War is not only about the killing of innocent people; it also involves big business. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates the knock-on effects of war with the unprecedented social, cultural, political and sporting isolation of the Russian people.
The political establishment in Moscow headed by President Vladimir Putin and his cronies, including the oligarchs, is under attack. The Russian oligarchs have for many years stolen wealth which is then enjoyed in Europe and America. So why is action only being taken now?
I grew up in apartheid South Africa and was influenced by the antiracist activism of Hassan Howa, who coined the phrase “There can be no normal sports in an abnormal society”. I would paraphrase Howa by saying that there can be no normal sport in an abnormal world. Big money rules in all sports, it seems, and politics is no longer a stranger to sport, as many sports’ governing bodies once insisted it should be.
Top tennis player Daniil Medvedev is a Russian citizen. He has been pressured by the British government and establishment to denounce Putin following the invasion of Ukraine if he wants to play at Wimbledon this year. Medvedev has said repeatedly that he wants to “promote peace” but this is not enough for Boris Johnson and his cronies. Former MP George Galloway called this a crime, as no other players of any sport have been asked to condemn their own governments. He pointed out that this was not demanded of American and British sportsmen and women whose governments, in violation of international law, invaded Iraq in 2003 and “killed millions of Iraqis”.
This is an example of the double standards and hypocrisy which has been exposed by events in Ukraine. Of course there has been warm-hearted support from ordinary people for the victims of aggression in Ukraine. At an official and government level, though, the hypocrisy is brazen.
Staying with sport, look at the European governing body for football, UEFA, and the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, both of which have global TV coverage. English football clubs played and wore Ukrainian colours on one weekend, and yet players and fans elsewhere have been censured by UEFA and the world governing body FIFA when they have displayed support for the Palestinian victims of Israeli aggression and occupation.
The Real Madrid v Barcelona match carried the slogan “Stop Invasion”, and yet neither team had any qualms about playing in Saudi Arabia in January, earning huge amounts while turning a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni citizens by the Saudi-led coalition. Amnesty International called out this collaboration between the Spanish Football Association and the regime in Riyadh as “whitewashing” the image of the Saudi authorities, but UEFA, FIFA and other sporting bodies, as well as political leaders, were silent. Now they have found their voice, apparently because Ukrainians are more deserving victims of war than other people. And they have acted swiftly.
Within record time of the invasion on 24 February, Russian athletes were expelled from almost all sports tournaments. Even judoka Putin was stripped of his honorary status by the sport’s governing body. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) released a statement on 1 March announcing “the immediate suspension of the Russian Tennis Federation (RTF)”. Here in South Africa, Russia was banned from the FIH Hockey Women’s Junior World Cup taking place now in Potchefstroom.
Other sports followed suit, including archery, badminton, baseball, taekwondo, triathlon and volleyball. FIFA stopped Russia’s Gazprom sponsorship of the UEFA Champions League. Europeans, meanwhile, continue to obtain gas and oil from Russia. Russian footballers were not so lucky when they were unable to play against Poland in a FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff match, killing any hopes of getting to the finals in Qatar later this year.
It is a cliché that sport and media businesses are joined at the hip, but in the modern era one cannot survive without the other. Sports are marketing tools for all kinds of products, with media advertising and sponsorship dominating. The general convention prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was for sport to stay away from politics and causes that would damage the possibility of making money. Major media outlets linked to sport have, though, been showing their pro-Ukraine bias openly. Even the right of resistance has been espoused for Ukrainians, while the same media condemn legitimate Palestinian resistance as “terrorism”.
After South Africa’s SAfm sports news carried an item about a former Ukrainian tennis player being trained to shoot — “I can hit the head three out of five times from 25 metres in practice,” boasted Alexandr Dolgopolov — I called in and asked the presenter if this right to resist, which I support, and publicity was only afforded to Ukrainians. Would a similar item about a Palestinian athlete being trained to resist Israeli occupation — a right enshrined in international law — be broadcast, or would the station pass on such a news item, fearing a backlash from a well-known lobby group?
In a similar vein, CNN carried the impassioned statement by Ukrainian tennis star Elina Svitolina, who told the world on air that, “All prize money I win at the Monterrey Open will go to the Ukrainian army.”
