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Beast to the East
Russia's route in from the cold and pump-priming women's sport
The war in Ukraine doesn’t look like ending any time soon. Just as Russia is recalibrating its geopolitical and industrial relations, so the prospect of a conflict stretching years into the future will necessitate a realignment of its place in the sporting world. Asia’s warmth towards the Kremlin points a way back for Russia’s athletes into the international fold.
Last week China made a great show of embracing Russia with Xi Jinping’s trip to Moscow - a suitably choreographed demonstration of easier if still wary attitudes, born of necessity. Days later World Athletics lifted its seven year ban on Russian athletes after the country was at last deemed to meet anti-doping requirements, only to maintain the parallel bar imposed because of the invasion of Ukraine. Euro 2024 football qualifiers have commenced without Russia. On Sunday its men’s team instead beat Iraq 2-0 in a friendly. Could President Xi be the man to bring Russia in from the cold?
The International Olympic Committee seems determined to find a way back for Russian athletes, albeit as ‘neutrals’ for now. It is hampered in this mission by the objections of many Western European nations, but supported by most international sporting bodies. Here we can see the contrasting political and cultural attitudes of Europe and much of the rest of the world - especially Africa where Russia has long invested in soft power through sporting projects, and Asia too.
“We must be politically neutral but not apolitical… But we should not make the mistake of raising ourselves to referees of political disputes because we will be crushed by these political powers.” IOC president Thomas Bach
Leaders of international federations are acutely aware of the breadth of opinions among their electorates, in which ‘one nation, one vote’ systems bestow as much power on small island states as, say, the United States. Although he’s in his last term of office, and so no longer pursuing re-election votes, IOC president Thomas Bach’s softness towards Russia should be viewed as a means to maximal personal strength within his power base.
The Olympic Council of Asia has already made clear its willingness to find Paris 2024 qualification opportunities for Russian and Belarusian sportspeople within its regional events. Russia’s football team is currently slated to be part of the Championship of the Central Asian Football Association in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan this June. It still has no route to qualify for the 2026 FIFA World Cup though. The World Cup qualification process for Asian nations begins this October. Australia and New Zealand might kick up rough at any hurried attempt to shoe-horn Russia into this competition, but would many of the other 45 countries should China signal its approval?
Could UEFA block a Russian football transfer from Europe to Asia; or the EOC stand in the way of the OCA adopting Russia’s Olympians? What would FIFA and the IOC have to say either way?
The call by ‘western’ nations for Russians to be banned from the Olympics isn’t about the culpability of individual athletes. Instead it reflects the reality of the propaganda power of sporting success - both within the Russian population and on the global stage. Which is why President Putin will be desperate for Russia to compete under its own flag in the US in both the football World Cup and the Los Angeles Olympics two years later.
2026 and 2028 may seem a long way off, but the imperative of qualification systems creates an urgency that will not be lost on the Kremlin. Russia straddles two continents. While three quarters of its people are in Europe, three quarters of its land mass is in Asia. That’s a pretty enormous backdoor sporting option.
Running half circle
Given the electoral maths in international sport, Seb Coe has taken quite a stand in maintaining World Athletics’ ban on Russian athletes. He will be re-elected unopposed for a third and final term as its president this summer, but his eyes are now surely on the prize of succeeding Thomas Bach in 2025. Being on the wrong side of Russia’s allies risks alienating a big swathe of the IOC voters.
Coe made his first step into international sports politics as a young athlete defying the British government’s call to boycott the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Has he run a half circle in the intervening four decades, or is boycotting in protest fundamentally different from banning in protest? Coe must hope that his ban proves more effective than the boycott he boycotted.
“History proved us right of course, because four years later when we went to LA for the 1984 Olympics the Russians were still in Afghanistan, and the boycott had no impact." Seb Coe in the Guardian in 2006
In a league of their own
The auctions for the inaugural cricket Women’s Premier League in Mumbai garnered more column inches than the competition itself - that’s the auction for five year franchises for the five teams which raised $580 million and the $7.5 million spent on the 87 players who competed in this first WPL T20 tournament. Both numbers are astonishing and speak to the commercial appeal of cricket in India. The player values may seem paltry by comparison with men’s IPL, but the top player earned $430,000 for the two and a half week competition. That’s transformative for the sport.
This is a classic case of pump-priming - sinking funds into a venture in expectation that the scale of spending will be instrumental in its eventual success. The same is true of much of Women’s Super League football in England, and the RFU’s upped financial commitment to women’s rugby.
The WPL initiative has the advantage of being a short annual burst which can generate temporary excitement. Long seasonal leagues face a greater challenge - of forming enduring fandom that leads to repeat, habitual attendance at matches. The signs in club football are that this is happening, but at what cost? Broadcast and commercial revenues are much shallower than in Indian cricket. Enlightened owners of leading men’s teams are critical. As are national governing bodies in rugby and cricket. The current momentum behind elite women’s team sports is exciting; affordability and in turn durability will be their challenge.
Sporting Equals has published its 2022 Race Representation Index, measuring the degrees of success of 64 governing bodies in pursuing an equality agenda across leadership, coaches and players. Nine of the invited organisations chose not to participate. Eight of these represent relatively small sports. The ninth? The Football Association. Really?
You can read the summary report here
You don’t want to sit slumped on your sofa watching tele over the Coronation weekend do you? Instead, why not come to the 2023 Wheelchair Rugby European Championship in our purpose built venue within Cardiff’s iconic Principality Stadium (check out the image above). The competition runs from 3rd to 7th May. Full details and tickets available now at WReuro23.com. This is the critical qualifier for Paris 2024. GB are reigning Para champions, France hold the European title and Denmark - drawn in GB’s pool - were semi finalists at last year’s Worlds. So lots of sporting jeopardy.
We are on the hunt for event sponsors, so shout if you might be interested in supporting us. And do consider buying a hospitality package, either for the opening match; the celebrity game and GB v Denmark double-header on the Friday evening; or finals day on the Sunday. (I guess you could always find a TV screen in between the action too if you want to see King Charles crowned).