Sport diplomacy in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine. Interview with sport historian Anna Prikhodko

By TES-D project team

Anna Prikhodko is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Education at Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Her research interests focus on pedagogical, social, historical, and historiographical aspects of physical education and sports in Ukraine. She lives in Kharkiv, refusing to leave her city after the start of the Russian war in Ukraine. At the CESH Congress in Bucharest, she presented a paper online, approaching the sport diplomacy topic in the contemporary context. She agreed to develop the subject and answer to few questions.

- How is the situation of sport activities in Ukraine after the Russian attack to your country?

Any war hurts the course of the social life of any country. On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and all sports life in our country was stopped entirely. Many Ukrainian athletes, organizations, and infrastructure have been bombed, rocketed, and occupied. Having survived the first shock, many Ukrainian athletes suspended their sports careers and stood up for their homeland. There are many veterans of Ukrainian sports, coaches, and sports referees in the ranks of the Ukrainian Defense Forces. More than 1000 athletes are engaged in volunteering both in Ukraine and abroad. According to the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, on November 23, more than 3,000 athletes were fighting at the front, more than 20 were in captivity, and 177 persons died on the battlefield, under bombing and shelling. There are seriously injured. Among the losses from the war, there was large-scale destruction of sports infrastructure, especially in active combat operations. So, during the war, the Russian aggressor had already destroyed 135 sports facilities, 22 of them have been destroyed and cannot be restored. Regardless of the region, many sports facilities have wholly stopped their activity due to the constant threat of rocket attacks.

Nevertheless, in these difficult conditions, the Ukrainian national championships are gradally starting to come to life. And it gives hope for the future. Competitions are held, but without fans, in regions remote from the frontline zone, against air alert signals. However, the enemy does not calm down. With the beginning of the cold season, rocket attacks on energy infrastructure and emergency power outages began. This situation negatively affects the livelihoods of all country residents, including athletes, the organization of sports competitions, and the operation of sports facilities. A challenging situation remains with youth and student sports. 

- Ukrainian athletes are involved in diplomatic actions for Ukraine after the attack of Russia ? 

Now, new values have appeared in the lives of many Ukrainian athletes. For example, I will cite the words of the legendary Ukrainian football player, coach Andriy Shevchenko, who said in the first days of the war: “Football doesn’t exist for me anymore... All my concentration, when I wake up, I think how I can help my country, what I can do.” After February 24, a whole wave of actions in support of Ukraine swept worldwide. Together with residents, Ukrainian refugees, and Ukrainian athletes, who at that moment found themselves abroad for various reasons, took part in them. In Europe, charity football matches were initiated with the participation of world sports stars, for example, “Integration Heroes Match”, “Soccer Aid”, etc. Ukrainian football star Andriy Shevchenko took part in them. As part of the “Match for Peace” #StopWarInUkraine project, a series of matches was held between European and Ukrainian club football teams. Ukrainian tennis athletes Elina Svitolina, Oleksandr Dolgopolov, Sergiy Stakhovsky, and others were very active in sports diplomatic actions. Such Ukrainian sports stars as Andriy Shevchenko (football), Elina Svitolina (tennis), and Oleksandr Usyk (boxing) are ambassadors from Ukraine in the UNITED24 international fundraising platform. The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy launched this platform as the main venue for collecting charitable donations supporting Ukraine. In general, Ukrainian athletes and their families actively participate in anti-war actions abroad.

- What about those sportspeople involved directly in war as soldiers?  How is the balance between those athletes who are fighting with weapons and those who are taking diplomatic actions?

Ukrainian athletes were and are not only active participants in diplomatic and charitable events but also defend Ukraine with weapons in their hands. Ukrainian biathletes Dmitry Pidruchny, Artem Pryma, and Anastasiya Merkushyna, who competed at the Beijing Olympics a few days before the start of the Russian invasion, ended their season ahead of schedule and joined the Ukrainian Defense Forces. Professional boxers Vasyl Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk, Denys Berinchyk, football player Artem Milevskyi, tennis athletes who had just recently retired, Serhiy Stakhovsky and Oleksandr Dolgopolov returned from abroad. They joined the territorial defense units of their hometowns. Active athletes, famous Ukrainian sports stars of different generations in the past, coaches in various sports, sports officials, and sports referees are currently fighting on the front lines. The winner of the Ballon d’Or -1986, the former striker of Dynamo Kyiv Igor Belanov stood up in defense of Ukraine from the Russian invaders with weapons in his hands. There are a considerable number of such examples. After the first rotations, members of the national teams in various sports began to be recalled from the front. They gradually began to return to sports life, training and competition and join diplomatic actions.

