“Can sport and politics really be separated?”, Theo Ploegmakers

In a column published yesterday, Theo Ploegmakers, President of the European Equestrian Federation, analyzes the ins and outs of the expulsion of Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams from international sport, which was announced very quickly by many federations in response to the invasion. of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s armies. The Dutchman tries to explain why what was true very quickly in this case, was not always the case in other times and situations. A captivating, enlightening and captivating text.



Major sporting events, such as the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, and Formula 1, as well as equestrian events, are often hosted in countries with a reputation for human and animal rights, environmental protection and military commitment. This has been the subject of a plethora of criticism from many countries and organisations, but especially from civil society and public opinion. Yet these major sporting events take place in these countries because, as they say, sports and politics are said to be two separate worlds. That said, and while the Olympics have been boycotted in the past for political reasons (especially those in Moscow and Los Angeles, in 1980 to 1984, because of the Cold War, editor’s note)“It was only recently, with the exclusion of Russian athletes from almost all international competitions, as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, that sports and politics suddenly became more intertwined than ever. The questions are therefore: why have such measures been taken now and how should we understand them?

To understand it, we must define a concept that seems to be related to this development and is called the “sports wash”, and how these tactics depend on or are part of politics in general and in sports. we talk about “sports wash” when a country uses a major sporting event to polish its image. We have seen this phenomenon happen in countries with controversial histories and we have seen international sports federations (IFs) allow or facilitate it only for sporting reasons, but also financial reasons, without further discussion.

It is difficult to follow politics in general, but in this case it is worth giving an example: during the European Football Championship 2021, Germany played Hungary in Munich. The city council of this city wanted to illuminate the stadium in the colors of the rainbow because Hungary, co-organizer of the tournament, had just passed an anti-LGBTQ law. However, UEFA rejected the proposal because they wanted to remain politically neutral. At the same competition, team captains were allowed to wear a rainbow headband as a sign of support for the LGBTQ community. It seems contradictory, but in the eyes of UEFA, lighting the stadium in the colors of the rainbow during this particular match would be a political statement against Hungary, while wearing a rainbow headband during the match would only symbolize for the defense of human rights, which is not a political statement. Is this a valid argument or just a way to excuse a necessary political decision?

In the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has called on all international sports federations to cancel or reschedule scheduled events in Russia and Belarus elsewhere. In a second appeal, the IOC ruled that teams and athletes from Russia and Belarus were no longer welcome in international sport, including under a neutral flag. Most IOC member IFs have taken this position. All this happened at a speed never before achieved. Moreover, these calls were quite striking, especially with regard to the IOC’s statutes, which established the political neutrality of this organization.



Shaping a fair, respectful and inclusive world through sport

Does this mean that the IOC and its affiliated IFs have renounced this principle? Appearances aside, the answer is a bit more nuanced, because what the IOC has condemned is not expressly the invasion of Ukraine. He invoked at the time when it backed his decision, namely the Olympic Charter, a non-binding United Nations resolution of 1993, which urges countries not to do anything from seven days before the start of the Olympics to seven days after the Olympics. take military action. end of the Paralympic Games. As everyone knows, the invasion took place during such a period (established for the Beijing Winter Games, editor’s note)† Again, is this a valid argument or just a way to support a necessary political decision? Would the IOC have allowed everything to continue as usual if the invasion had happened a few days later? Would the sport otherwise be practiced at an international level in Russia while this country is waging a war in Ukraine?

Moreover, what Russia is doing now can be compared to the situation in the Middle East where, among others, most countries in the region and some outside (including United States, editor’s note) were somehow involved in bloody conflict, which continued even during the Olympics. This is also happening in other parts of the world. However, the IOC has not made a similar appeal to the international sports community as it did to Russia. The reason why Russia is now being boycotted and not these other nations, according to experts, is due to a conflict situation in which the West is now under serious threat, while the big IFs are mainly run by Westerners, who find themselves attributing major events to countries whose track records are in dispute because these countries exert financial and/or political influence on the international scene and the sports industry.

That’s how we get to “sports wash”, which has recently become the cause and means of most politics in sport. IFs face this problem because they want to remain politically neutral, while on the other hand the social pressure to defend human and animal rights, the environment and “positive social change” is not just in the West, but around the world. increases. Why are countries with disputed records allowed to host major sporting events? The first reaction of FIs is probably: “because sport is a way to unite the world”† Again, is this argument sufficient or is it just being put forward to support their multifactor decisions and policies?

The question for FIs now is how will they behave in the future, when “social licensing” will be the standard by which every FI will be measured on a daily basis? Will the IFs continue to award major sporting events to countries with contested records and use what we believe to be an inadequate argument of the separation between politics and sport? Or will the IFs take responsibility for their decisions and actions and demonstrate leadership in shaping a fair, respectful and inclusive world through sport, based on Olympic ideals, always easily invoked but often compromised? For its part, it is in this second direction that the European Equestrian Federation is committed.