Pivot to the East: How Russian sport is faring amid the war
April 18, 2023
  • Yuriy Marin

    Digital Media Producer and Journalist

Yuriy Marin writes that Russian sport federations and athletes have been left to deal with the country’s isolation by themselves, with some federations turning toward Asia to find a place to compete.
Russian sport is by far not the last victim of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – just a few days following the outbreak of hostilities, Russian soccer clubs were removed from international tournaments, the Champions League final was moved from St Petersburg to Paris, and Formula One canceled a race in Sochi. In addition, Russia lost the Volleyball World Championship, the Ski World Cup and many other competitions.

The Kremlin most likely foresaw this, though it did not seem so catastrophic. However, few expected that the war could drag on so long and that Russian sport would have to develop its own strategy to survive in isolation. International sport – the Olympic Games, matches of the national soccer and hockey teams, and even Russian MMA fighters – was always a very important component of the Kremlin’s projection of power.

Unlike U.S. presidents, Putin has no tradition of hosting national champions at the Kremlin, though he does honor Olympic medalists and personally phoned Khabib Nurmagomedov after defeating the American Justin Gaethje. A Russian athlete capable of beating a Western opponent on a big stage is extremely valuable to the Russian authorities – Putin included. To produce such victories, a massive training system is kept going by budget funds, while the FSB stands ready to carry out doping special operations to provide the necessary advantage.

This is not to say that because of the war, Russia is no longer able to maintain the image of a sports superpower, though the lack of international victories is painful. In addition, this is personal for Putin: his passion for judo was an important component of his image at the beginning of his presidency (the death of his coach was presented in the media as a personal tragedy), huge efforts and money were invested in the Sochi Olympics and World Cup – note that the Crimea and Ukraine operations were launched only after the end of the Olympic Games, apparently so as not to spoil the festivities. It is quite possible that the Olympic Truce is the last international agreement that Putin is ready to abide (the war in Georgia can be considered an exception, as it seems to be the Georgian army that shot first).

The war goes on, and there is no point in waiting for the old times to come back. For the government, sport has obviously taken a back seat, meaning the Russian sport federations have been left to deal with things on their own.
The Russian National Soccer Team playing Egypt. June 19, 2018. Source: Wiki Commons
European soccer

Despite the modest success of Russian clubs and the erratic performance of the national team, soccer remains the most popular sport in the country. At first, the war-related losses seemed insignificant: besides the already mentioned relocation of the Champions League final from St Petersburg, Russia lost the opportunity to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar due to the demarche of its opponents (the national teams of Poland, the Czech Republic and Sweden refused to play against Russia in the qualifying tournament).

A little more sensitive was FIFA’s decision on the contracts of foreign players, who were allowed to leave their Russian clubs. However, not everyone took advantage of it: for example, Zenit’s Brazilian striker Malcom not only chose to stay and play in the Russian league, but even took Russian citizenship.

In the autumn of 2022, the national team played a series of friendly matches against Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. All three opponents are soccer bottom-feeders and have never qualified for the World Cup. On the other hand, Russia is now unlikely to find better opponents: when the Russian Football Union (RFU) tried to organize a match with Bosnia and Herzegovina, the potential meeting was strongly condemned by Bosnian players and sport officials. It had to be cancelled.

Asia remains the only real alternative to Europe. In January, RFU head Alexander Dyukov attended a meeting of the executive committee of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in Bahrain, where he discussed Russia’s potential membership. AFC President Shaikh Al Khalifa welcomed the prospect, though how the move would actually be formatted remains unclear. Russia would be satisfied with temporary membership in the AFC, as a break with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) still seems too radical – moreover, European officials themselves are not pushing for it. For example, the Russian championship is still getting UEFA coefficient points (this affects the number of teams in European club competitions; normally, they would have to be earned on the pitch), Dyukov remains a current member of the UEFA executive committee, and the RFU and UEFA even launched a working group to get Russia back to international tournaments. Recall that Gazprom generously sponsored European soccer for many years, and its contributions were not in vain.