- How do you see the importance of Ukrainian sport in international relations in general ?

For thirty years of independence, Ukraine has attached great importance to participation in the international Olympics and, generally, sport movement. This attitude to sports is inherited from the Soviet times, with all its advantages and disadvantages. We have many internal problems, and reforms in the sports sector are long overdue. However, I am sure that in the future, the sports sector will remain an instrument of international relations for Ukraine, developing in a global direction and current trend.

- How do you see the role of sport in this war ? How sport is used or could be used in a favorable way ?

During the war in Ukraine, an appeal was put forward: Every Ukrainian has his own front. Only in this way, together, in unity, can the country win this war. Therefore, every Ukrainian in his place should do everything possible to bring victory closer. Athletes, like other Ukrainians, fight on the front of their sports: they train, compete, strive for the highest sports results, represent our country in the international sports arena, fight on the sports diplomatic front, etc. I want to note this unjust and destructive war showed that the world sports community could unite and stand as a united front in support of the affected side. And we Ukrainians are feeling it and are very grateful. Many international and national sports federations and clubs, especially in Europe, assist Ukrainian athletes. Here are just a few of their activities: collection and delivery of humanitarian aid to athletes, displaced persons, and refugees; a collection of donations; organization of training camps, access to training bases and use of sports equipment; purchase of sports equipment, uniforms, and payment for transfer to competitions; offering for Ukrainians the opportunity to join foreign fitness clubs and free membership; opening donation points at stadiums; organizing sports matches for children of Ukrainian refugees; using sports centers as transit shelters for refugees; providing housing, food, and training opportunities for many displaced athletes, etc. In general, many international sports federations provided all kinds of assistance to Ukrainian athletes who lost the chance to train fully due to the large-scale destruction of the Ukrainian sports infrastructure. Separately, I want to note that the IOC created the Olympic Solidarity Fund to support Ukraine. Without the support of international organizations, it will be complicated for Ukraine to return to everyday sports life, significantly restoring the destroyed infrastructure. This terrible war showed the potential of sports diplomacy, its capabilities, and its strategies. Many of the above support tools appeared and proved themselves only due to this aggression. The sport has excellent internal potential in fighting against the threats that, unfortunately, arise in the modern world.

- How do you perceive the punishment of Russia and Belarus from international competitions ?

My opinion is as follows. To stop the aggression, the killing of Ukrainians, the destruction of the country’s infrastructure, etc., the world community has introduced several sanctions against various sectors of the economy, public life, and personalities of Russia and its satellite Belarus. The sports community, represented by the IOC, and international sports federations, has introduced (recommended) its sanctions as a response to the aggression of these countries and the violation of the Olympic Truce. It’s, sport in these countries has found themselves in international isolation, which will have negative consequences not only now but also in the future. Yes, the athletes of these countries suffered. However, we must not forget that these sanctions result from the aggressive policy and actions of the leadership of their countries.

Moreover, there are examples when well-known Russian athletes and sports officials demonstratively support this war and Putin’s policy. Therefore, everything is natural. The international sports community cannot stand aside from everything that happens in Ukraine and is obliged to respond. In the history of sports, there have already been examples of the punishment of the USSR for unleashing a war in Afghanistan. Then there were boycotts, now there are sanctions.

- Do you want to add something else about the importance of sport in diplomacy of your country ?

Before the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Ukraine has always considered sports as an instrument of sports diplomacy. First of all, as a tool for full-fledged European integration and accession to the EU. Ukrainian sports suffered enormous human and infrastructural losses during the war. Thanks to sports diplomacy, many Ukrainian athletes had support from their international colleagues and organizations. As I said earlier, despite the challenging situation, Ukraine is making every effort to maintain its status as a reliable partner in the international sports community and a participant in international sports, cultural and scientific events. The history of our country shows that this position of our country will remain unchanged.

Posted on 19/12/2022 by TES-D project team