About seven months ago, the IOC recommended – just recommended – that international sports federations exclude Russian athletes from their events, and Belarusian athletes to boot. By making that call, the IOC actually greenlighted going after Russia, and many international federations immediately said yes and lined up. Most Russian athletes got excluded from the winter and summer events in 2022. The new winter season is only just beginning, but we can already make a few predictions concerning Russian athletes’ inclusion in international competitions this year and try to consider the current situation objectively and unemotionally.
1. Russian athletes continue to participate in major commercial competitions. There are privately financed projects in certain sports such as hockey (NHL), tennis, boxing, MMA and some others. The reason is ridiculously simple: the sports industry is big business. It’s hard to imagine modern NHL games without Alexander Ovechkin, or tennis without Daniil Medvedev. Russian athletes create a beautiful picture and greatly influence the commercial appeal of these sports, and ultimately, the income of the owners of these successful business projects. Essentially, it is a policy of double standards at its finest all over again – when it comes to someone’s commercial profit, Russian athletes can and should be allowed to participate in competitions.
2. While Russia is isolated from the international community, the Russian Ministry of Sports and national sport federations are promptly organizing major Russian competitions so that our athletes could compete and show high performance. Along with the Summer Spartakiade, major Paralympic events were recently held in Sochi. Quite often, these competitions are open, with an attractive prize fund. It is important that our athletes can make money as for professional athletes, competition is their income.
3. When it comes to potential prospects, future international competitions may be held under the aegis of BRICS, SCO and other associations. Russia is looking for new international partners – and finding them successfully. SCO or BRICS games may be quite attractive considering the large population these associations represent. It is a very promising target and media audience for sports and businesses. In view of Russia’s and China’s extensive experience in organizing events on a mega scale, the prospects of such competitions look extremely alluring, even though actually organizing and promoting them from the ground up would be a challenge.
4. There is a feeling that many international federations are waiting for the green light to invite major Russian athletes back, especially in the sports where Russians are clearly leaders and favorites. It is hard to imagine representative international tournaments without our stars of synchronous swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating, skiing and ice hockey. I wouldn’t rule out that everybody is waiting for a go-ahead from the IOC. Hopefully, many sport functionaries will sooner or later adhere to the fundamental principle of the Olympic Charter: sports must be politically neutral.
5. Despite the abundance of restrictions, harbingers are there: Russian chess players have returned to international tournaments. Also recently, a decision unprecedented in world boxing was taken: the International Boxing Association Board allowed Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete, under their own flags and with their national anthems. We hope that this is the important break of the cycle that we have been waiting for, and other federations will follow suit. At any rate, it will be a lengthy and difficult process.
6. As regards professional sports, particularly team sports, a new challenge is posed by the necessity to seek mixed models of financing professional clubs rather than rely solely on the government’s support. Efforts should be taken to set effective budgets, with proper consideration of earnings. It may be necessary to introduce a salary cap similar to the one in effect in the KHL. Consistent efforts are required to communicate with both fans and sponsors, based on the understanding that they have their own interests and goals. Fans need comfortable and safe conditions at stadiums, while partners and sponsors are very interested in attracting the target audience. Ultimately, all these tasks can be solved solely by competent sports managers, who are few and far between in the Russian sports industry.
7. The situation with mass sports looks considerably better due to private initiative and entrepreneurship already in full effect in the sector. The fitness industry is making good progress even after nearly two years of COVID-19 restrictions. Numerous mass sporting events take place on a regular basis, such as marathons, triathlons and cross-country skiing races. There is an increasing number of private sports clubs, schools and academies. We can say that those involved in professional sports need to make efforts to learn management technologies and marketing tools actively utilized in mass sports when handling clients. To sum up the current period of the development of sports in Russia, we can generally say that the new challenges are strategically defined; we should handle them through serious joint efforts, without being discouraged. We will definitely succeed and ultimately be victorious.
By Vladimir Lednev, Professor, Doctor of Economics, Vice-President of Synergy Moscow University of Finance and Industry, Scientific Director of Faculty of Sports Industry, Head of Department of Sports Management