Impact of war-like situations on sports

Impact of war-like situations on the sporting world

March 7, 2022

Loud explosions, aerial attacks, closed airspace, crowded bomb shelters and vital services at a standstill: this is the present situation in Ukraine amid incessant Russian attacks, much to the shock of the international community. While such situations affect the social, economic and political conditions of a country, the sporting world takes a massive hit as well. Given the context of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, let us revisit the times when sports have been affected on account of protests and war-like situations.

Six scores and six years ago marked the beginning of the first modern Olympics. The Games soon became a platform for showcasing country-wise talent and, in an attempt to outperform other countries, nationalism.

The 1916 Summer Olympic Games were scheduled to be held in Berlin, Germany, but were eventually cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Post-war sanctions led to the losing nations being banned from competing and hosting the Games.

In 1936, as Berlin was set to host the Olympics, Germany’s at-the-time racist policies and human rights violations almost led to a boycott of the Games. This garnered attention worldwide. Similarly, in the backdrop of Germany invading Poland and the subsequent beginning of World War II, the 1940 Olympics were cancelled. The first Olympics after WWII were held in 1948, even as London recovered from the war. In the spirt of being portrayed as a symbol of unity, the Games carried on the culture forward and played an important role in bringing the world order back on track.

The Olympics also provided a platform to bring to the world’s attention issues of regional importance.

Let us go back to the year 1956, the year when Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula and the Soviet army invaded Budapest. Both these events led to protests at the 1956 Olympics.

The 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City were no different. Ten days before the opening ceremony, Mexican students staged a protest to oppose the use of government funding for the Olympic Games rather than for social programmes. Additionally, American politics infiltrated the athletics competition as the US sprinters protested their country’s treatment of its black citizens during the award ceremony of Men’s 200m. They took their first- and third-placed podiums barefoot and, during the playing of the US national anthem, raised a single black glove while bowing their heads.

Clearly, sports are not just manifestation of physical fitness, but also standing up for what is right, which requires mental toughness, conviction, and courage.

While providing a platform for staging protests, the Olympics have also been used as a stage for fanatic activities. The 1972 Games were marred by the Palestinian terrorist attack against the Israeli team: eight terrorists affiliated with the Black September organisation sneaked into the Olympic Village and killed two of their athletes while taking nine others hostage in an attempt to bargain for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners. After a standoff with an inadequate German police force, the terrorists killed the Israeli hostages. 

2016 proved to be another interesting year for the Olympics: in an attempt to bring the matter of the refugee crisis to the international forefront, ten refugee athletes were selected to compete in the Games as part for the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team for the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.

While calling off sporting events by countries to express their anger against other countries has been common, there have been instances wherein sports end up taking precedence. Case in point, the 26/11 Mumbai attack proved a watershed movement concerning both India and Pakistan as the relations between the two countries deteriorated and “sports diplomacy” became the buzzword to bring these relations back on track. With the Mumbai attacks having soured the Indo-Pak relations, it was three years after the attacks that the then Prime Minister of India invited the then President of Pakistan to attend the 2011 men’s cricket World Cup semi-final between the two nations, post which Pakistan allowed India to investigate the 26/11 terrorist outrage. Fast forward to 2021, when the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup match between India and Pakistan could not be cancelled in the wake of the Pakistan terrorist attack on Indian Army personnel. As per convention and understanding among members of the International Cricket Council, no country can withdraw from a match due to political pressure, thereby keeping the two issues separate. The underlying point to be noted here is: sports as a source of soft power has been leveraged by countries to keep relations cordial.

Going back, the year 2020 brought with it an invisible enemy, the impact of which persists even today. In the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for 2020 got postponed for the year after. The only silver lining amid the pandemic was India’s spectacular performance, including the first-ever medal in athletics.

Coming back to the situation at hand – the Ukraine-Russia crisis. The 2022 UEFA Champions League final scheduled to be held originally in St. Petersburg, Russia, is now set to be held in Paris, France. The International Olympic Committee has already condemned the Russian invasion on account of violating the Olympic truce, calling for the cessation of hostilities between the countries from February 4 through to March 20, 2022, seven days after the Paralympic games end, to promote peace and ensure the athletes’ safe passage to and from the Games. The IOC has also called for Russia to be excluded from sports. Many nations have already refused to send their football teams to play against Russia.

Sporting activities invariably become collateral damage during any geopolitical crisis; the Russian invasion of Ukraine is no exception. In the middle of all the uncertainty, one thing is certain – sports will continue to remain a symbol of unity and a platform for demonstration of protests and nationalism.

Nitisha Thakwani

Engineer and MBA by training, writer by interest. Up for playing badminton even in the middle of the night. 'Curiosity did not kill the cat' are the words I live by.

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