How to counter Russian propaganda in sports?

As part of the presentation of the article “Vaulting into Politics: The Evolution of Russian Artistic Gymnastics as a Propaganda Political Tool,” a discussion was held at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center.The discussion participants exchanged their views on how to increase pressure on the Russian Federation as to its intentions to use international sports competitions in its propaganda.

Over the past decade, the Putin regime has invested billions of oil and gas dollars in the field of sports, which has contributed to raising the so-called image of the country in the global world. And even after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia keeps trying to rehabilitate itself through sports, using the thesis “sport is beyond politics.” This opinion was expressed by Volodymyr Solovyan, Head of the Hybrid Influence Analysis Group (UCMC ).

“The news that the International Olympic Committee has allowed Russians and Belarusians to compete in the 2024 Olympic Games, albeit with restrictions, adds urgency to this topic. How should Ukraine act to prevent Russia’s further advancement in sports?” he asked the audience.  

Olha Saladukha, People’s Deputy of Ukraine, Head of the Subcommittee on High Performance Sports and Sports Activities of the Youth and Sports Committee of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, winner and medalist of World Championships, Olympic Games 2012, three-time winner of European Championships, noted that the decision made by the IOC was unexpected and outraged everyone. She thanked the Badminton World Federation and the World Athletics Federation, which had banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in events.

“In order to influence Russian and Belarusian athletes, we combined the efforts of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Office of the President, the parliamentary committee, the National Olympic Committee, the Paralympic Committee and all branches of Ukrainian sports. Why is this important? Personal sanctions make it easier for other countries to suspend such athletes from competitions,” emphasized Olha Saladukha.

Matt Wickham, analyst at the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group (UCMC), gave an example of how Russian propaganda works in artistic gymnastics.

He noted that even in Soviet times this sport was used as a means of “soft power” to popularize the system. Today, they want to portray gymnastics as the idea of great Soviet Russia and its greatness. The story of Olympic champion Svetlana Khorkina demonstrates the influence of Russian politics on this sphere. In 2003, she was accepted into the ruling United Russia party, in 2018 she was awarded the military rank of colonel, and in March 2022, Khorkina performed at a rally-concert devoted to the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. 

Oleksandr Hlyvynsky, President of the Association of Sports Journalists of Ukraine, AIPS Europe Executive Committee member and Leonid Veselkov, Olympic reporter, TV and radio presenter, also took part in the discussion.