Policy and Governance


[Image Source: espn.uk.co]

[Author: Pranjal Shah, student of law at Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, India]

Let’s talk sports law S4_E14


With the proliferation of international sports, sporting events have become an attractive medium of expressing messages on global as well as domestic issues. Governments can be actively seen using sports as a policy instrument to either promote their own ideologies and political orientations or to condemn those of some other countries. Confrontational use of politics in sports is not uncommon, as also evidenced by instances such as, inter alia –  the 1970 ban on the South African team from participating in international cricket due to the practice of Apartheid still being prevalent in the country, and affecting their team as well; the attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games at Munich by Black September; the USA boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games held in Moscow and the responding USSR boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles during the Cold War era; and the very recent ‘diplomatic’ boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics by various countries including USA, UK and Canada as a move to condemn the human rights abuses and atrocities against the resident Muslim population by the Chinese Government.

A more recent example is the backlash Russian athletes are facing across different sports in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. The International Olympic Committee urged the regulatory bodies of various sports to ban Russian athletes from participating in respective sports. Accordingly, the International Skating Union barred Russian figure skaters from taking part in the World Championship. UEFA and FIFA imposed similar embargoes on Russian footballers. The world of Motorsport has seen sanctions on similar lines, if not identical ones.

However, as powerful as sports diplomacy is, it comes with certain drawbacks. One major consideration here is that it pits the rights of the athlete against the larger considerations of international relations. Practice has proved that there is little doubt as to what will prevail, but the fact remains that such practices are unfair to the athletes and sportspersons. Following is an analysis of the particular case of motorsport and the actions taken by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) post the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a bid to better understand this Athlete-Nationality dichotomy.

FIA and the ‘Peace’ Document

Unlike other sports, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the regulatory authority of various kinds of motorsport such as Formula 1, did not completely forbid competitors from participating in their respective sports. Pursuant to a decision taken by the World Motorsport Council (WMSC), a decision-making body under the FIA, it was announced in March 2022 that any events scheduled in Russia or Belarus would be cancelled, and that no national symbols, colours, or flags, of any of the two nations would be allowed to be displayed, even on uniforms, equipment or car at any international event of FIA, nor would their national anthems be allowed to play at such events. Their teams were also disallowed from competing; however, Russian and Belarusian drivers, individual competitors and officials were allowed to participate in international competitions in neutral capacities, under the flag of FIA, provided that they ensure specific commitment and adherence to FIA’s principles of peace and political neutrality. For the same, such personnel were required to sign a declaration stating the same to be eligible for participating in whatever capacity it may be.

The Larger Picture

Bernie Ecclestone, the former Chief Executive of the Formula 1 Group said that a Russian driver has nothing to do with Russia fighting a war; and many have argued that motorsport, particularly Formula 1 is nothing but a giant business of corporations and sponsors. However, the fact remains that the nationality of the drivers as well as the teams does matter. After every race, the respective national anthems of the winning driver and the winning team are played. Furthermore, medals are often awarded by prominent figures of the country that host that race such as in the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix of 2021. Thus, Nations, Governments and politics has been operating in the background of Formula 1 as well. Furthermore, the international nature of the sport makes it so that politics and diplomacy can never be truly separated from the sport, as is the cause all over the Sporting World. For instance, various countries, United Kingdom being the first, banned Russian drivers from competing in any events held on their soil in addition to this Peace Document of the FIA.

Preventing Russian athletes from participating under their national flag is a way to condemn the actions of Russia because while the Russian athletes have no play in the actions of their government and are unable to stop the war, they are a reflection of Russia in the sporting world; they represent their country in international sports and their wins ultimately credit Russia. Therefore, preventing Russian athletes from acknowledging their nationality in the international arena is an appeal to what is termed as the Soft Power in Politics.

The Athlete Perspective

Let’s boil it down to the individual athlete – Athletes train for uncountable hours day in and day out to be prepared for a sporting event. In motorsport, the drivers are kept in an isolated facility for months on end merely so that they can focus on their training. The drivers require intensive strength training and body conditioning to make their bodies resilient to the forces applying due to high speeds during the race. For instance, it has been calculated that a Formula 1 driver has to apply over 300 pounds of force to apply the brake pedal. Furthermore, the drivers experience up to 6 Gs of gravitational force during braking and turning. Moreover, due to the high heat in the cockpit of the car and increased heart rate, drivers lose around 2 kgs of water weight during a single race. If a normal person experiences all of these simultaneously, they would faint. Thus, after training for around 6-8 hours every day, if an athlete is compelled to not participate in the sport, for a reason entirely beyond their control, it is devastating for them.  The case of the Haas Formula LLC, which replaced its Russian driver, Nikita Mazepin in addition to dropping its Russian title sponsor, Uralkali in an example of such a scenario.

