Philip Barker

Russian sport has become almost completely ostracised from world sport with a rapidity not seen even when South Africa was exiled for more than 20 years because of apartheid.

It might be some time before Russians are permitted to return.

It seems incredible that it is less than a month since the very last medal presentation of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics was to Russian cross-country skier Alexander Bolshunov.

He leapt joyously onto the podium to receive his gold medal as the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) flag was raised to the accompaniment of an extract from Pyotr Tchaikovsky's piano concerto.

Yet within a few days, the attack on Ukraine had begun and everything had changed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin designated it as a "special military operation", but the United Nations (UN) has described it more realistically as the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

It soon became clear that many other nations were unwilling to face Russian sportsmen and women in competition. Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, all potential opponents for Russia in the FIFA World Cup playoffs, made it very clear they were unwilling to play and very soon Russia had been ejected from the tournament.

Many other sports followed suit.

The last medal ceremony at Beijing 2022 was for cross-country skier Alexander Bolshunov ©Getty Images
The last medal ceremony at Beijing 2022 was for cross-country skier Alexander Bolshunov ©Getty Images

Originally, it had seemed likely that Russians would be permitted to take part in the Winter Paralympics, but this door was also closed shortly before the Opening Ceremony.

International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Andrew Parsons did not disclose exactly why this had been done at the 11th hour, but there were hints at disharmony in the Athletes' Village and suggestions that some countries would walk out on the Games if the Russians were allowed to remain and compete as neutrals, as was planned.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had previously called for sporting events to be removed from Russia and Belarus ,already under IOC sanctions.

The apparent support for the invasion from some Russian athletes added to the tension.

Gymnast Ivan Kuliak was widely criticised after he wore a "Z" symbol on his leotard as he received his bronze medal during an International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) World Cup event in Doha.

The symbol had been displayed on the sides of Russian tanks during the invasion and is understood to mean "For Victory".

Kuliak, a 20-year-old who had been a prominent in junior competitions, was asked if he would repeat the gesture.

"If there was a second chance and I would again have to choose whether to enter with the letter 'Z' on my chest or not, I would do exactly the same," Kuliak insisted.

The FIG had imposed a ban on Russian competitors taking part under their own flag and announced an investigation into the gesture.

"The FIG confirms that it will ask the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to open disciplinary proceedings against Kuliak following his shocking behaviour at the Apparatus World Cup", an FIG statement said.

Tensions have been further heightened by the arrest of the United States' double Olympic basketball gold medallist Brittney Griner at an airport in Moscow - albeit that this took place before the invasion began. Griner remains detain on drugs charges.

It may be a long time before sport is ready to welcome Russians back although tennis organisations indicated that Russian players will be allowed to play as neutrals.

World number one Daniil Medvedev has removed the Russian flag from his social media accounts and was the top seed at the Indian Wells Masters.

Earlier this week, British Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston told a parliamentary select committee that Medvedev might be barred from Wimbledon unless he explicitly stated his opposition to Putin's actions.

"Absolutely nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed or enabled," Huddlestone said.

Women’s Tennis Association Chief Executive Steve Simon has voiced his opposition to such moves.

"I feel very, very strongly that again these individual athletes should not be the ones that are being penalised by the decisions of an authoritarian leadership that is obviously doing terrible, reprehensible things," Simon told the BBC.

The attack on Ukraine last month is the third time that Russia has violated the Olympic Truce, a resolution adopted by the UN before each Olympics.

The terms call for conflict to cease for a specified period from before the Olympic Games to after the Paralympic Games.

This reflects the truce at the Olympic Games of antiquity, which was designed to ensure safe passage for participants to and from the site of the Games in Olympia.

Vladimir Putin first ordered a Russian invasion of Ukraine shortly after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images
Vladimir Putin first ordered a Russian invasion of Ukraine shortly after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images

Russian forces moved into Georgia shortly after the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Then in 2014, they attacked Ukraine shortly after the Winter Olympics in Sochi had ended.

The IOC has tried to promote peaceful coexistence and adopted strict measures including bolstering Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which forbids political gestures and protests on the podium and Olympic precincts.

The IOC Athletes' Commission published guidelines before Tokyo 2020 which promoted the Olympic truce and ideals of unity.