Generally speaking, dissenting voices have been struggling to be heard. Although Turkey, the Muslim nation that is a NATO member, is supporting Ukrainian victims of war, former international footballer Aykut Demir, the captain and centre back of BB Erzurumspor, which competes in the top tier of Turkish football, declined to wear a shirt denouncing the Russian invasion. His reason was simple: the lack of attention paid to the struggles in the Middle East, in particular the war in Yemen, where a UN report published last year said that almost 380,000 children, women and men had been killed; millions have been displaced.
Russian oligarchs are also linked to major sports. In 2019, Forbes reported that Roman Abramovich’s net worth was approximately $12.9 billion. He is said to be linked to Vladimir Putin. He bought English football club Chelsea in 2003, since when it has won 18 trophies, including two Champions League titles, five Premier League championships, and most recently the 2022 Club World Cup.
The British government has sanctioned Abramovich and frozen his ownership of Chelsea FC, but he still has his supporters. Israel’s chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and the Director Sheba Medical Centre, Yitshak Kreiss, have urged the US not to impose sanctions on the oligarch because he is a major donor to Zionist causes. According to David Klion, the editor of Jewish Currents, this amounts to over half a billion dollars given to various Jewish organisations and causes.
Abramovich has Israeli citizenship and is said to be the occupation state’s second richest man. Klion ended his article headlined “Our oligarch” by quoting a 2020 BBC Arabic investigation, which revealed that, “Abramovich has used front companies registered in the British Virgin Islands to donate more than $100 million to a right-wing Israeli organisation called the Ir David Foundation, commonly known as Elad.” This organisation has worked from the 1980s to move Jewish settlers into occupied East Jerusalem. It also controls “an archaeological park and major tourist site called City of David, which it has leveraged in its efforts to ‘Judaise’ the area, including by seizing Palestinian homes in the surrounding neighbourhood of Silwan and digging under some to make them uninhabitable.” Elad, apparently, did not respond to Klion’s request for a comment.
Such is the calibre of a major figure in the English Premier League, but no sanctions have ever been imposed by either the League or the British government for Abramovich’s involvement in the funding of illegal Israeli settlement projects. Only for being Russian and a crony of Vladimir Putin.
The House of Saud, meanwhile, went about its own bloody business while all of this has been going on, executing 81 people in a single day on 12 March. The Saudi Public Investment Fund, remember, was given the go ahead by the English Premier League last year to buy an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle United Football Club. No action has been taken by UEFA against the team or players for the latest mass execution by the Saudi government. According to one newspaper, “[Newcastle coach] Eddie Howe has revealed he is ‘well aware’ of the mass executions taking place in Saudi Arabia.” That’s it.So when UEFA removed Spartak Moscow from the Europa League in response to Russian aggression and moved the final of the Champions League away from St Petersburg, the governing body was not playing ball; this was hypocritical politics.
None of this is new, though. The former captain of the Egyptian national football team, Mohamed Aboutrika, was given a yellow card in 2009 for displaying a t-shirt with “Sympathise with Gaza” written in Arabic and English when he scored a goal. The referee was abiding by the rules of the game, which prohibit religious and political slogans during matches, although this was a call for human solidarity. Aboutrika was duly sanctioned by FIFA.
In contrast, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and FIFA did nothing to Ghanian footballer John Paintsil for waving the Israeli flag after a goal scored by a teammate against Czech Republic in the 2006 World Cup. This was blatant propaganda, as Israel did not qualify for the tournament.
That was then, this is now. Solidarity in sport is acceptable, it seems, as long as the “right” people and cause are being supported.
“Nobody should ever accept any killings in the world, any oppression,” said Egypt’s Ali Amr Farag recently. “But we’ve never been allowed to speak about politics in sports, but all of a sudden now it’s allowed. So, now that we’re allowed, I hope that people also look at the oppression everywhere in the world.”
“I mean, the Palestinians have been going through that for the past 74 years and, well, I guess because it doesn’t fit the narrative of the media of the west, we couldn’t talk about it. But now that we can talk about Ukraine, we can talk about Palestinians. So please keep that in mind.”
The current world squash champion’s comment was made after a match, and his words have been expunged from the official records. He was backing the wrong side in a world dominated by hypocrisy. Nevertheless, he joins hundreds of top sportsmen and women who have stood up against injustice when it was neither fashionable nor easy. There can be no normal sport in an abnormal world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.