If you asked the average American sports fan to name a Russian athlete, the mostly like answer — particularly for any hockey fan — would probably be Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals star is one of the best goal-scorers in the history of the NHL, a guy who celebrated winning the Stanley Cup so hard and for so long in 2018 you almost worried for the trophy’s safety. Ovechkin has attempted to straddle the lines between American fame and fortune and loyalty not just to his home country but also to its leader, Vladimir Putin, whom he has long considered a close personal friend. The athlete is so devoted to Putin, in fact, that in 2017, he promoted a “social movement” called PutinTeam in an Instagram post: “I have never hidden my attitude toward our president, always openly supporting him,” the message said. “Being a part of such a team is a pride for me, it’s like the feeling when you put on the jersey of the Russian national team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you.” Reports surfaced that the Kremlin may have been behind PutinTeam, and Ovechkin didn’t deny them. He won the Stanley Cup the next year, and when that happened, there may have been no more beloved person in Washington, D.C. No one mentioned PutinTeam, and no one cared.
In recent years, Ovechkin has been more careful about explicitly tying himself to Putin, but there’s never been any doubt about his devotion to the man. At one of the U.S.-Putin summits during the Trump presidency, Putin actually gave Donald Trump an Ovechkin jersey. So it was noteworthy when Ovechkin was asked last week for his thoughts about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and he responded, “Please, no more war.” Ovechkin did not explicitly condemn Putin — he still called him “my president” — and he has taken considerable criticism for not doing so, particularly because his claim “I am not into politics” was pretty rich coming from Mr. PutinTeam. Hall of Fame goalkeeper Dominik Hasek called Ovechkin’s comments “chicken shit” and said the NHL should “immediately suspend contracts for all Russian players” in response to the invasion. But it was telling that Ovechkin didn’t defend his good pal Putin. After what happened in Ukraine, the sports world has come down as hard on Putin as any global institution.
Let’s start with the official sanctions. There have been a lot. The International Olympic Committee, which has famously bent over backward for Russia in the midst of the country’s brazen disregard for the institution’s drug-testing regulations, is pulling events out of Russia and Belarus, and in a move Hasek would appreciate, it urged any international sports regulators to exclude Russian athletes and officials in order to “protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all participants.” FIFA drew criticism for not canceling World Cup–qualifying matches involving Russia — Poland and Sweden had already said they won’t play them — but in the wake of the IOC’s move, it finally moved more aggressively and banned Russia from the World Cup. (Russia had 35 percent odds of qualifying for November’s World Cup, according to We Global Football, and of course just hosted in the event in 2018.) UEFA has already moved its Champions League final from St. Petersburg to Paris. Several European soccer teams, including Manchester United, are bailing on contracts they have with Russia or Russian companies like Aeroflot, the official airline of the country. Chelsea FC’s owner, the Russian oligarch (and reported Putin associate) Roman Abramovich, divested his ownership of the team. Formula One, the International Tennis Federation, and the International Judo Federation (in which Putin has an honorary president status because of course he does) have all immediately ceased any operations in Russia moving forward. World Taekwondo even rescinded Putin’s honorary black belt.
Russian athletes are speaking out, too. Russian tennis star Daniil Medvedev said that he was “all for peace” and that watching fellow Russian tennis player Andrey Rublev win a doubles title with his Ukrainian partner, Denys Molchanov, at the Open 13 Provence in Marseilles last weekend was “amazing.” Rublev himself, after he won his match, took out a marker and wrote “No War Please” on a camera:
The obvious contrast here is the way Chinese athletes (and American athletes) have learned never to criticize China. Tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared for more than a week after accusing a party official of sexual assault (then reappeared only to recant). So far, Russian athletes, many of whom live much of their lives abroad among athletes from other countries, have suffered no consequences for speaking out. And they’re undoubtedly realizing it might in fact be more costly for them not to, particularly amid the high-profile heroism of Ukrainian athletes enlisting in the fight, including the Klitschko brothers, the former heavyweight champions turned Kyiv government officials who are working to defend Ukraine, and countless others such as former Bellator MMA welterweight champ Yaroslav Amosov.
No one in the international sports community is supporting Russia or Putin right now. Organizations have cut them off; fans are waving Ukrainian flags at sporting events; formerly loud advocates for Putin have gone silent or even openly revolted against him. Like the rest of the world, the sports world has quickly exiled Putin and Russia from the rest of polite society. There are many athletes who, like Ovechkin, have always tried to straddle the line between the money and fame that comes from the west and their embrace of Putin. That is now impossible. And while it remains to be seen if the distancing, bans, and backlash will have any effect on Putin or his decisions, Russian athletes, like the soccer team that has been trying to qualify for the World Cup for more than two years, are now the ones who will pay the price for his outrageous aggression.
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