On Thursday, February 24th, Russian forces began an invasion of Ukraine as tensions reached a boiling point in the region. There is obviously a lot to digest and unpack about the conflict, but what has been interesting to me the past few days is the reaction of the sports world to the war. From cancelled events to outspoken individual athletes, there has been no shortage of responses to the fighting in Ukraine, with the vast majority hanging Russia out to dry (understandably). Let’s look at the impact the fighting has already had on the sports world and potential future implications.
One of the first leagues to react was Formula 1 (F1). With the timing of the escalation coinciding with the 3-day testing of the newly designed F1 cars for 2022, there was already a lot of media coverage and attention on the sport. Several drivers, including Sebastian Vettel, defending champion Max Verstappen, and Fernando Alonso all expressed their concern with the upcoming Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom at the end of September. Despite the race being 7 months away, the F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali and 10 team bosses took swift action and cancelled the race, making a strong statement about Russia’s action. Additionally, the Haas team quickly pivoted as their primary sponsor is Russian fertilizer company Uralkali and their car is painted in the Russian flag. They came out for the final day of testing on Friday with an all white car, removing the Uralkali logo and Russian flag colors. Going forward, that will be an interesting relationship to watch, because one of the Haas drivers is Nakita Mazepin, the son of the Uralkali owner, and as part of their partnership deal, he must remain a driver for the team. (Stay tuned for a more in-depth look at the Haas situation.)
Not surprisingly another sport that garnered a large early reaction to the invasion was soccer, specifically European soccer. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) took swift action and moved the Champions League final that was to be held on May 28 in St. Petersburg to France on the same date. UEFA’s governing body met to make the decision the day following the beginning of the conflict and released a statement “strongly condemn[ing] the ongoing Russian military invasion in Ukraine.” The statement went on to say that “UEFA is working tirelessly to develop and promote football according to common European values such as peace and respect for human rights…We remain resolute in our solidarity with the football community in Ukraine and stand ready to extend our hand to the Ukrainian people.” They also, for the safety of the players, have moved all games that were scheduled to be played in Russia or Ukraine to neutral sites going forward.
Adding to the public statements about the invasion, the International Olympic Commission (IOC) urged international sports federations to move events out of Russia and their ally Belarus. While a strong statement, the credibility and integrity of the IOC isn’t exactly at an all-time high after their disgraceful and embarrassing handling of the Beijing Winter Olympics and most notably the controversy around 15-year old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva and her failed drug test. Nonetheless, they are a large governing body making a strong early statement on the conflict.
In addition to quick reactions from major sports leagues across the globe, individuals have used their platforms to express their concerns with the invasion. Several Ukrainian athletes playing around the world have been outspoken, Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals NHL), Ruslan Malinovskyi (Atalanta Italian Serie A soccer), Svi Mykhailiuk (Toronto Raptors NBA) and Alex Len (Sacramento Kings NBA) have all issued a message similar to “No more war.” Russian tennis player Andrey Rublev wrote “No more war please” on the lens of a camera after winning a match at the Dubai Championships and former Olympic gold medalist in boxing and current mayor of Kyiv, Ukraine, Vitali Klitschko, decided to join in fighting the war, because “I don’t have another choice, I have to do that.”
As of writing this, it’s only been 48 hours since the conflict began, but the potential for deep and long-lasting impacts on sports in Russia and Ukraine is massive. For now, my heart is with the people of Ukraine and I’ll be hoping for a quick and peaceful resolution.