PART 3: Sport sanctions against Russia

Published: Updated:

International sanctions have become tools to be used by great powers competing for leading positions in global influence. As Russia has grown in strength and influence in recent years, attempts have been made to manipulate Russian foreign policy, and to prevent Russia from returning to the global political arena as one of the most prominent great powers. These efforts have mostly come in the form of international sanctions. The chain of sanctions against Russia started with economical and political sanctions which were approved by the US and the EU following the Ukrainian Crisis of 2014, and continued with the sport sanctions imposed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2016, and most recently, with the imposition of sanctions by the Obama administration over alleged election hacking – a consequence of which was the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. Arguably, all of these sanctions have one goal – to manipulate Russian foreign policies. Sport sanctions, though imposed by a non-governmental organization, the International Olympic Committee, seem to have been politically motivated, as firstly, the lead investigator of the McLaren report on state-sponsored doping between 2011 and 2015 is biased, and secondly, there is a double-standard that has unfairly targeted Russia. The sport sanctions against Russia, imposed by the IOC and supported by other global powers, have helped to harm the state’s image, and show an attempt to manipulate Russian foreign polices. Despite the negative intentions behind the imposition of these sanctions, Russia was able to use soft power and state-branding.

Sport sanctions against Russia started in July 2016, when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) commissioned the ‘McLaren report’, which established a basis for excluding Russian athletes from the Olympics and Paralympics (BBC, 2016). The McLaren report claimed to have found evidence that more than 1,000 Russian athletes across 30 sports were affected by state-sponsored performance enhancements between 2011 and 2015 (Guardian, 2016). Although WADA recommended a blanket ban, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) resolved to delegate this decision to the regulating bodies of specific sports. As a result, 271 Russian athletes from the original entry list of 389 athletes participated in the 2016 Olympics. The International Paralympic Committee banned the whole national team from participating in the Paralympics. Sport sanctions against Russia have negatively affected Russia’s image as this subject was discussed widely in Western media. As a result, sport, and specifically sport sanctions, became an essential element in affecting the international perception of Russia.

However, it seems that the investigation was motivated by a desire to manipulate Russian foreign policies and limit its growth as a great power. The report has attracted accusations of illegitimacy due to bias, and there is also evidence of a double-standard that unfairly targets Russia. The report can be seen as biased because of the affiliation of its author, Professor McLaren, with the WADA Independent Commission, and for the fact that it refers to unnamed athletes. Following the publishing of the McLaren report, the IOC stated that: ‘The evidence provided by Professor McLaren in his investigation has to be evaluated, and those implicated have to be given the right to be heard’. This report was criticised by Russian officials, who said that it would not stand up to legal criticism. Ron Katz (Forces, 2016:1), who has worked in the US legal system for 45 years, agrees with this statement. According to Ron Katz, any debate resolution procedure obliges neutrality. The author of report, Richard McLaren, is a Canadian law professor and a practicing lawyer, but he was also, according to the report, ‘previously a member of WADA’s three-person Independent Commission … which exposed widespread doping in Russian Athletics’. As Katz simply puts it, ‘it is therefore not surprising that Professor McLaren ended up agreeing with himself. In order to ensure fairness and credibility, the Independent Person, in my opinion, should have been someone previously unassociated [sic] with this issue’. Secondly, Katz believes that it is clearly impossible for Russia to defend the state against unnamed accusers. It seems that sanctions are politically motivated; and serve as an important tool in harming the image of Russia.

The controversy has continued, with developments following a similar pattern, demonstrating the role sport plays in politics. On the 7th of December 2016, the IOC prolonged the sports sanctions against Russia. Published online on 9th December 2016, the second part of the McLaren Report says that 1,166 supporting documents were found, constituting evidence of state-sponsored doping. The Russian deputy of the State Duma, and former football coach Valeriy Gazzaev, stated:

Why WADA does not investigate the issue about other nations’ teams so carefully? Definitely, there is, without any doubt, a political order. Western media inflames passions on doping very professionally and fundamentally. This is not only our problem. Doping is a worldwide problem. And they need to fight with it in the same way as we fight with it – even using criminal punishment. Law should be equal for all national teams. If there is so principality towards Russia, why isn’t it implemented towards other states? Double standards should not exist. (RT, 2016:1).

The Western media’s unilateral focus on Russian involvement in chemically enhancing the performance of professional athletes, within the context of a global issue, proves a double-standard that confirms an ulterior political motive. Sport sanctions became vital to negatively representing Russia and, as a result, to attempts to manipulate Russian foreign policies in current political crises and wars.

The existence of this double-standard is supported by the reaction to recent leaks of the private medical data by the Fancy Bears Hack Team, providing evidence of the use of performance-enhancing drugs by a number of well-known Western athletes. There is no mention on the Fancy Bears website about their location, with Western media (BBC, 2016; New York Times, 2016; CrowdStrike, 2016) seeing possible connections to Russia; while the Russian media (Life, 2016) has commented that after analyzing the e-mail (the writing style) sent by the hacking group, it does not seem that it was written by native English speakers. In 2016, the Fancy Bears Hack Team accessed WADA’s database and released information regarding drug use by famous athletes such as American tennis players Serena and Venus Williams, the American swimmer Ryan Loche and gymnast Simone Biles, and the Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal, among others. The information released by the Fancy Bears Hack Team was not discussed as widely as the scandal concerning Russian athletes. Even if the acting director of Russia’s national anti-doping agency Rusada did admit to an ‘institutional conspiracy’ of doping Olympic athletes, while insisting that the Russian government was not involved in the program (Guardian, 2016), it is not clear why athletes from other states were not examined with the same level of attention. The reason seems to be that sport sanctions were used against a particular country – Russia – and that the political, economic, or sport sanctions were applied against Russia to serve a purpose – to manipulate Russian policy, decrease Russian prestige internationally, and to show only the disadvantages of Russia’s current policies.