“The Russian Football Union is trying to sit in two chairs: at its December congress it decided not to leave for Asia yet, though the national team will play in the Central Asian Football Association Championship next summer.
Russia will match up with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan again – this time the games being official – as well as Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The Iranians, three-time Asian Cup champions and regular participants in the World Cup, are the most eminent team. Iran ranks 24th in the FIFA national team rankings behind Sweden.
President Putin with members of the Russian Olympic Team from the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. June 30, 2021. Source: Wiki Commons
Olympic Games

Moscow butted heads with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) long before the invasion of Ukraine. Back in 2016, the infamous McLaren Report was released, alleging systematic doping violations by Russian Olympic athletes and the involvement of the state. In the end, Russia was banned from competing in the Olympic Games as a national team – instead, Russian athletes competed under a neutral flag.

Despite the high-profile scandal, this was hardly a serious punishment. In fact, the flag and anthem at the awards ceremony is the only thing that Russia lost out on. Athletes racked up medals (for example, at the Winter Games in Beijing, Russians won 32 medals, second only to Norway), while the IOC and the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) have built up much experience of working through restrictions.

Perhaps it was that experience that helped sports officials on both sides to calmly agree on new rules for Russia’s participation in the next Games. According to the March 28 IOC decision, Russian and Belarusian athletes can compete with the following restrictions:

  • without flag and anthem;
  • only in individual competitions;
  • only athletes who did not oppose the peaceful mission of the IOC and did not actively support the war;
  • only athletes who are not associated with the Russian armed forces and other security agencies.

The last restriction may prove the thorniest, as Russian sport clubs have been attached to certain ministries and government departments since Soviet times. CSKA (Central Sport Club of the Army) and Dynamo (related to the internal affairs agencies) have maintained these ties, and many Russian athletes represent these clubs. Among them are three-time Olympic champion skier Alexander Bolshunov and one of the best track and field athletes in the world Maria Lasitskene.

Still, it is important to understand that the Olympics are only the top of the iceberg for many sports – to reach the Games, you must first go through world and continental competitions, where Russians and Belarusians are now also excluded. Technically, the IOC decision allows them to take part in European competitions, though they are not always welcome there, even if the indicated restrictions are met. Most likely, most international competitions for Russians will also be held in Asia, which the IOC approved back in January.

There is another, more radical option. Following the recent visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Moscow, Putin announced the prospect of developing a sports association within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It is not yet clear what this would mean in practice; however, given that it is being proffered as an alternative to the Olympic Movement, a new Goodwill Games (the alternative to the Olympic Games, started in reaction to the boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, held from 1986 through 2001) seems entirely possible.


Whereas Russia has always been an important, but still just another, team in European soccer and the Olympic Games, international ice hockey has lost one of its elites by banning the Russian national team. Both the World Championship and the Olympics are essentially a closed, elite tournament, with a maximum of eight teams having hopes of winning and half of all titles won by Canada and Russia/USSR. Obviously, the exclusion of such an elite team as Russia has affected the commercial prospects of the game.

Already in January, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) made a rather dovish comment about moving the World Junior Championship from Novosibirsk and Omsk to Canada: “The decision will always be on safety, not politics.” In March, sources reported the imminent return of the Russian team to the World Championship – a final vote on the matter will be held at the IIHF congress in May, where the majority of participants plan to vote “yes.”
At the club level, the Continental Hockey League (KHL; Russia’s professional hockey league) seems to have finally said goodbye to the idea of conquering the European hockey market.
After the outbreak of hostilities, Riga Dinamo (Latvia) and Helsinki Jokerit (Finland) left the league. Nevertheless, this process had begun a long time ago: Prague Lions (Czech Republic) dropped out in 2014, followed by Zagreb Medveščak in 2017 and Bratislava Slovan (Slovakia) in 2019. Thus, only three non-Russian teams remained in the KHL for the 2022-23 season: Minsk Dinamo (Belarus), Astana Barys (Kazakhstan) and Kunlun Red Star (nominally representing China but actually playing its matches in Mytishchi outside Moscow). The hope to conquer the Chinese sports market with hockey is deflating: only a few matches have been played in China, and only 550 spectators came out for one of them.
Anna Shcherbakova at the 2019 Russian Figure Skating Championships . December 21, 2018. Source: Wiki Commons
Other sports

Hockey is not the only sport where the suspension of Russian athletes has caused serious damage to international competitions. In figure skating, for example, Russia has been a force for decades. In recent years, the country’s success has been associated with coach Eteri Tutberidze, who built a machine that mints Olympic golds in women’s single skating and sweeps the podium at World Figure Skating Championship stages.

