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The world’s national sport administrations have recently been thundered at by the International Olympic Committee, which told them that they must not go for the Friendship Games if Russia, as in 1984, attempts persuasion. “Don’t go” is the clear, simple direction. Holding hands with Moscow could be looked upon as scowling, or turning your nose up at the IOC, its chief, Thomas Bach, and of course, much of the rest of the world where people, since the Ukraine war, have simply hated Vladimir Putin’s land for its aggression. It is not as if the Friendship Games will precede the Paris Olympics but global sport’s custodians have clearly not forgotten when the event was sensationally thought up by Moscow to succeed the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, in the wake of the politically contrasted boycott of the 1980 quadrennial showpiece.
They came, widely and subsequently, to be spoken of as the alternative Summer Games. That is the historical context. The pre-Paris confrontation between Russia and the IOC can now be seen to have grown curiouser, ever since the Ukraine war threw up a problem which it could not wish away unless the IOC got tough and took the bull, or Vladimir Putin, by the horns. The IOC was coy to begin with, but as the hostilities dragged on, attitudes hardened in both Washington and Moscow. It was increasingly felt that the way to Paris was coming soon to be strewn with obstacles that could engineer a split in the Olympic Movement. A self-assertive Europe was calling for Russia to be expelled from the Olympics for pursuing the war and the wily Putin, ironically, bellowed protests against his country being treated as an aggressor and simultaneously asserting its right to participate in sport where the world would be at play.
Russia found itself isolated some months ago when the IOC iterated its athletes would participate in Paris as neutrals and disavowed links with the military establishment. Russia came to be denied the photographic use of the Olympic rings and the allied symbolism. Did the IOC get an attack of the collywobbles when Russia, around May, spoke of reviving the Friendship Games? The 1984 event surpassed the depleted Olympics in many aspects, including performances and greater attendance of the best in wrestling and weightlifting, but hell’s foundations will quiver if Bach is dwarfed by Putin after Paris. The IOC has primarily to ponder this point.
The IOC chief is, of course, secure in the knowledge that the more powerful of the sides stands by him. What he has said about conflicts being reacted to tactically rather than idealistically could ring true for a lot of people, colouring polarised opinions. There is a major problem inherent in it.