Experts say sports sanctions could be a blow for Vladimir Putin

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Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup, the 2014 Winter Olympics scandals and Gazprom’s Champions League sponsorship were powerful tools for the country’s global image and gave Vladimir Putin the prestige of the Russian people.

However, the Russian president’s decision to invade Ukraine has had the effect of destroying global hot air, and experts believe it may have cost him internally.

Gazprom’s €40m annual sponsorship deal with UEFA is also in doubt, as Saint Petersburg has already been taken away from hosting this year’s Champions League final.

The Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix has been cancelled, and there are calls for the country’s football team to be kicked out of the 2022 World Cup play-offs.

“Sport has always had a huge impact on society,” Michael Payne, former head of marketing for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told AFP.

“The South African sports boycott against Apartheid probably had more or more effects than economic sanctions and forced a change in regime policy. »

A sweeping ban on sports could affect Putin’s position within the country, according to Hugh Robertson, president of the British Olympic Association (BOA).

“Sports are disproportionately important to absolutist regimes,” he told AFP.

“The potential for non-competition will push Russia very hard. »

Payne, who has been at the CIO for nearly two decades with a reputation for transforming his brand and finances through sponsorship, said Putin was risking his position with his people.

“Putin may not care what the rest of the world thinks of him, but he should care what the Russian people think of him,” the Irishman said.

“If you lose their support, it’s game over and the actions of the sports community have the potential to have a very significant impact on the Russian people. »

– ‘A greater favor’ –

Prominent Russian sports stars were quick to voice their concerns over Putin’s invasion.

Andrey Rublev, who won the Dubai ATP title on Saturday, Russian international football veteran Fedor Smolov, US-based ice hockey great Alex Ovechkin and cyclist Pavel Sivakov competing for Team Ineos all expressed their desire for peace.

“Russian athletes speaking to their indigenous supporters will only serve to incite local people to question their leaders’ actions and undermine local national support for the war,” Payne said.

But Terrence Burns, another former IOC marketing manager, who has played a key role in five successful campaigns for Olympic candidate cities since leaving the organization, has doubts about their impact.

“You’re assuming that the Russians see, read and hear the ‘real news’,” he told AFP.

“I don’t believe this is the case. The government will portray Russia as the victim of a global conspiracy led by the US and the West.

“An old Russian trope that they have used quite effectively since Soviet times. »

Unfortunately, Burns says, athletes should also be punished for their government’s aggression.

“I think Russia should pay for what it did,” he said.

“Unfortunately, that has to include his athletes.

“Many people like me thought that helping them organize the Olympics and the World Cup could somehow open up and liberalize society by creating new avenues of advancement for young Russians. We were wrong again. »

Robertson also says it’s “morally unthinkable” to allow Russians to compete while Ukrainians can’t because of the conflict.

Payne says individual sports need to look at a broader moral picture than their own potential losses due to the shelving of Russian sponsorship contracts.

“By not reacting, the sports world will lose much more than one or two Russian sponsors. »

Robertson, a former British MP, who hosted the hugely successful London 2012 Games as Minister for Sport and Olympics, agrees.

“The sports world may have to give up on Russian money,” the 59-year-old said.

“It has become clear in the past few days that political, economic and trade sanctions will hurt Russia as well as the West, but that’s a price we have to pay for the greater good.”

According to Robertson, sport could not stand idly by in the face of Russian occupation.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will affect sports, but the consequences of inaction or lying will be much more serious. »

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