Not only Russians and Belarusians were refused handshakes. After the military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran became known, they stopped greeting Iranian athletes:
for example, at the World Powerlifting Championships in South Africa, Ukrainian Ivan Chuprinko refused
to shake hands with Amir Reza Mesforush already on the podium.
Against this backdrop, the story of soccer players Anatoly Miranchuk (Russia) and Ruslan Malinovsky (Ukraine) seems unexpected. At the time of the invasion, they were teammates for Italy’s Atalanta but maintained friendly relations
. Malinovsky managed to find words of support
for Miranchuk in the press without causing a protest at home, and the fans of the Italian club even held a banner
with the players holding hands against the background of the flags of their countries.Political controversy in sports
Of course, Russia and Ukraine are not the first countries whose conflict interferes with sports. Take the irreconcilable position of Iran toward Israel. According to the unofficial law of the Islamic Republic, its athletes should not meet with Israelis in international competitions. At the 2019 World Judo Championships, Iranian fighter Saeid Mollaei was instructed by officials to lose to Belgian Matthias Casse to avoid a match with Israeli Sagi Muki in the next round. After that, Mollaei requested asylum
in Germany, and changed his sports “citizenship” – first to the Mongolian national team, and then Azerbaijan.
In general, Israel is the most frequent object of boycotts in the sports world: due to the tense relations with its neighbors, it is predominantly in European instead of Asian sports associations (for example, UEFA). Refusals to face Israel happen routinely (there is even a special Wikipedia page
about it), and the mildest reaction is a refusal to shake hands – like Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby did
after his match with Israeli Or Sasson.
Another hot topic is the attitude of Serbs and ethnic Albanians. At the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the national teams of Serbia and Switzerland were in the same group. The Swiss team has several players with Albanian roots, with midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri the biggest star. Having made the winning goal in the game with Serbia, he decided on a provocative celebration: crossing his arms, he depicted the double-headed eagle, a symbol of Albanian nationalists. This was considered unsportsmanlike conduct and Shaqiri was fined
The story did not end there. A few months after the World Cup, Liverpool, for which Shaqiri played, met in Belgrade with Belgrade Red Star in a Champions League match. Fearing the reaction of Serbian fans, Shaqiri was scratched
and left to watch at home.
The most famous example of political protest in recent years is the story of the American football player Colin Kaepernick, who, during the playing of the US national anthem before NFL games, took a knee
. In his words, he was protesting against racial discrimination and police violence. Kaepernick’s act split the country and cost him his career: NFL clubs simply refused
to offer the odious player a contract.
Over the years of scandals, international sports federations have failed to develop a common approach to political and civic activism in sports, preferring to respond to each case individually. In most cases, the reaction is limited to a verbal warning or a symbolic fine.
The disqualification of Olga Kharlan is rather an exception, though as long as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine goes on, such episodes will obviously be repeated. The most sensible approach would be to simply stop idealizing sports ceremonies and recognize that there is a place for speech there. The restrictions that were in place during the pandemic showed that formal procedures can be modified if necessary, and sport as a spectacle will not suffer at all.