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This week, Russia became the world’s most-sanctioned country, with more than 5,500 sanctions imposed by the rest of the planet in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. In addition to the myriad economic sanctions against Russia, major international sports organizations are also banning the country and its athletes from hosting and participating in worldwide events.

Among the bans: the International Federation of Association Football eliminated Russia from 2022 FIFA World Cup contention; the Union of European Football Associations suspended all Russian international and club teams from its competitions; and the International Basketball Federation banned Russian teams from participating in its games and tournaments.

While banning the country’s top athletes from competing may not affect the trajectory of the war, it will greatly affect the country’s morale, said Brendan Dwyer, Ph.D., director of research and distance learning at the Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

“The power to reach and potentially persuade a mass audience through sport is unmatched,” Dwyer said. “This hits at the importance of national symbolism and pride.”

Dwyer spoke with VCU News about the impact of the world banning Russia from competing, eliminating its national pride of competing at the highest level with other countries.

Global sports organizations are distancing themselves from Russia. What long-term impact could this have on the country?

International sport is the ultimate platform for national pride. Think of the pageantry, anthems, jerseys and flags portrayed during competition. By eliminating their teams and athletes from international play, you are removing a source of entertainment and diversion, but more importantly, you are eliminating the national pride of competing at the highest level with other countries.

I don’t think it will impact the economy or stop the war directly. The scale and scope of this war goes far beyond sports. However, sports are a major source of morale for a country, and to see the widespread and consistent international reaction from the sports world is very tangible for all Russians. Economic and diplomatic sanctions, though very impactful, are not seen directly. Losing access to their favorite sports competitions is something they will notice and something they will miss. Targeting Russian teams and organizations is indirectly targeting the country itself. We are not just fans of USA Soccer or the U.S. Olympic Team. We are the U.S. Olympic Team, we see ourselves in these teams and athletes. To take them away is to take away part of our identity. Once again, this hits at the importance of national symbolism and pride.

The long-term impact of Russian sports depends on what happens after this conflict. International sports organizations understand the sporting world is better with Russia competing, and as sports fans, we have shockingly short memories. Russia has very talented athletes and teams and the storylines of international competition dating back to the Cold War still resonate with many. Therefore, I assume athletes will return to international competition when the conflict concludes. However, if the conflict endures or grows, I imagine the sports sanctioning will as well.

Is this paying lip service to the idea that “war is bad?” Or does this go beyond making a social statement?

Athletes and organizations have realized the importance of sports as a platform. From on-field demonstrations to sportswashing [when a government uses sport to improve a damaged reputation], the power to reach and potentially persuade a mass audience through sport is unmatched. What we have seen is a form of sanctioning the war that is within the power of sports organizations. You are seeing more and more athletes and organizations utilizing their platforms politically and socially, and this is no different. To me, this example falls between politically condemning the war and imposing economic sanctions. There are tangible outcomes to canceling games, ending partnerships and removing teams from international competition, but it does not directly impact the country’s economy or the war. There are a number of Russians, however, that will feel the impact of not competing in the 2022 World Cup. It only happens once every four years.

Some organizations, such as the International Tennis Federation, have banned players from competing under the name or flags of Russia and Belarus, but are allowing Russian and Belarusian players to compete as individuals. Why do this? Does it maintain the integrity of the sport by allowing the best players to compete? Does it lessen the severity of banning Russia from competing?

This is an interesting one, as federations are handling it differently. For example, all Russian and Belarusian track and field athletes are banned from competition, yet tennis athletes can compete but not under the name or flag of the countries. There was a similar treatment in the Olympics, as the Russians were not allowed to compete under the name, flag or colors of Russia, instead, the Russian Olympic Committee. However, the situation is quite different here.

Also, individual participation in professional team sports has not been impacted. For instance, to this point, the National Hockey League has not considered banning players like Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin because they are Russian. Though the NHL did just suspend their partnership with the Russian professional hockey league (Kontinental Hockey League). In addition, Formula One driver Nikita Mazepin was dropped by his race team, Haas F1 Team, but athletes are still allowed to compete under neutral capacity. It appears that the treatment of individual athletes is still evolving. To me, it is the next step of sanctioning. Right now, the international sports community has made it well-known that they do not want to be affiliated with the flags of Russia or Belarus. There is no playbook for this form of discipline. It is currently directed toward any teams or organizations affiliated with the two countries, and not necessarily individual athletes, but that does not mean it could not trend in that direction.

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