The Russian invasion of Ukraine forced the sport world to abandon its long-held political neutrality, including the Olympics and FIFA. Is this a one-off event or a sign of a fundamental shift in sport?
With hands clasped across his lap and slumped in his seat, Vladimir Putin slept. At least, that’s what he wanted people to believe when the Ukrainian delegation started its parade during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Putin slept, and the whole world went tense, worried about this new provocation in the context of escalating tensions between Moscow and Kyiv. It is Feb. 4, 2022: 20 days later, thousands of Russian soldiers crossed the Ukrainian border, marking the beginning of a long conflict with many consequences. Among the most unexpected, the myth of the political neutrality of the sports world exploded.
"The Olympic Movement is facing a dilemma with the war currently raging in Ukraine," admitted Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), on Feb 28. Should we follow the line inherited from Pierre de Coubertin, making sport a tool for bringing people together, "beyond any political dispute?" Or should we focus on fairness, while the Ukrainian athletes cannot train, unlike their Russian opponents?
It is an extremely rare case. The IOC recommended the exclusion of the Russian and Belarusian athletes, after requesting the cancelation of all sports events held in Russia. According to the IOC former marketing director Michael Payne, “these are probably the strongest sanctions the IOC has ever issued since probably the early 60s when the IOC banned South Africa for its apartheid regime.” He added: "It was becoming more and more clear that a lot of athletes would not want to compete against Russians. Faced with Vladimir Putin's blatant disregard for the Olympic truce --- the Beijing Paralympic Games were still ongoing at the time of the Russian invasion --- the IOC had to act and take on a leadership role.
A series of cancellations
One thing came after another. UEFA, the football governing body in Europe, excluded Russian clubs from its competitions and moved the Champions League final from St. Petersburg to Paris. Even FIFA, which governs football around the world, is breaking its apolitical stance and following suit. The rugby, handball, ice hockey and ice-skating federations followed the move. The world volleyball championships will not be held in Russia this summer.
In Formula 1, the Sochi Grand Prix has been cancelled. The Haas team cut ties with its driver Nikita Mazepin, and at the same time with its main sponsor, the Russian potash giant Uralkali. "There was a domino effect, with not only a stand but also quick decisions. The world of sport has been perfectly in line with the world of politics," says Carole Gomez, senior research fellow at IRIS.
The economic sanctions implemented by Western countries led to a series of terminations of contracts. UEFA ended its partnership with Gazprom, losing about 40 million euros per year. Manchester United cut ties with the airline Aeroflot and the online betting company Fonbet. Billionaire Roman Abramovich, who is close to the Kremlin, must sell Chelsea F.C. a few months after winning the Champions League. It is not good to be associated with Russian money, which accounts for about 2% of global sponsorship according to Havas. "Until now, sport was not involved in the political aspects," says Vincent Chaudel, founder of the Observatory of Sport Business. "Before, the Ukrainians and Russians would have played elsewhere. Now the doctrine is changing.”
Soccer player Dejan Lovren at a training session, with a Gasprom jersey
Why sport neutrality finally shattered
The sacrosanct political neutrality of sport has been shattered. But why now? First, because sports authorities have had an eye on Russia for a long time and suspected the country of having an institutional doping system. Second, because international sanctions have reached such a level that it seems difficult to maintain economic links as they are. Finally, unlike other conflicts, "the situation is very clear, with an attacker and an attacked," stresses Jean-Baptiste Guégan, a sports geopolitics consultant, who sums it up as: "It's the end of innocence, or of hypocrisy, depending on your point of view."
Brands may well have to integrate the geopolitical factor.
The sector has entirely been turned upside down and marketing is no exception. As with every crisis, companies’ communication budgets are the first threatened. On the other hand, advertisers, who cannot stand the idea of being associated in any way with the conflict, are on the defensive. "Today, for example, we have a client who wants to sponsor a major athlete, and who looks carefully at the share of Russian or Russian-based 'followers.' This is new," says Augustin Pénicaud, vice-president of Havas Play (formerly Havas Sports & Entertainment). Already extremely attentive to their corporate social responsibility (CSR), especially on the environment, brands may well have to integrate the geopolitical factor in their investment choices.
Pressure on Qatar
If we look back, there were some indicators. In early 2021, Skoda (Volkswagen group) and Nivea (owned by Beiersdorf) had, for example, refused to sponsor the Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus, due to the government's repression of the opposition. The international federation was reluctant for a while but eventually gave in, and Latvia hosted all the events.
In these circumstances, the next FIFA World Cup, to be held in Qatar in November, will serve as a test. Unusually, several national team advertising partners have already expressed their intention not to communicate during the event, for fear of negative fallout. For the emirate country, which relies heavily on sport as a "soft power" tool, this is a real gamble. "It can quickly backfire on them. Whether it is Qatar or Saudi Arabia, the Russian situation has calmed everyone down," Guégan says.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach during a joint press conference in Kyiv
Pandora's Box has been opened
The question now is whether the world of sport has really begun its revolution, or whether the Russian case will remain the exception. Some favor the first option. "We have reached the point of no return," says Pénicaud, for whom "the politicization of sport is something that is growing, and probably for good... Pandora's box has been opened, because we could end up sanctioning one fourth of the planet," sighs Guégan.
Sport is war minus the shooting.
How to react if, for example, China decides to attack Taiwan? “It is clear that the world of sport will have to take a stand,” says the expert. “But we will have a real problem, knowing that two of the IOC's premium partners are Chinese (Alibaba and Mengniu), as is one of FIFA's (Wanda Group).” This issue was revealed during the Beijing Olympics, where all international federations chose to send a delegation despite the diplomatic boycott by the West. As for the brands, they would no doubt be reluctant to forget about a one and a half billion people market.
Even for countries that are not considered global powers, the situation is not as simple as it seems. "We haven't yet understood what this will entail," warns Chaudel. "We are in the process of recreating blocks that will confront each other," by determining the "countries that can be frequented and those that cannot". That is closer to George Orwell ("Sport is war minus the shooting") than to Pierre de Coubertin, who intended to build a better world through Olympism. Many observers believe that the sports events organized in countries “that can’t be frequented” have had a beneficial effect, including from a societal point of view.
Russia is "probably" an exception
From an economic point of view, the operation also risks turning sour. "Financing sports events is becoming more and more expensive, so we can't organize them everywhere. If we reduce the number of host countries, we will end up with the G7 members sharing the organization of competitions," Chaudel adds. The other problem: by reducing the number of players and their investment power, the sources of financing for sport could quickly dry up. But the world of sport adapted to its level of income, and it is not certain that the prospect of downgrading enchants its leaders.
All of these elements encourage caution. "It is not wise to look at hypothetical scenarios. Each case is specific," Payne says. For him, Russia's case will "probably" remain an exception. Unless “if similar political and economic sanctions were ever implemented for another country, then perhaps the world of sport would consider doing the same."