stance wasn’t enough for some. After his film premiered, an avalanche of criticism and calls to boycott all Russian films flooded the festival. At a press conference in Cannes, Serebrennikov said he understood the anger behind calls for total boycotts of Russians. But, he said, he did not agree with the “canceling” of a nation’s entire culture.
Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux defended the festival’s decision. “We don’t give in to political correctness, we don’t give in to cultural boycott,” he told Variety. “We go on a case-by-case basis.”
In January, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) agreed that Russians could compete as neutral athletes, without their flag — a decision Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo recently said is unacceptable.
“As long as there is this war, this Russian aggression on Ukraine, it is not possible to pretend as though nothing has happened, to have a delegation that comes to Paris while the bombs continue to rain down on Ukraine,” Hidalgo told French public radio FranceInfo.
If the IOC decision stands, it wouldn't be the first time Russian athletes have competed without their flag. At the opening ceremonies of the Beijing games in 2022, Russians were the only athletes not to enter the arena waving their flag — the third Olympics in which the country had to compete under an Olympic Committee flag after being handed a four-year ban for doping.
Politics of sport
Russian and Belarussian tennis players were banned from competing at Wimbledon in 2022, including Danill Medvedev, who was at the time ranked first in the world. Meanwhile, the Australian Open has allowed some players to compete under a white flag.
The Olympics mission is said to aim to spread peace through sports. But they have always been political, from the 1936 Olympic Berlin games where Adolph Hitler used sports as Nazi propaganda, to the 1980’s U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow games after Russia invaded Afghanistan, and the Los Angeles games of 1984 boycott led by the Soviet Union as payback for the previous games.
Why can Serebrennikov compete at Cannes, but not Russian athletes in Paris?
Putin has long accused the IOC of playing politics, and many Russians seem to share that opinion: a poll taken before the 2016 games, when some Russian athletes were banned for doping, showed that three-quarters of Russians believed the decision aimed to discredit the country.
But for individual athletes, is it fair to be banned from a competition for which they have been training for most of their lives? And what about those who oppose Putin’s regime and condemn the war? In other words, why can Serebrennikov compete at Cannes, but not Russian athletes in Paris?
Maybe there is something about sports — the pure competition — that is different than the personal expression that drive the creative fields.
Indeed for Russia, participating in the Olympics isn’t neutral — it’s part of the country’s foreign policy, a way to build soft power and bolster the country’s image overseas.
As Ukrainian news site Livy Bereg notes, most individual Russian athletes are also members of the Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA), while others belong to the FSB intelligence service or the Rosgvardiya, which is believed to have been involved in the massacres in Bucha, Ukraine. So can we say that they are truly neutral?
Ukrainian athletes are threatening to boycott the Paris games if Russia and Belarus are allowed to compete. They also take issue with the IOC’s claim that the Olympics unite the world through peaceful competition — a utopian message they say “disregards the way sport is routinely used as a tool of authoritarian states.”
Kirill Serebrennikov (left) with the cast of “Tchaikovsky's Wife” at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival Instagram
Serebrennikov has always taken a strong public stand against authoritarianism in Russia, and the wars waged by the Kremlin abroad, and he has participated in protests against the war. As an individual, he stands against his country’s policies.
But athletes represent their country and can only bring victory or defeat.
An individual’s art has the power to relay a message, to criticize or advocate. The artist can speak against their country and argue for their own beliefs. But athletes represent their country and can only bring victory or defeat.
Still for some, there should be no difference between sports and the arts. Andrew Fesiak, a producer and journalist who spoke on a panel in Cannes last year: “With serious war crimes and genocide being committed in Ukraine by the Russian army, we feel strongly that anything and everything that is Russian must be cancelled.”
In a video address last month to a meeting of sports ministers from around the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pushed for the outright ban of any Russian athletes at the 2024 Games: “The mere presence of representatives of the terrorist state is a manifestation of violence and lawlessness.”
The final IOC decision on Russian participation in Paris is expected by this coming summer. In the meantime, just three months away, we have Cannes to look forward to.
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