Impact of Russian Invasion of Ukraine Felt Across the Sports World

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.

Another Pandemic-Filled Sports Season for Most

The majority of sports-related headlines over the past month have been connected in some capacity to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it’s cancelled games due to outbreaks, falsified vaccination cards, or closed borders for major international tournaments, almost every major sport (and most minor sports) have been impacted, from youth sports to the professional level. After it appeared things were calming down over the summer, the most recent surge has thrown everyone into reaction/panic mode and the sports world is no exception.

There is no better example of the struggles with the pandemic on professional sports than the NHL. The NHL was seeing waves of outbreaks in mid-December where 5+ members of several teams were testing positive or close contacts and forced to enter health and safety protocols. The rash of cases grew so rapidly, the league decided to take drastic but necessary action when they halted all games days early for winter break beginning on December 19th and resuming on December 28th (with an already scheduled few day break for teams in the middle). Prior to the forced break, 44 games had already been rescheduled due to the pandemic, including 39 in just the week before the stoppage. At any moment during that week, around 15% of all players in the league were in COVID protocols.

Since returning to play, there have been another rash of postponements and players entering protocol and while more games are being played as planned, the league is far from out of the woods (along with North America as a whole). The hope of a cleaner, more normal season in 2021 and 2022 has been thrown out the window and it’s a day-time decision whether we will have hockey to watch or whether our favorite players will miss a few games due to a positive test or close contact. The NHL is obviously not alone in this scheduling battle, the NBA has also taken a major hit with dozens of games being played with skeleton rosters due to protocols and exposures. The NFL has also been forced to move the schedule around to fit in games with team outbreaks, along with a number of teams playing with their 3rd or even 4th string QB thanks to a wave of positive COVID cases on the roster.

Collegiate sports have seen a major hit to scheduling and playing as well. Most NCAA basketball teams have had at least some small outbreak on their roster or had games cancelled/postponed due to an outbreak on the opponent’s roster. There are a number of teams who haven’t played since well before Christmas and are still having their games postponed and cancelled. The UConn women’s basketball program has had 4 straight games postponed or cancelled and last played on December 19th. They currently have a game scheduled for January 9th against Creighton and if it isn’t postponed, would be their first live action in 21 days. The UConn men’s basketball program last played a game on December 21st against Marquette and have had 2 games postponed since.

The hope of a more normal sports calendar all around in 2021 and 2022 has unfortunately not come to fruition. There is always next year, right?

Re-Launched and Ready to Fly

Back in 2009, I started a journey in the sports blogging world. After several fits and starts on a number of platforms, the next chapter is about to begin. The official re-launch of Life of a Sportsaholic is here! New content is on it’s way, along with some older content I was able to import.

Since it’s been a minute, here is what I’m all about on this blog.

  • This is a place for me to share my personal opinions and observations from the sports and sports adjacent world.
  • I’m primarily focused on, but not limited to, New England professional sports teams and my alma mater, UConn.
  • I love stats and using them to show patterns or predict future success or failure.
  • I have a wife and 2 young kids, so this is not a place for breaking news, game recaps, or intense daily content.
  • I’m not going to write just for the sake of writing. If I’m not moved by any story or idea, I’ll just wait until I’m inspired.

For those who have been loyal followers for years, thank you and welcome back. For those new to Life of a Sportsaholic, welcome and enjoy.