"The unique nature of the Games enables athletes from all over the world to come together in peace and harmony," the guidelines stated.

“By becoming Olympians, and through the platform that the Olympic Games provide, our visibility and reach within society is amplified beyond the 16 days of the Games. We believe that the example we set by competing with the world’s best, while living in harmony in the Olympic Village, is a uniquely positive message to send to an increasingly divided world” 

History suggests that reintegration into the Olympic Movement after a war can take time.

A century ago, Germany and her allies were excluded from the 1920 Antwerp Olympics after the First World War.

It was not until the Amsterdam 1928 Games that German athletes were allowed to participate once again.

After the First World War, it was 10 years before Germany was readmitted to the Olympic Games ©Getty Images
After the First World War, it was 10 years before Germany was readmitted to the Olympic Games ©Getty Images

After the Second World War, Germany and Japan, the defeated axis powers, were not allowed to participate in the 1948 Winter Olympics in St Moritz or at the Olympics in London.

"I hope I may have some assurance that if Olympic Games are to be held in 1948, at least the Germans and Japanese will not be invited to compete," IOC Executive Committee member Lord Aberdare had said.

London, like Antwerp and Paris twenty years before, still bore the scars of the conflict and there remained hostility to the two "aggressor nations" in the immediate post-war years.

During the 1947 IOC session in Stockholm, there had been a request for recognition of an Olympic Committee for West Germany.

This had been turned down by the IOC members, effectively blocking Olympic participation in 1948.

In fact, Carl Diem, an official largely responsible for the smooth running of the 1936 Berlin Games, did come to London as a private IOC guest. 

Prisoner of war Helmut Bantz coached the British gymnastics team but otherwise Germany and Japan remained out in the cold.

The situation remained unchanged despite the formal constitution of the German National Olympic Committee in September 1949.

In 1950, general Brian Robertson, British High Commissioner in Germany, wrote to IOC member Lord Burghley before the session met in Copenhagen.

"The objective of allied policy is that she should become in all senses a member of the community of peace loving nations," Robertson wrote as he asked Lord Burghley to press for Germany’s readmission to the Olympic Games.

"After the terrible things that happened during the recent past, it seems to me that we must look to the youth of the country to make a new start," Robertson continued.

Russia has become a sporting pariah similar to apartheid South Africa ©Getty Images
Russia has become a sporting pariah similar to apartheid South Africa ©Getty Images

"I suggest that the invitation to Germany to re-enter international sport would be one of the best possible steps."

Although the country had been divided under the allied powers, a "Unified" German team was permitted.

Almost seven years had elapsed since the end of the Second World War. 

This team was supposed to include athletes from both East and West Germany. In fact, the team which competed at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo comprised only competitors from the West.

From 1956, athletes from both East and West did compete under a specially modified flag in German colours but emblazoned with the Olympic Rings.

Japanese athletes had taken part in the inaugural Asian Games held in Delhi in 1951 and also made their Olympic return in 1952.

In later years, the IOC has sometimes acted with much greater speed.

When Nelson Mandela was freed and the South African Government finally jettisoned apartheid, swift recognition for a new National Olympic Committee enabled a South African team to participate at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics.

There was an even quicker reaction to allow athletes from Bosnia and Herzegovina to compete under their own flag even though United Nations sanctions had banned athletes from the former Yugoslavia in 1992 as  civil war raged in the Balkans.

Russia competed alongside Ukraine in a "Unified Team" at Albertville and Barcelona in 1992 ©Getty Images
Russia competed alongside Ukraine in a "Unified Team" at Albertville and Barcelona in 1992 ©Getty Images

In 1992, athletes from Russia also benefited from quick IOC action when a "Unified Team" with the French acronym "EUN" was permitted at the Albertville 1992 Winter Olympics and at the Games in Barcelona.

The Soviet Union had ceased to exist at the end of the previous year.

The "EUN" included Russians and Ukrainians including Sergey Bubka who competed alongside one another under the Olympic flag.

Before the Russians can return to the sporting fold, they will have to comply with the message displayed by Vladyslav Heraskevych as he finished his run in the men’s skeleton last month.

The placard said simply "No war in Ukraine".