6 Mar 2014

Boycott on cards as Putin visits Sochi Paralympics

There is a rumour doing the rounds that President Putin is now in Sochi. More than a rumour – a strong suggestion that he will be at the athletes village in person to formally welcome Russia’s Paralympic team. Nothing unusual or untoward there. The president of the Paralympic host nation like any good patriot getting behind his boys and girls.

But let us consider what is going on behind the scenes for a moment. Clearly, this evening –  at least for a few moments – sport and politics will be mixing.  Literally and metaphorically.

Yet the position so often stated by sports administrators – the International Paralympic Committee included – is that sports and politics should not cross paths. There are often good reasons for this.  Athletes should have the chance to compete whatever obstacles politicians may place in the way.

But what about when the matter at stake is potentially of global significance?

Do not doubt that Russia’s protection/occupation/invasion of Crimea, call it what you will, is casting an inescapable shadow over these games.

The legality of events aside, in sporting terms, one thing is abundantly clear.  The Ukranian Paralympic Committee has issued a stern and distinctly political ultimatum. Russian troops must get out of Crimea (presumably they mean the ones that weren’t there already as part of Russia’s Black Sea fleet) by tomorrow, or they will boycott the games.

We’ve heard a lot about boycotts already – western politicians, british included, are refusing to attend the Sochi games in protest at Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine. But politicians staying away is one thing.

One doubts whether President Putin will lose much sleep over Britian refusing to send its sports minister.  But what Ukraine is threatening something of a different magnitude altogether – a sporting boycott.


The kind of thing that the Moscow and LA Olympics will forever be remembered for. The height of the Cold War.

Would a Sochi boycott cause embarrassment for President Putin?

Maybe, maybe not. He’s not known for playing to the gallery outside his country. Like most successful politicians, he realises it’s the people who are able to vote for him that count. Although many have observed that voting is in itself not without controversy here in Russia, given Putin’s uncanny ability to keep a firm grip on power.

But back to the small matter of political change across the border in Ukraine.

Russia’s justification for their presence in Crimea is to protect Russian citizens. Many Ukrainians feel and speak Russian. Crimea was not that long ago part of Russia. So for the Ukranian team to refuse to play with their Russian brethren on the field of sporting competition is a big deal.

Which is where it gets more interesting still.

The president of the Ukranian Paralympic committee – is a sportsman yes, but a politican too.  And by all accounts a keen supporter of the new europhile west-leaning administration.  The very administration Putin says stole power in a court d’état.

It’s not that surprising then that he’s apparently ready to take a political stand.

He told me this afternoon that at 1pm tomorrow the team will hold a press conference and reveal their decision.  to boycott or not to boycott.  Let’s face it though, it’s unlikely this threat will have forced Russian troops back across the Crimean border by then.

And the latest noises off suggest the Ukranians may be moving back from the brink. Ukraine had been refusing to finish their Paralympic paperwork all week but apparently they’ve now nominated a flag bearer – they’re ready to compete if they choose to.

Which is what the IPC of course desperately want to see.

This is the biggest professional challenge many of these athletes will ever face.  They are a sporting organisation, and in pure sporting terms, supporting a boycott is arguably a bit like asking a politician to stand down on the eve of an election.

So the IPC position is that if the Ukraine team do boycott, they’ll look at finding ways for individual athletes to still compete.  That is only fair.

For identity is nothing if not complex.

What if some of the athletes consider themselves as Russian as they are Ukranian? What if they want to ‘defect’ as it were? What if they take no political stand whatsoever, and just wish to do their jobs?  Could they, for example, compete under an IPC flag?

The IPC are looking at the options, I was told today.  But until Ukraine make a formal decision, they just don’t know.

So, the topic at hand.  Sport, and politics – like oil and water, supposedly just not meant to mix.

Far from it. They are so often one and the same.

A few minutes before President Putin was due to arrive to welcome his team in the athletes village, the Paralympics witnessed the most curious scene.

Russian troops saluted the Ukranian team (they do this for all teams, by the way) with the Ukranian anthem pouring from the tannoy.  But then, they abandoned their ceremony early, turned on their heels and wheeled out.

The Ukranian athletes, to a man and woman, chanting this as they passed their military guard of honour: “peace to Ukraine”.

Watch this space.

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