Should we ban athletes from warring countries?

Tanks fighting on a globe

Things to consider about restricting athletes from the field of play

The war in the Ukraine has caused many sporting organisations to ban Russian and Belarussian athletes from participation in international sport*. This is, technically, a ban at all levels – non-professionals and youth sports included. It does not single out individual athletes, but applies to all that engage in sport with those countries’ passports.

These decisions are made by the boards of international sporting federations and events, often without democratic participation by the athletes of the sports that they administer, or at least transparency in the decision-making process. National governments, in the form of ministers of sport and similar functions, are also highly vocal and likely influential in the process. Threats, and in some cases realization, of boycotts of events are raised.

Sporting facilities have been turned into arenas of war; matches and races impossible to conduct or even fathom under such conditions. It makes our training and contests seem insignificant, even inappropriate, when shadowed by the consequences of these horrendous conflicts. And the Ukraine is not alone here. Lives are being lost in several civil and international conflicts around the world, in Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Yemen, Myanmar and others. Athletes live in all of them.

It is difficult for any athlete with a sense of humanity, empathy, or righteousness to look past the atrocities that are currently taking place in our world, outside of sport. The suffering of some of our Society’s members is beyond comprehension. Banning the perpetrating countries’ representatives from competition seems like a small, but important, signal of immense disapproval of the situation.

But what do our Society’s members say about all of this?

The fact is, they are too rarely asked. And when they are asked, it is often in the context of international politics. Views become mixed, uncertain. Yes – we detest the way our fellow members’ homes and freedoms are being violated. No, we don’t want to see any aggressor nations’ flag tarnishing our cherished field of play. We don’t want rotten government officials using athletes’ victories as propaganda to justify their own destructive ambitions.

War is the opposite of sport. It doesn’t bring us closer together, it brutally tears us apart.

It is in situations like this we must pause and consider what we are doing as athletes, why, and how. The postulates can provide us with guidance, to help us ask the right questions.

The first postulate is that all are invited to the game as athletes, and that the invitation is permanently renewable. Banning an entire country’s athletes is obviously not a renewable invitation. And, in truth, athletes are not the ones doing the banning in most cases. We, as individual or groups of members, don’t really get a choice. And our members are why sport exists; it is we – the athletes, our Society – that does sport. We decide, as athletes, if we respect another athlete enough to face them on the field of play. If the answer is yes, then we invite them to the contest and engage them as equals, regardless of what passport they have. Their nationality is irrelevant. It is their character, their actions, and their integrity in the contest that makes them one of us. Banishing them does not allow us to better understand each other through sport, and it does not allow us to grow closer to each other as members of the same society. This possibility gets taken away from us when federations and nations impose blanket bans. It is a flagrant reproach of the first postulate.

One might argue that participation is forfeit when one chooses to stand on the side of evil actions. After all, how can we respect someone who, inside or outside of the arena, pledges their allegiance to someone who slaughters innocent individuals for any reason? The reality is that many do not. These are true members of our society who only wish to engage with other athletes in line with the ideals of our respective sports. They want to be a part of our camaraderie, but are being co-opted by other societies, other cultures, for wanton purposes. This might be a team of 13-year-old football players from a country that oppresses its own citizens, or a college high-jumper studying and training in a different country than their own warring state. If we don’t invite them to the game, to treat them as equals and in accordance with our sporting ideals, the chances of them losing the sense of belonging that we work to create in our Society are considerable. What are we then contributing to? What are we working to achieve?

Postulate number 7 is also worth considering in this discussion: The competitor is no longer valid as such if he or she diminishes the contest or its other competitors. Using the field of play as a political symbol of oppression would arguably be a valid case here (and also one where the ideals of our own Society would be replaced by those of another). If an athlete from a warring country, if given the chance, would use it to humiliate, oppress, or threaten an athlete from a country they are in (real or potential) conflict with, then that would invalidate the competitor according to the postulate. They would no longer be considered an athlete, but rather something else. We would not be obliged to invite them back. We do not invite soldiers or politicians to the game. Are we willing to take the chance that this might happen in the first place, however? What if someone is pulling their strings? There is likely only one fair way to find out.

One might also note that the warring countries’ athletes are being diminished already, by no fault of their own. They might not have access to facilities, or the support of their families, friends, or institutions. Is the playing field even, then? How do we solve this issue? The method of our invitation, and the levelling of the preconditions for participation, are things we can do something about – economically, socially, and logistically.  Ensuring postulate 3 is fulfilled shows the true character of any athlete in our Society, and the list of things that can be done to ensure this is long.

Finally, we might consider what is perhaps the most relevant postulate in this question: number 9. Only those that enter and participate in the contest under these auspices are entitled to determine its outcome, and its overall development. As was stated earlier, we – the athletes, the Society – are not the ones steering the current course of action. It is up to us to take back control of the discussion and the decision-making process here. There are some athlete representative organisations, such as Global Athlete, who are already attempting to do this. But we should not aspire to assume the same ideals, procedures, or cultures of other societies – including politics or other power structures – within our Society, unless we collectively feel that they will enrich it or benefit the participation of all our members. It is this which is perhaps our most contribution to all other societies in our lives: not to adapt to them, but to show them the way. The sporting way. Are we doing this right now?

Ask yourself these questions, and discuss with other members, before responding. We must pause, consider, and embody our roles as athletes – perhaps most of all in times of strife and loss.

*Note: Russian athletes are still facing bans from participation under that flag because of the state-sponsored doping scandal that was uncovered at the 2014 Olympics, among others. This should be discussed as an entirely different issue, and the postulates instead considered in that light to arrive at our answer for that specific situation.