WWhen the atrocities inflicted on the Bucha population surfaced last week, Russia’s chief – and Vladimir Putin’s serial advocate – Sergei Karjakin was asked to respond. “Have you seen the pictures, Sergey?” Question the questioner on social media. “Reckless killing of innocents. Men, women and children. He was tortured by the Russian army. Hands tied behind their backs, shot in the back of the head. Did you see him, Sergey?”
Karjakin, who represented Ukraine until 2009 before transferring his allegiance to Russia, had already seen the photos. His response was chilling. “I wanted to say it’s fake really well,” he said. “But no. It was a bad fake.”
Even before this latest incident, Russia’s Lord Hau Hau was banned for six months for his bombastic support of the invasion of Ukraine, which violated the chess code of ethics. Now, having slipped further beyond pallor, beyond salvation, he faces ostracism.
Few will shed any tears for that – or at the Russian teams who have been banned from most international events, including the Winter Paralympics and the World Cup. Why, after all, should she be allowed to brag about her sporting achievements while thousands of innocents were massacred and millions fled?
But not everything is so clear cut. Last week, it emerged that Wimbledon was prepared to ban world number two Daniil Medvedev over fears his victory “could strengthen Putin’s system”. Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston had previously suggested to Medvedev and the other Russians that they provide assurances that they were not Putin supporters to play.
But if you’re a classic liberal, this request might also make you a little grumpy. Why, after all, should the sins of a country dictator lead to the punishment of a star athlete? It feels like a violation of the laws of natural justice, especially when this player stays out of politics.
I was making this point to a chess insider when you walked in. He said the sport was torn in the middle on the matter. But when you talk about natural justice, start thinking about it from Ukraine’s side.
Why, he wondered, should any Ukrainian—who might very well have been personally affected by the war, with the death of family members or friends—should be asked to play someone from Russia when their country is still under attack? Even if you strip the personal and emotional argument from the discussion, there is also a practical question: How prepared are Ukrainian athletes to compete when so many have to flee or fight?
Some Ukrainians also indicated that they did not want to face the Russians, at least in chess. So, if you let the Russians play, you are actually canceling out the Ukrainians.
An acquaintance of Russian players knows me. Many of them do not support the war. But he noted that they have all benefited financially from the Russian system over the years, and therefore their sporting victories nonetheless are linked to Putin.
He made one last point: we are not worried about the implementation of economic sanctions against Russia, many of which will unfairly affect ordinary citizens. So why should rich sports stars be an exception?
It was a compelling case but I’m still not convinced Medvedev should sign a document disassociating himself from Putin to play at Wimbledon. Not only would this be a completely empty gesture – anyone could sign but not mean – but on the contrary it could also put his family in harm’s way. Especially when there are new laws in Russia about public opposition and the enemy at home, and some politicians openly joke about spring cleaning, using a Russian play on words to “clean” a house and send political opponents to prison.
Where, in the end, might all this lead? With Chinese athletes told they should speak out against the mistreatment of Uyghurs before competing in the Birmingham Diamond League? Many athletes from countries with dictatorships are forced to walk a dangerous tightrope. Is it really fair to enter the equivalent of a 10 storm force while they’re doing this? If we want to target Putin’s allies, it is certainly better to focus on those Russians in the top positions of the sports federations first?
As things stand, the sport remains fractured. Athletics, rowing and badminton implemented a ban on participants from Russia and Belarus in major events. Others, including tennis and chess, were allowed to play under a neutral flag.
Prominent lawyers are inevitably involved, with the Russians asserting that a blanket ban is unjustified.
But Professor Jack Anderson, a former Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) arbitrator, says sporting bodies have legitimate legal reasons to support the ban.
“It can differ from sports but the general principle – and Cass said this in the context of the Olympics, Russia and doping – is that just because an athlete is eligible to compete in an event, it doesn’t automatically mean that they will be invited,” he says. There are also safety and operational reasons, meaning that if Russian athletes compete, they will interrupt the others.
“As with many of these things, this will be decided on a case-by-case basis. But my first reaction when I heard Cass decide something in this area is that it is probably the only court that should be looking at Russia and Ukraine at the moment It is the International Criminal Court.
As Anderson also points out, the pity of not being able to play in a sporting event is nothing compared to the pity of war. While sport operates in a bubble, that bubble must burst with the reality of what is happening in Ukraine.