Six reasons why global sports industry – surprisingly – fights for Russia

For almost 11 months, many leading Russian athletes (and Belarusian athletes along with them) have been in international isolation that is, with restricted access to major international competitions, both official and commercial. But all of a sudden, since late January 2023, Russia has been in the center of a big stir. Over a relatively short period of time, many different and important events and actions took place, each deserving a detailed analysis to understand its causes and consequences. But overall, they allow building a certain course of behavior to ensure that Russian and Belarusian athletes be accepted to compete at international events.   

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach speaks at the closing ceremony of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, China. Photo by Pavel Bednyakov/RIA Novosti

Let’s review, briefly and as objectively as possible, some of the recent events and facts.  

  • The Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended all international federations to consider participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in a neutral status (even if with a number of questionable and sometimes odd conditions and reservations).
  • IOC President Thomas Bach literally said: “It is not in line with the values and mission of the Olympic Charter to exclude athletes because of their passport.”
  • Some UN experts on human rights spoke out against banning athletes based on their nationality.
  • Senior officials of the US Olympic and Paralympic committees declared that they welcome the IOC’s stance on potential admission of athletes from Russia and Belarus to international competitions.
  • Member of the IOC Board and two-time Olympic champion Kirsty Coventry, who used to be Chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, also supported the IOC’s initiative (in this case, it is very important to consider athletes’ opinion).

The list could go on, but it is obvious that there is a new and rather curious trend for potential (so far hypothetical) participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. It can be said with a certain degree of certainty that the ice is broken and there is some progress. Therefore, we can assume that Russia is going to be an object of serious fighting. I will present my arguments and facts below to show why.

1. I believe that many (although not all, unfortunately) sport organizations, including the IOC and international federations, understand that Russia is a great sport country. Therefore, a competition with and without Russia are two completely different things.

Let’s take the recent Olympics (Tokyo 2021, Beijing 2022) as an example. The Russian national team took part in them under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee and showed impressive results. In Tokyo, it won 71 medals, ranking third after the US and China. In Beijing, Russia took 32 medals and ranked second after Norway. These are bare, cold and objective facts.

By the way, Poland and the Baltic countries, as well as some of the Northern countries have already begun criticizing such initiatives of the International Olympic Committee. Let’s look at their achievements at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics: Poland took 17th place, Sweden 23rd, Denmark ranked 25th, Latvia 59th, Estonia 62nd and Lithuania ranked 78th.

You can see for yourself who needs who for major international competitions given their status and importance, reputation, popularity, “star” athletes, etc.

2. When we assess the level of any major sports competition, all main users (spectators, partners and sponsors, the media) are first attracted by star athletes. I doubt that anyone would disagree that Russian athletes are superstars in many kinds of sports. The list of these sports will be quite long, so I will name just a few of them: figure skating, skiing, synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, volleyball, swimming, handball, and many others.

Therefore, all tournament organizers need Russian stars. By the way, in some kinds of sport, our athletes still take part in competitions, and everyone wants to see them (NHL¸ tennis, boxing, chess). It’s business, nothing personal because all events in these disciplines, are, in fact, private business projects.

3. For leading international sports tournaments, Russia is a huge market with a large target audience. It is important for international partners, sponsors and advertisers. They have already been pushing the international federations a little, and will probably do it more. By the way, if Russia does not take part in a major sports event, Russian media companies do not buy rights to broadcast it, which is also a loss for the international media rights market. So I hope that the voice of the business consumers of mega events will be heard eventually.

4. In the global sports industry, international federations and organizers of sports events are constantly competing to increase the popularity of their tournaments and expand the media audience. By the way, this is what partners and sponsors of sports organizations (federations, leagues and clubs) want. This leads to competition and rivalry considerably increasing in this market, everyone vying for ratings and watchability. This requires the most impressive performances from athletes, with audience willing to see sports stars. You cannot deceive viewers; they know well who’s who in every sport. Athletes who made the women’s top ten at the recent European Figure Skating Championships included even those who would have never been qualified for Russian Championships. And what is figure skating without Russian single skaters anyway? This resulted in the tournament being only of local significance at best.  

5. With Russian athletes excluded, organizers of certain major tournaments failed to receive even the expected revenues. The most obvious example is the 2022 IIHF World Championship hosted by Finland. With Russia suspended from competing, thousands of Russian fans actually skipped the tournament – which resulted in its organizers suffering heavy losses due to undersold tickets.

6. Russia has always represented the European continent in world sports. Yet, in the current challenging conditions of sporting sanctions, a bit of progress has been made towards the rather attractive continent of Asia, which is home to some 40% of the global population. I will mention just three facts pointing to this development:

  • The Chess Federation of Russia will soon seek to become a full member of the Asian Chess Federation.
  • The Russian Football Union (RFS) is considering a possible move to Asia. Just recently, RFS President Alexander Dyukov attended the congress of the Asian Football Confederation; the visit was obviously caused by something more substantial than sheer curiosity.  
  • Amidst this unusual backdrop, the Olympic Council of Asia has recently invited Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in the 19th Asian Games in China. This major multi-sport event will involve over 10,000 athletes from 47 countries. While the Western partners are breaking lances on possible participation in the 2024 Olympic Games, Asian colleagues are making a very appealing and hard-to-refuse offer.

Given these curious and sometimes contradictory developments, we can claim that the fight for Russia will soon enter its crucial phase – and we are willing to see athletes emerging as absolute victors.

By Vladimir Lednev, Professor, Doctor of Economics, Vice President of Synergy Moscow University for Industry and Finance, Research Supervisor at the Faculty of Sports Industry, Head of the Department of Sports Management

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