Sport as a metaphor for war

sport photoFriday the thirteenth puns aside, tomorrow could be a momentous and dramatic day for the world. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the athletics governing body, has demanded a response from Russia in the wake of the doping scandal revealed this week in a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The head of the IAAF, Sebastian Coe, admitted he was “completely shocked” by both the scale of the doping and the cover-up operations. He is new to the top job (but has held the deputy’s position for seven years), but his decision of whether or not to sanction Russia – named in the report as the chief offender – could have implications that reverberate even further than a doped-up, muscle-bound, unnaturally hirsute Russian female shot putter could hurl her four kilos.

Unsurprisingly, Russia’s immediate reaction to the call for exclusion from all athletics competitions (including next summer’s Olympics) by the Canadian Dick Pound, author of the 335-page report, was dismissive. Continuing the recent communications strategy from the Kremlin of brushing off all criticism by questioning the motives and competence of the dissident voices and brazenly rejecting any suggestion of wrong doing, no matter how compelling the evidence, Russia initially denied the claims in the report. This position has since been revised – to a degree – with President Putin ordering his country’s athletics officials to root out any bad practices. Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s Sports Minister, said “we have nothing to be ashamed of. We have problems, but we’ve never tried to cover them up”. It is doubtful whether the IAAF will agree.

Which leaves Sebastian Coe with a problem. Any ban, regardless of length, will be met with uproar by Russia. But if he feels strongly enough to impose a sanction without going so far as to ban Russia from the Rio Olympics next year, there will be howls of protest from those wanting a stand taken over doping in sport. So let’s assume, for a moment, that Russia is kicked out of the 2016 Olympics. Hold that thought.

The IAAF are not the only world sport governing body feeling the heat right now. Football’s equivalent, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is reeling after widespread accusations of graft and dodgy practice. FIFA’s head, Sepp Blatter is currently suspended whilst investigations into corruption roll on. The decisions to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and, bafflingly, the 2022 tournament to Qatar are being scrutinised. FIFA need to demonstrate the organisation has turned the corner, swept away the illegal practices and is a clean, reputable and responsible body.

What better way then, than to follow the spirit of the IAAF’s (possible) example by fundamentally overturning hosting decisions. Qatar 2022 is already looking doubtful. But If the IAAF point a scornful finger at Russia, would FIFA sniff an opportunity? Strength in numbers is always an attractive policy, especially when you are trying to convince a global audience. So, might they take the very controversial decision to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup? And if they did, what could the world expect by way of response?

Russia is currently hurting. Sanctions are biting and the oil price has collapsed. Crimea and Ukraine have been two successful foreign policy adventures (as far as Mr Putin is concerned) but there are domestic grumblings. There is even the suggestion, from a surprising number of Russia-watchers and nationals alike, that the crash of the Russian airliner in the Sinai last week was orchestrated by the Russian state. I don’t buy that personally, but I have been shocked that the suggestion has been spoken of by many outside the usual conspiracy-theory brigade.  So if Russia were to suffer the double ignominy of expulsion from Rio 2016 and the loss of the 2018 World Cup and given the current political climate, could we expect a reaction in an altogether different arena?

NATO defences have been repeatedly probed in the last few years and just three weeks ago Russia’s ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, said that, as all political contacts with the West have been severed, “the only sphere left is culture”. An overt threat against NATO is out of the question, even accepting Russia’s love of heavy metal. But a more subtle, obfuscated attack might be a possibility. Georgia suffered waves of cyber attacks prior to the fateful and very brief war with Russia in 2008. Could the same (less the actual shooting war) be expected in, say, Estonia, or another Baltic state, an area traditionally considered (by Russians at least) to be in their sphere of influence? Outlandish? Possibly. But ridiculous? Before Crimea, Ukraine and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17, I would have agreed. But if Russia loses both the Olympics and the World Cup who knows?

Sebastian Coe has a big decision to make tomorrow.

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