However, let us look at the case of Roman Rusinov, the Russian team leader of the G-Drive team of the World Endurance Competition, who refused to sign the document. Citing the terms of FIA as discriminatory, he chose to withdraw from the competition. He stated,

“The goal of each athlete is to hear the anthem of their country on the podium. Over the ten years of international experience, our team has done this many times. The G-Drive Racing team has always been international: drivers, mechanics, engineers – they are all from different countries of the world. If we asked everyone to give up their flag, experience and name, such a real sports brotherhood and victories would never have happened.”

He believed it is better to not drive at all, for the sake of his fans, teammates and sporting honour. His teammate and a former F1 driver, Daniil Kyvat, followed his example and chose to withdraw over signing the document. The Russian Automobile Federation (RAF) has also disapproved FIA’s actions, stating them to be discriminatory and contrary to FIA’s Statutes and vowed to protect the interest of Russian athletes.

Political Considerations vis-a-vis the Disadvantaged Athletes

The abovementioned examples of Roman Rusinov and Daniil Kvyat show that the identity of athletes is closely tied to the country to which they belong. However, this cannot be used to justify the harm caused to such athletes by virtue of sports diplomacy, similar to what happened in the case of Nikita Mazepin, who was dropped by the American team, Haas Formula LLC, before even being given a choice under the Peace Document. Further, this declaration document is unique to motorsports. Other sports have straight up banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating.

It is not unreasonable that in the larger considerations of the world, the moral considerations for athletes would fade to the side-lines, but we cannot forget that athletes have very few redressal mechanisms available to enforce their rights, sometimes none at all. For instance, FIA is based in France, and for an American driver, it would be very difficult to have their rights enforced insofar as the Courts of United States do not have jurisdiction over FIA. The International Court of Appeal (ICA) established by FIA too will be of very little help inasmuch as the FIA itself will be the adjudicator, albeit indirectly, considering that the panel of judges in each case before this tribunal is decided by the President of the Tribunal, who in turn, is elected by FIA itself. Furthermore, under the rules of FIA, any matter going before the ICA is investigated by the FIA. This does not seem equal in cases where the FIA is the respondent Party. With regard to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS), it gets jurisdiction in a matter only when both the parties expressly agree to submit their dispute to the Jurisdiction of CAS. The only recourse available here would be to file an appeal against the order of ICA in the French Tribunal de Grande Instance.

Thus, in conclusion, it is true that Nations have been using sports diplomacy as a tool for soft power since ages. There are several reasons why sports diplomacy is not as widely used as other forms of soft power, one of which has been discussed above. In other words, in the increasing globalised world, importance given to nationalities and political identities of people is on the rise, wherein it is often forgotten that athletes are sportspersons first. On the other hand, the international nature of sporting events makes it impossible to separate politics from sports, and it is not wrong to call athletes the ‘unofficial’ diplomats of their country. Therefore, it has become imperative to strike a balance between the two.

*For any query, feedback, or discussion, Pranjal can be contacted at [pranjalashah@gmail.com]

*NOTE- The opinions and views expressed in this article are that of the Author(s) and not of SLPRR- the expressed opinions do not, in any way whatsoever, reflect the views of any third party, including any institution/organisation that the Author(s) is/are currently associated to or was/were associated to in the past. Furthermore, the expressions are solely for informational and educational purposes, and must not be deemed to constitute any kind of advice. The hyperlinks in this blog might take you to webpages operated by third parties- SLPRR does not guarantee or endorse the accuracy or reliability of any information, data, opinions, advice, statements, etc. on these webpages.

PREFERRED CITATION: Pranjal Shah, Sports Diplomacy in Global Politics – A Case Study of Bans imposed on Russian Motorsport Athletes, SLPRR <https://sportslawandpolicyreviewreporter.com/?p=2049(opens in a new tab)> June 28, 2022.

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