Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
While politics should have no place in sport, the terrifying, bloody and criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine underlines that they’re fundamentally inseparable.
Since Vladimir Putin ordered his troops across the border into Ukraine on Thursday, sporting organisations and teams have shown their opposition to the invasion: UEFA has switched the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg to Paris and is now looking into ways to end Russian energy company Gazprom’s sponsorship of the competition; Schalke 04, one of Germany’s leading football teams, has removed the Gazprom logo from its jersey; and Poland and Sweden have refused to play Russia in a 2022 World Cup play-off game in March.
Cycling, too, has been quick to show its support for the Ukrainian people. Among the first to take a stand was Ineos’s Russian rider Pavel Sivakov, who bravely stated, “I’m totally against the war”. In what was a well-received message, Sivakov added, “I also want people to understand that most of the Russians and never asked for all of this to happen, we shouldn’t be targets of hate because of our origin.”
Following his Opening Weekend victory in Het Nieuwsblad, Wout van Aert summed up what I imagine is the feeling of most bike fans when he said: “Bike racing is the most important side issue in the world, with the emphasis on ‘side issue’. It’s just madness that a war is still possible today, and so close. For what it’s worth, I would like to express my support for all those involved in Ukraine.”
There have been calls too for Gazprom to be removed as the primary sponsor of the ProTeam that it backs, with some suggesting that the UCI take over the set-up on a temporary with the support of the existing sub-sponsors until a new backer can be found.
As for the UCI, it issued a statement saying that it firmly condemns, “the violation of international law and of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” The statement called on the Russia to end its military action, highlighting that “sport and cycling have often been able to lead the way to peace and dialogue.”
There has, though, been a more equivocal response from the UAE and Israel, two countries whose eponymous cycling teams are among the strongest in the sport. On Friday, the UAE government joined China and India in abstaining from a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While the Indian government has said that it preferred to focus on a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, the UAE has offered no explanation for its decision to sit on the fence. Yet, during a call on Wednesday with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, his UAE counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan expressed the “strength” of ties between the two countries and, according to the Emirati foreign ministry, “highlighted the keenness to enhance the prospects of UAE-Russian cooperation across various fields for the higher good of their peoples.”
The Israeli government, meanwhile, refused to comment on its decision not to join 81 other nations in sponsoring the US-proposed resolution on Russia, in what The Times of Israel suggested was part of its ongoing attempt to not show favour to either side in the dispute.
No doubt the governments of both countries would argue that there’s diplomatic reasons for taking this stance, that there’s nuance involved, that it’s not a case of either black or white. My feeling is that if they were in the place that the Ukrainian people find themselves in now, they wouldn’t see it that way.
The question obviously arises of whether sport matters at all at the moment, and whether any of this has any relevance. The answer to that essentially comes down to your individual perspective – and I like van Aert’s take on this. It does, but people being able to live in peace and with fundamental freedoms matters more, and I don’t see this as a time for fence-sitting.