On the opening day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the Polish wheelchair rugby team decided not to take to the court in their Euros group match against Russia in Paris. A classy move. If only others were so decisive.
The leaders of world sport are already divided in their response to Vladimir Putin’s war. It comes to something when Russia is ousted from the Eurovision Song Contest more swiftly than it is removed from sporting competition.
The song contest ousting, though, only came about after national broadcasters swiftly objected to the European Broadcasting Union’s initial conclusion that pop comes before politics.
The same bottom-up forces can be seen at play in sport. Fifa was happy to keep Russia and Belarus in the fold until it found that Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic would refuse to play them in World Cup qualifiers.
Unilateral boycotts by teams have the power to wreck the integrity of competitions. If everyone refused to take on Russian opposition then Putin could bask in the meaningless glow of medals and trophies “won” by default.
Little wonder that Fifa discovered a modicum of sense – if not morality – when it realised that Russia could qualify for Qatar 2022 through a series of gimmes.
What though of sports for individuals? The IOC, doubtless relieved that its Olympic Truce held until after its Winter Games if not the Paralympics, has issued a recommendation that Russians and Belarusians aren’t invited to international events – or if they do that they compete under a neutral flag – and that events not be held in Russia or Belarus. Neutral flag? Did they learn nothing from the figure skating doping scandal in Beijing?
Predictably – but hugely disappointingly – the IPC has seized on the proffered caveat and a flag of neutrality will hang over Russian and Belarusians competing in Beijing from this Saturday.
I wrote last week in praise of the IPC’s bold banning of Russia ahead of Rio 2016. This time, under different IPC leadership, the lawyers look to have won the day. The British Paralympic Association and other nations called this week for a ban. How will they now feel sending their athletes into competition?
With a blancmange to guide them, Olympic sports have each chosen their own path. World Athletics has taken the right approach, temporarily removing its neutral status for Russians deemed to be clean of doping.
By contrast, swimming’s international body will now grant neutral status to Russians and Belarusians. Cyclists, tennis players and F1 drivers are still welcome on their circuits – just not with flags.
This patchwork of policies ill serves Ukraine’s cause. Sport’s part in ensuring Putin’s Russia becomes a pariah may be small but it has important symbolism.
The response to South African apartheid was similarly messy and often controversial. But those who used sport to take a stand against an abhorrent regime did the right thing. However swiftly the current war ends, and whatever its immediate outcome, Russia and Belarus should face years in the sporting wilderness.
Buck No1 passes to Buck No2
Bruce Buck, chairman of Chelsea FC, must have failed to communicate clearly with Bruce Buck, chairman of the Chelsea Foundation.
Otherwise Mr Buck No2 and his five fellow trustees would have happily taken on the stewardship of the Premier League club from Mr Buck No1 when it was announced at the weekend that they’d be doing so.
It is only the work of a minute to realise that club owner Roman Abramovich’s plan to insulate Chelsea from the risk of political sanctions was unworkable.
Just take a look at the overview of the Chelsea Foundation on the Charities Commission website. Nothing in the detail of its articles would square with this £6m-a-year organisation owning a loss-making football club in pursuit of its stated charitable objectives.
One of the charity’s six trustees, lawyer John Devine, is the leading expert on the structuring of football club charities. Indeed he advised the foundation at Crystal Palace FC that I chair on our own articles. Devine more than anyone will be acutely aware of the need at all times for clear separation of interests between club and charity.
Like all the major football club foundations, Chelsea’s does excellent work. It has adopted a much wider geographical scope that the hyper-local community approach that most pursue. It cites activities in London, eight counties and sixteen countries abroad, including Russia. Nothing should happen to cloud or hinder these efforts.
Abramovich has now announced he’s seeking a buyer for Chelsea. This may yet save the Premier League from a very tricky situation. What if the government moves to freeze the Russian’s assets before a sale is complete, though? A multi-billion pound deal process is hardly the work of a moment.
How does the league’s “fit and proper person test” operate for an owner of 19 years’ standing who might suddenly find himself subject to government sanctions?
Some of Chelsea’s fans will have made a proactive choice to support the team during the Abramovich ownership era, happy to roll with the good times. They’ve made their bed.
For very many, though, the owner chose their club – inherited by geography, family allegiance or playground pressure – rather than the other way round. Those with long memories will be primed to cope with the current uncertainty.
On hold for Mr Bates
“Mr Warner, please hold. I have Mr Bates on the line for you.”
In all my three decades writing about business and sport as a sideline to my day jobs, only one person has called to take me to task.
I’d written a piece in The Guardian criticising Ken Bates for his forthright berating of the Takeover Panel for its handling of his sale of Chelsea FC to Roman Abramovich in 2003.
‘The takeover panel are a bunch of plonkers – and you can quote me on that,” Bates had said.
I endured a 10 minute rollicking which I took as a badge of honour for rattling his cage. I had to admire Bates too for caring what one amateur hack had written about him when he’d just turned his investment of £1 into £18m. He didn’t like the City’s rules and railed against them just as he kicked against the footballing authorities during his ownership of five different clubs.
I mention this only as a reminder that controversial owners of football clubs have always been with us. Remember Bates’s plan for an electric fence around Stamford Bridge? A ground, it should also be remembered, that he rescued for generations of Chelsea fans from property developers.
Dusting off my original column, I see I noted that Chelsea fans would be more interested in the depths of Roman Abramovich’s pockets than the nuances of the takeover code. They’ve proven to be pretty deep pockets, so thank goodness for plonkers.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com.