It’s a shame that tragic circumstances as severe as the Russian invasion of Ukraine were required for sport to finally begin clearing out some of the dirty money it so readily accepts.
Alleged corruption and the death of migrant workers at stadium sites couldn’t take the upcoming World Cup from Qatar. Human rights abuses couldn’t prevent a Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United.
The dirty financial dealings of owners of Paris St-Germain and Man City have propelled previously unsuccessful clubs to the top of European football with the governing bodies doing little to get in their way.
We cannot mistake the role sports washing has played in helping Russia and Vladimir Putin reach this point in their aggression.
As pointed out in the Academy Award winning documentary Icarus, Putin used massive levels of approval garnered for him by the success of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi as an excuse to ramp up significantly his violent efforts against Ukraine.
March 2014 saw Russia successfully complete the illegal annexation of Crimea, less than a month after the Sochi Games. The country was still allowed to host the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
Today the global sporting world’s resounding response to Russia sends perhaps for the first time, a clear message; there are at least some things so atrocious sport will not stand idly by.
Ties to the Russian state-backed energy company Gazprom have been severed by UEFA, who for a decade have placed the company’s branding front-and-centre during the Champions League and European Championships.
Russia may be seen as something of an easy target in the sporting context both given the severity of its actions and recent history of sanctions against its athletes. An existing ban on Russian athletes competing under their flag was already in place up until the end of 2022.
Formula 1 driver Nikita Mazepin is one such example. He drove for the Haas team last season as a member of the “Russian Automobile Federation”.
Mazepin himself entered the top tier of motorsport largely due to his father Dmitry’s sponsoring of the team through his chemicals company Uralkali.
Uralkali and several members of its board including Dmitry Mazepin have ties to President Putin, another example of the impact the Russian leader’s influence can have in the sporting world.
The deal saw Haas compete under the name Uralkali Haas F1 Team for the 2021 season and featured on the car’s livery Uralkali branding and a red, white, and blue colour scheme strikingly similar to the Russian flag.
In the wake of the invasion Haas unveiled a plain white livery which no longer features the Uralkali logo nor the Russia-inspired colour scheme. Mazepin has lost his seat and Uralkali will no longer sponsor the racing outfit.
Global sport’s rejection of Russian representation and support of Ukraine is deservedly resounding and comprehensive but represents only the first step in what should be an ambitious plan for the future.
This fallout may also provide a template for sporting bodies around the world to expel once-and-for-all the widespread sports washing efforts that remain. It is time to be proactive rather than reactive.
Qatar should have lost the World Cup as soon as it became apparent workers were dying. Over 6,500 migrants have lost their lives since the event was awarded in 2010.
Before Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund could have entered the Premier League’s money-making machine the state’s human rights violations must be rectified.
Indeed, we’re not yet four years removed from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
An agreement effective since 2017 between the European Union and Ukraine outlined the criteria the latter must fulfil in order to gain membership to the former.
It’s high time sport did the same for those using our games to gloss over their terrible actions.