Something still feels off about the International Ski Federation’s decision to ban Russian athletes from the remaining 2021-2022 competitions because of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
War is awful, so obviously that part is “off,” but it’s not what I’m getting at.
After an intense board meeting and external pressure from various organizations, including the Norwegian Ski Federation, essentially the unofficial keepers of the ski pantheon, FIS finally imposed serious sanctions on Russian athletes, forcing many to leave Holmenkollen days before the famous race began.
Earlier that week, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board stated: “In order to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants, the IOC EB recommends that International Sports Federations and sports event organisers not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions.”
Many athletes on the World Cup, including World Cup leader Johannes Klaebo, expressed support for the Norwegian Ski Federation, who stated Russian athletes “are not welcome” at the upcoming Drammen and Holmenkollen events, a statement akin to a group of cool fourth graders on the playground telling a bully “you can’t play foursquare with us.” Of course, the bully, unless principal FIS says something, will happily hop into the King spot of said parking lot game with that kind of teeth-less declaration.
Noah Hoffman tweeted about the inadequacies of the “recommendation” move.
“The case for banning all Russian athletes is strong. Sanctions against athletes are no different from other sanctions. They have a high cost to individuals not directly responsible for harms (athletes) but are justified because they create pressure on those responsible (Putin),” he wrote on Feb. 27.
He continued, “While I feel for the individual athletes, all Russian skiers should be banned from the @FISCrossCountry World Cup for the rest of the season. Their results are used to drum up nationalism and bolster the Russian State. Allowing them to compete aids Russia.”
I’m glad Hoffman recognized the unfairness to the Russian athletes while also stating in the comments that if he were in a similar position (as an athlete), he would accept such a sanction as well.
Global Athlete was asked by Ukranian Athletes to release a letter to the IOC which asked for tougher sanctions. It was signed by hundreds of Olympians and Paralympians from many nations within hours.
Eventually, FIS changed it’s tune, grabbing the IOC’s reasoning and stating “To ensure the safety and security of all athletes at FIS competitions, the FIS Council decided unanimously, in line with the IOC recommendation, that with immediate effect, no Russian or Belarusian athlete shall participate in any FIS competition at any level through the end of the 2021-2022 season.”
Hoffman, though pleased with the move, also recognizes the peculiar nature of it all.
“I am glad to see their position has changed,” he wrote on social media Tuesday morning. “Their reasoning – ‘to ensure the safety and security of all athletes at FIS competitions’ – is odd. Makes it sound like Russian and Belarusian athletes pose a risk to other athletes on the tour.”
Russian — and in the past, Soviet Union — sport federations have tested the trust of international competitors for decades and that is the ‘kind’ way of expressing questions regarding its systematic doping schemes. I’ve spoken with Russian Olympians and historians before — I’m even working on a biography on a remarkable Russian-born Olympian — and all I can personally say is that I think there is an element of misunderstanding when it comes to this issue. I’m not denying anything, but I won’t press further into something few people have tangible evidence for or personal experience in.
That being said, I’m willing to believe former and/or current athletes who suggest or claim to know of Russians or Soviet athletes whom they’ve competed against having cheated.
Regardless, this decision, and the support of the international athletic community in general, has left a bad taste for me as a fan and follower.
On the one hand, war is terrible, so if one thinks such sanctions could pressure Putin to pull out of Ukraine, they’re warranted and worth it. I just don’t think they will. Choking out the Russian economy? Yes. Canceling Russian culture completely? No.
People across the globe are now viewing Russian music, Russian food, and Russian people as less than, scum of the earth. There isn’t a place for that either.
The overall World Cup leader in cross-country, Natalia Nepryaeva was a near-lock to secure the first overall globe for the country in two decades. She leads American sweetheart Jessie Diggins by almost 300 points. Alexander Bulshunov, winner of the last two overall globes, is currently in second behind Klaebo. He likely wouldn’t make up the ground on the Norwegian legend, but his chances of a record fourth straight went up in smoke at Holmenkollen, the Boston Marathon of Nordic Skiing — a race Bulshunov won at the age of 22, the youngest ever, and won again the last time it was held in 2020.
By the way, did you notice how uncontested Iivo Niskanen, who trailed the Russian by 16 points heading into the race, was in securing the first FIVE sprint bonus points en route to a hefty 65 point day? He know has his first distance globe in the bag.
Meanwhile, I overheard that Bulshunov was having coffee with the Russian president, pressuring him to let him finish his races. Oh wait….Do you really think a puny Russian athlete — or “pawn” — as many have suggested they actually — are is going to walk up to the ruler of Russia and tell him what to do?
Do you think a coach whose career and perhaps life hangs on maintaining the Kremlin’s good graces will? Would you risk doing that?
On the other hand, I go back to the playground. Remember that kid you always suspected was a cheater but never was punished? Those are the Russian athletes. One day, that kid’s dad — Putin — sends a bomb threat to Ukraine Elementary, and the principal — FIS — perhaps rightly retaliates by pulling everyone in the family from the school. Now, that kid really can’t play in your four square game, and you just might win.
Right now, athletes in cross-country skiing will benefit tremendously from a Russian absence. The team that dominated the Olympics, claiming both gender’s distance relay golds and half of the men’s 12 individual medals up for grabs, and is leading the World Cup standings, is out.
Am I really suggesting that athletes are pining for this disqualification to garner a competitive advantage? No, I don’t really think that is the motive. I believe good-hearted people want to do anything they can to stop an invasion that is killing thousands. In doing so, I’m not sure they are realizing their inconsistencies, however. For example, many in the Nordic community are lauding the efforts of Wang Qiang for his silver at the Drammen sprints, a remarkable accomplishment and the first-ever podium by a Chinese skier. It’s interesting how people want to celebrate the country’s incredible rise in the sport — something, by the way, which should silence those who’s panties are in a bundle over the best way to groom young talent, the importance of decades of technique work, etc., etc. — and simply ignore the plethora of human rights abuses and authoritative communist government behind it. As evidence emerges of China literally being responsible for the world-wide pandemic that killed millions and affected all, no one wants to speak out for those athletes to be excluded.
All of that is to say, it seems like people are ok with the current sanctions because they feel like Russia, with its alleged history of doping, sort-of-kind-of deserves it.
And that is the part that just feels off.