The Paralympics exist in the wake of the Olympics, after most of the crowds, dignitaries, media and money have left town. The Paralympics are as much a testament to the human spirit as the main Games, or more. But they will never be treated quite the same.
This also allows space, on occasion, for the right thing. Thursday, one day before the Paralympics opening ceremony, the International Paralympic Committee reversed its decision from 24 hours earlier and banned Russian and Belarusian Paralympians from the Games. The IPC cited rising tensions in the athletes’ village and potential boycotts from other nations. It did not sound like there was much of a choice.
“To para athletes from the impacted countries, we are very sorry that you are affected by the decisions your governments took last week in breaching the Olympic Truce,” IPC president Andrew Parsons told a news conference in Beijing. “You are victims of your governments’ actions.”
They’re on the list, at least. The IPC had initially let Russia and Belarus stay in the Games despite the Belarus-aided Russian invasion of Ukraine, which gets more stomach-churning by the day. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly promised his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, he would hold off on the invasion until after the Olympics. The two men met right before Beijing 2022, and Putin pretended to fall asleep as Ukraine marched into the opening ceremony. As Beijing’s Olympic slogan goes, Together For A Shared Future.
No such promises were made for the Paralympics, though. This week the sports world is closing doors to Russia that had been previously wedged open with cash: FIFA and UEFA banned Russia from international football (after awarding Russia the 2018 World Cup), and other sports federations, from athletics to hockey to skating and more, have done the same. Oligarch Roman Abramovich is selling Chelsea, the prize Premier League team.
And still the Paralympics had decided to keep Russia in under the limp framework pioneered by the International Olympic Committee as part of the years-long effort to keep Russia in the Olympics despite the most far-reaching state-sponsored doping scheme in modern history. Neutral athletes, no anthem, Olympic flag. The IPC added that the Russians wouldn’t show up in the medal table, either.
The reason? The IPC said that Russia could appeal a ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is a major piece of the IOC’s alphabet soup of tame agencies. And in an international sport movement shaped by the IOC to maximize profit, where Russia has larded cash on the scale at every opportunity, the IPC believed Russia would probably win.
Which tells you so much about how Russia wormed its way into the heart of the West. Russia has used sport to burnish its reputation on a global scale for years: It hosted events from fencing to judo to biathlon, swimming to table tennis to beach soccer, world championships or European championships or world university games, whatever. People in the know whispered Russia was one of the few places you were guaranteed to make a profit, whether it was badminton or luge. Russia installed people in various federations. Biathlon was a favourite.
It was part of sportwashing as part of a grander strategy, targeting the soft and greedy West, which eagerly collaborated: Putin-approved oligarchs with stolen money buying Premier League teams or the Brooklyn Nets along with real estate in London and New York and yachts all over. There is a reason Italy carved out an exception for luxury goods in early Russia sanctions.
And Russia bought into the IOC, and the IOC tried to keep Russia in the Olympics even after it perverted the movement; even WA co-founder and IOC member Dick Pound got quiet about Russian doping after he spoke out in Pyeongchang. It should perhaps be noted: Russia invaded Ukraine four days after the Sochi Olympics ended, seizing Crimea in a short military campaign that spanned those Paralympics, which helped disrupt Ukraine’s planned bid for the 2022 Olympics. During those Paralympics, with Russia doping its athletes as part of the comprehensive program, Russia won 80 medals. Their 30 golds were more than any other nation’s total. Ukraine was second in total medals, with 25.
The IPC banned Russia from Rio in 2016 only, showing moral courage; the IOC never banned Russian athletes at all. And the IPC tried to follow that IOC script in Beijing as Russia shelled civilians and brandished nukes until the real world barged in.
“We don’t have reports of any specific incidents of aggression or anything like that,” Parsons said. “But it was a very, very volatile environment in the (athletes’) village. It was a very rapid escalation, which we did not think was going to happen. We did not think that entire delegations, or even teams within delegations, will withdraw, will boycott, will not participate.”
It was the athletes who drew the line. International sports sidesteps human rights because it’s tricky business and bad for the bottom line, and China’s grim and chilling Olympics was a logical stop on that journey; the IOC will go back one day for the money.
So might everyone, everywhere. So watch: Watch who relents first, who tries to go back to normal first, which governments or sporting federations or governing bodies take the same approach Russia and China and Saudi Arabia and Qatar have: sports as a sphere without politics by which to conduct politics. We are headed for rougher waters on a global scale. Sports will have to decide how much morality it can afford, in the wake of Russia’s bloody dangerous war. Things have changed. And sport should never be treated quite the same, either.
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