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IOC, FIFA clamp down on Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams

The IOC urged organizations to sanction Russian teams, athletes and officials. (Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
6 min

With pressure intensifying for sports organizations to sanction Russia over the invasion of Ukraine, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board recommended Monday that international federations and organizations “not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials” in competition while events from those countries.

The IOC’s executive board said in a statement that it was moving “to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants.”

If that is not possible because of short notice, the IOC urged organizations to “do everything in their power to ensure that no athlete or sports official from Russia or Belarus be allowed to take part under the name of Russia or Belarus. Russian or Belarusian nationals, be it as individuals or teams, should be accepted only as neutral athletes or neutral teams. No national symbols, colors, flags or anthems should be displayed.”

The IOC stopped short of an outright ban and has not suspended either country.

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, went a step further than the IOC on Monday, indefinitely banning Russian national and club teams from international competition and booting the national men’s team from World Cup qualifying weeks before it was to play for one of Europe’s final places in the tournament. The Union of European Football Associations joined FIFA in the ban. Russia had been scheduled to host Poland on March 24 in a qualifying playoff, but Poland or Russia’s next potential opponents, Sweden and the Czech Republic, said they would refuse to take the field against a Russian team.

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The NHL announced Monday afternoon in a statement that it is suspending its relationships with business partners in Russia and pausing Russian language social and digital media sites. It also will not consider Russia as a location for any future competitions involving the NHL. The statement also expressed concern for NHL players from Russia: “We understand they and their families are being placed in an extremely difficult position.”

The International Ice Hockey Federation suspended all Russian and Belarusian national and club teams from IIHF competitions of all age until further notice and withdrew the hosting rights of the 2023 world junior championships from Russia. Hockey federations in Switzerland, Latvia and Finland had urged the IIHF to take those measures, with hockey icon Wayne Gretzky lending his voice to the growing din a few days ago.

The decision affects participation by Russia and Belarus in six 2022 IIHF events, including the men’s and women’s world championships and the men’s and women’s under-18 championships.

Calls for punishment and protests have spread across sports. The Swiss soccer federation said its women’s team would not play Russia in the European championship, while Schalke, a second-tier German soccer club, ended its long-standing partnership with Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant. On Monday, Schalke saw sales of its new Gazprom-free jerseys rise and UEFA ended its deal with the company.

On Sunday, Dinamo Riga, a hockey team based in Latvia, withdrew from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League because of the invasion. A part of the KHL since the league’s inaugural 2008-09 season, it was one of five teams in the 24-team league based outside of Russia entering the season.

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Dinamo Riga’s withdrawal leaves three teams based outside of Russia that were still participating in the league as of Sunday — Barys Nur-Sultan of Kazakhstan, Dinamo Minsk of Belarus and Kunlun Red Star of China. Barys Nur-Sultan and Dinamo Minsk are scheduled to take part in the playoffs; Kunlun Red Star did not qualify.

Last week, Finland’s Jokerit announced it would not take part in the KHL playoffs and its future in the KHL beyond the postseason is uncertain.

Barring any objections, the World Curling Federation Board is beginning the process of removing Russian Curling Federation entries from the upcoming world championships after inserting a new rule in its rule book that allows it to remove any team that “would damage the event or put the safety of the participants or the good order of the event at risk.”

Individual athletes continued to express anguish over the safety of friends and family members and in some cases to investigate how to join in the fighting.

Elina Svitolina, a Ukrainian tennis player ranked 15th in the world, said she would not play against any player from Russia or Belarus until tennis’s governing bodies — the Women’s Tennis Association, the Association of Tennis Professionals and the International Tennis Federation — “accept Russian or [Belarusian] nationals only as neutral athletes, without displaying any national symbols, colors, flags or anthems.”

She earlier pledged to donate any winnings to Ukrainian causes.

“My people, every day I fear for you,” she said on Instagram. “I am devastated. My eyes won’t stop crying, my heart won’t stop bleeding. But I am so proud. I commit to redistribute the prize money of my next tournaments to support army and humanitarian needs to help them defend you. My heroes.”

Several Ukrainian men who found fame and fortune in boxing have called for peace, even as they have taken up arms. Oleksandr Usyk, the reigning heavyweight champion and a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, and Vasiliy Lomachenko, a former world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, joined a territorial defense battalion in Ukraine.

On Instagram, Lomachenko pleaded for peace, writing, “A prayer for the peace of the whole world and the enlightenment of the peoples of the earth.”

The Klitschko brothers are perhaps the most widely known of the country’s former boxers. Vitali Klitschko, the Hall of Famer who is the mayor of Kyiv, announced that he was joining the fight. His brother, Hall of Famer and former heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, enlisted in the reserve army in early February.

“We are so proud of our boxers, our real champions in boxing and champions in this war,” Mykola Kovalchuk, the president of WBC Ukraine, told ESPN. “We are proud to be Ukrainians.”

Usyk, the heavyweight champion, last week spoke forcefully about his desire for peace in an Instagram video, speaking “to the people of Russia. If we consider ourselves as brothers, orthodox ones, do not let your children to set out to our country, do not fight with us.

“Good morning to everybody,” Usyk wrote alongside a video posted on his Instagram page. “My name is Oleksandr Usyk.

“I’d like to speak to the people of Russia. If we consider ourselves as brothers, orthodox ones. Do not let your children to set out to our country, do not fight with us. Also I’m addressing this to the President Vladimir Putin. You can stop this war. Please just sit down and negotiate it with us without claims.

“Our kids, wives, grannies are hiding in the basements. … We are here in our own country, we cannot do it other way — we are defending … Stop it! Stop this war.”

Andrew Golden contributed to this report.