Opinion: Edwin Moses: Use power of sports toward peace in Ukraine

Sport is a powerful weapon because it hits home with the public in a way that some of the financial sanctions on Russian oligarchs never will.

During the four weeks that war has been waged by Russia in Ukraine, sport has shown a remarkable capacity to come together, stick together and make a powerful statement against aggression.

There were some sports that moved slower than others: FIFA held on for a day or two before throwing Russia out of the World Cup being held later this year in Qatar, but in general there was prompt unanimity.

The decision by Formula One to cancel the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi in September, a prestige event on the Russian sporting calendar beamed across the world, made the point emphatically that Russia was facing sporting isolation.

Sport is a powerful weapon because it hits home with the public in a way that some of the financial sanctions on oligarchs never will. No one is sure just how much the majority of the Russian people know about what is going on with this disastrous war, but they must get the message when their football team is sitting at home this fall and not competing in the World Cup.

A powerful weapon certainly. The sporting boycott of South Africa played a significant role in ending apartheid in that country, but it should be used with caution and only when issues of great consequence are at stake.

In 1980 I was one of the American athletes who was prevented from going to the Moscow Olympics because of a boycott imposed by President Jimmy Carter in protest at the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. It was strictly political and in my opinion it was a mistake. It was unnecessary and it punished many athletes, preventing them from taking part in one of the great showpiece events of their careers.

This time the situation is very different. The atrocity of what Russia is doing and the reasons that they’re doing it is beyond the pale. It hasn’t got a lot to do with politics, it has to do with humanity, and this war has really raped humanity: the fighting, children and innocent people getting killed, rockets and missiles targeted on civilians, tanks rolling along once-peaceful streets. And it’s live on TV, so everyone is aware of it. It’s upset the entire equilibrium of the world.

With the financial sanctions that have been activated, it’s going to hurt Russia, and it’s going to hurt their people. I feel bad for the Russian people. In all likelihood they don’t know what’s going on. They won’t know what’s happening in Ukraine, unless they have access to news from some other source, and there’s repression in the country, with people getting arrested for protesting.

Just the fact of being arrested in Russia is going to affect their life forever. Especially with Vladimir Putin there and the way his regime operates. There is no humanity for the average Russian.

The war is bad enough, but for me Russia’s situation is the result of a conglomeration of many events over a long period. People are saying now that the world should have taken action when Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014. For me that was also a decisive year in the fight against the illegal use of drugs in sport, when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had the wool pulled over their eyes by Russian chicanery.

I was in favor of banning the Russians because of what happened in the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 for corrupting the integrity of the Olympic Games through doping. At the time I was on the executive committee of WADA and I thought that the penalties handed out were too light, and too many extensions and overtures were made to the Russians. I thought they should have been banned.

To intercept drug tests in a lab, cut a hole in the wall, switch drug samples, all during the Olympic Games, completely shattered the ethics of what the Olympics meant to me. I thought the International Olympic Committee should have come down on them right there and then for corrupting what the Olympic movement stands for, but they didn’t.

What the Russians are doing to the entire world right now in Ukraine, is exactly the same thing they’ve done to sport over many years in my opinion.

The Russian sporting world has been that way for a long time. You know their system is completely set up for it. If it was operating in the United States, it would be like the U.S. Olympic Committee, all of the national governing bodies from each sport, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the State Department, the FBI and the DEA, all in collusion, to dope athletes.

That’s how it works over there. There are no penalties for testing positive. If an athlete tests positive in the course of training, they just leave them off the team that year. No penalties, nothing wrong, nothing bad, no castigation over it. You just wait for another day to make the team, hopefully test negative, then go out again and beat the world.

That’s how they win. I’ve known that for 35 years. And I’ve been fighting that for 35 years.

Even when the war ends, or if there is a ceasefire, it’s going to be very difficult for sport to get back to normal. I seriously think Russia ought to be banned from the 2024 Paris Olympics and probably the next Winter Olympics as well. Something’s got to happen. Their behavior is not going to change voluntarily.

I once sat next to Vladimir Putin at a dinner table; two seats to my left. The translator was in between. I spoke to him that entire evening. I know how he talked about sports, like it was the Holy Grail, and how important sport was to him, and how it was good that the best of everyone’s country, regardless of philosophy can compete together, and whoever wins, wins.

It was just propaganda!

Edwin Moses, Sc.D., won gold medals during the Olympic Games of 1976 and 1984. He is a Laureus Academy member and was personally selected by Nelson Mandela to be chairman of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. He lives in Atlanta. Laureus, the global sporting movement, has set up the “Laureus Sport for Peace Humanitarian Action Fund’ to help alleviate the human disaster unfolding in and around Ukraine.