Along with the negative outcomes of sport sanctions against Russia, the state has been hindered in its use of sport, for positive soft power and state-branding. Concrete negative results of the sanctions include losing the right to host the Junior Biathlon World Cup Junior and the Speed Skating World Cup, among other competitions (NTV, 2016). Nonetheless, as a positive outcome, sport played the main role at the national level in unifying the nation and increasing patriotic feelings. Words of support towards the Russian athletes also came from the IOC, which blocked the collective punishment of Russian athletes, and disagreed with their exclusion from the 2016 Paralympics. Rene Fazel, the President of the International Hockey Federation, said (RT, 2016:1): ‘I believe my Russian friends. Undoubtedly, they make some mistakes, but they are not the reason for punishing all sportsmen due to mistakes of particular people. I am against collective punishment’. Nonetheless, this collective punishment assisted Russia in unifying the nation, especially when the whole national team was banned from the Paralympics (RT, 2017; Echo.msk, 2017).

At the international level, the current case demonstrates that sport has become an expression of power by, and an arena of competition between, great powers, and has been seen by athletes and journalists as a repetition of the Cold War. Surprisingly, the doping scandal helped to increase global attention and to provide Russia with an opportunity to make positive state-branding. The furore that the McLaren report caused brought a sense of conflict to the 2016 Olympics, rather than the unity that the Olympics represent. Russian Olympic medallist Yulia Efimova, who won the silver medal in Women’s Swimming 100m and 200m Breaststroke, commented that she “…felt under pressure from the sportsmen, the fans, and the press. This was awful and it was not like being at the Olympics, which usually unite people. This was not a competition, but a war – a cold war” (Reuters, 2016:1). This was not the feeling of Yulia Efimova alone, with CNN (2016) also describing the competition with US swimmer Lilly King as a ‘Cold War’. The air of conflict that is suggested by this language helped to politicize the competition; and athletes, rather than being united in sportsmanship, were divided by suspicion. In this case, the impact of sports sanctioning is obvious, and would seem to have had a negative effect on the competition – at least as far as the Russian athletes are concerned. However, as a result of the controversy that the McLaren report created, the Russian athletes that participated were put under the spotlight, and Russian sport and athletics in general was given a perhaps unforeseen platform on which to demonstrate its resilience and expertise. In effect, Russia was given the opportunity to take advantage of the world’s attention, to convert an international scandal into positive state-branding.

The main objective of these sanctions applied by the IOC and reported by Western media, was to harm Russia’s international image and to manipulate Russian foreign policy objectives. As a result of the damage to Russia’s image, some sport events, which were supposed to be held in Russia, were moved to other states. However, the investigation of the McLaren report demonstrates both its bias and the application double standards to a problem which is worldwide, but for which Russia receives the most attention and criticism. However, even in this case, while the Russians could not see the best performances of their sportsmen, they were united in their disagreement with banning of their national athletes from the Paralympics and of 271 Russian athletes from the Olympics. So, in this case study we can see that sport sanctions helped to create soft power within the state itself, by uniting Russia and other countries in support of the Russian Olympic team. Their success in spite of all the criticism that the McLaren report initiated contributed to the nation’s efforts at state branding as global attention was paid to the Russian national team.

In summary, the anti-Russian sanctions and the issue of foreign-born participation in the UAE demonstrate how sport has become an important tool for power politics. Despite the dissimilarity of these examples, detailed consideration of how sport sanctions were used against Russia, and its outcomes in the context of great powers interactions; the misunderstanding by some citizens of the purposes of sport in politics; and examples of how sport has been successfully used to put the UAE onto the map as a small state with international recognition, demonstrate how states actively consider sport as a power means and use it to succeed in power politics. By using sport for political purposes, a state can promote its image internationally and increase its prestige, stimulate tourism, and help to develop relationships by opening communication channels with neighbours and competitors. At the national level, sport can unite a nation in pride, and can create opportunities for mass participation in sport that will improve people’s health. Sport can also be used to manipulate other states, particularly with political sanctions or boycotts. As the Russian case demonstrates, the IOC sport sanctions and Western media campaign of showing the state in a negative way, helped to harm Russia’s image internationally, and Russia lost an opportunity to host sport competitions. So, in one sense, the sport sanctions’ purposes were achieved. Nonetheless, as sport sanctions in this case study are politically motivated, Russia was also able to spread soft power and state-branding, as a lot of attention was paid to the Russian national team and its athletes, which brought new interest in, and support for, the country from other nations. As a result, sport can also be seen as one of the most powerful means to ‘win’ your competitor. Simply put, politics is like sport. Training and strategies can lead you to winning Olympic gold; or, to use political language, clear and smart usage of sport for power projection, through soft power, state-branding and sport sanctions, and hard work can spread your influence to other states.



PART 1: Sport as a power tool

PART 2: The UAE and sport


Diana Galeeva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her PhD research focuses on theories of power, IR theory, small states, Political Islam and GCC politics. She was an intern at the President of Tatarstan’s office - Department of corporation and Religious organizations (2012), Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, legal department (2011), and the Ministry of justice (2010).

Diana received her M.A. in International Relations from Exeter University in the UK, and earned a degree in Governmental Law from Kazan Federal University (KFU). She speaks English, Russian, Tatar and studies Arabic and Turkish. She tweets @diana_galeeva and can be contacted on diana.galeeva@durham.ac.uk