However, the International Skating Union (ISU) canceled the Russian stage of the Grand Prix as soon as April 2022, after which many young skaters hurried to switch their sport nationality. The biggest story was that of Tutberidze’s own daughter Diana (born in the US in 2003 and bearing the surname Davis) and her ice dancing partner Gleb Smolkin, who went over to the US team, which even required a hasty marriage.

Tutberidze is trying to circumvent the restrictions by creating an international club called the Global Skating Academy (GSA) with the help of former ISU Vice President Alexander Lakernik. So far, the project has not met with success: Belgium removed the head of its national team, Rita Sonnekain, for cooperating with the GSA. Meanwhile, in Russia figure skating has moved into the commercial entertainment space, with Olympic champions Kamila Valieva, Alina Zagitova and Anna Shcherbakova performing together at a show called Champions on Ice.

The figure skater training system revolves around the Olympics and depends heavily on age (more precisely, on the unique physique that only young girls have) at the time of competition. Tutberidze prepares athletes for a specific Olympics, after which they move into the category of “veterans,” even though they are not yet adults. The only option for them to continue their careers is to participate in entertainment programs while the next generation prepares for the next Games. The war has cast doubt over the prospects for the next generation set to train for the 2026 Olympics in Milan, as no one can guarantee that they will be admitted.

Another sport where Russians are consistently top dogs is chess. Russia’s dominance is manifested not only in fielding strong players, but also at the level of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), which has been led by a Russian for almost 30 years (Kirsan Ilyumzhinov from 1995 to 2018 and Arkady Dvorkovich since 2018).

Despite this, the 2022 Chess Olympiad was moved from Russia to India by FIDE decision, while the Russian national team was suspended from competitions, though Russian chess players could still play in individual tournaments. As a result, chess was at the forefront of the “pivot to the East,” and in early 2023 Russia officially joined the Asian Chess Federation. Not all Russian athletes were happy about the move: Grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk, the multiple-time champion of world and European tournaments, is representing Switzerland this year.

While suspending Russian teams, international and European sports organizations have tended to allow individual athletes to compete. For example, 2022 was a breakout year for tennis player Daniil Medvedev, who for 16 weeks topped the world ranking of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). Besides Medvedev, Russians Andrei Rublev, Daria Kasatkina and Veronika Kudermetova, as well as Arina Sobolenko from Belarus, are ranked in the top ten of world tennis. This year, Russian tennis players were even allowed to compete at Wimbledon, though just a year before the British considered it their duty to “limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.”
It was like martial arts did not notice the war at all. For example, in the world’s leading mixed martial arts league, the UFC, last year was remembered for the victories of Islam Makhachev, who took the lightweight title in Abu Dhabi.
The Russian National American Football Team before a match with Belgium. October 21, 2017; Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Yuriy Marin (First & Goal)
In world boxing, the biggest sensation was Russian Dmitri Bivol’s victory over Mexican Saul Alvarez, considered one of the best boxers on the planet regardless of weight. Note that the fight was held in the US.

Amateur sports

While Russian professional federations and Olympic sports are sparing no resources to stay in the orbit of the world competitions, the fate of amateur sports is a real tragedy, with amateur Russian athletes being removed “just in case” – to avoid any troublesome situations. Over the past year, Russians were banned from the Boston Marathon, as well as golf and yachting competitions, not to mention other sports that do not enjoy the patronage of the Kremlin.

It is far from always the case that Russians are removed by competition organizers. Sometimes, they have been deprived of the opportunity to host international games due to extremely challenging logistics – in particular because of a combination of EU and Russian sanctions, there are no direct flights. For example, the Russian American football team, which was ranked in the top ten in Europe in 2021, ran in to a refusal by its would-be opponent to come to Russia for a 2022 match and thus had to drop out of the next tournament cycle.

Club teams are also no longer able to play matches with opponents from Europe due to skyrocketing transportation costs (Russians are prohibited from entering Poland and the Baltic countries, including for transit, which makes it impossible to travel by bus). The Moscow Spartans, who had developed into Russia’s best American football club team and won the Central European Football League Cup in 2019, suffered the most. To compensate for the lack of opportunities to play in Europe, the Russian American Football Federation (FAFR) is trying to organize an international tournament in the country with teams from China and Mexico with funding from the Ministry of Sports. Whether the state considers it important to save amateur sports remains to be seen, however.
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