International Federations (IF) have been quick to react to bar Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competitions, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While the athletes themselves were not responsible for their leaders’ indiscretion, they are considered as collateral damage. A collateral damage that politicians and international sports leadership would stop Vladimir Putin from continued military aggression against the people of Ukraine.
That some of these athletes had put blood, sweat and tears to prepare themselves for competition did not matter. Imagine the heartache of the athletes being yanked out of the Winter Olympics at the eleventh hour.
That for some of these athletes, sport is their career of choice, did not matter. But every Russian Embassy around the world is allowed to remain open, and the thousands of Russian businesses around the world was still being allowed to operate.
These affected athletes are indeed being ostracized and denied their rights because of the sins of the powerful.
What mattered were the portrayals that sports was responding to put pressure on the Russian hierarchy to withdraw their troops from Ukraine. For Putin, it really does not matter whether the sports fraternity in Russia suffers, when he has absolutely no empathy for the suffering of the common man in Ukraine or even in his own country.
While the merits of the sports boycott of Russia remain to be seen, these IF’s have closed both eyes when it came to the indiscretion of their own membership in denying athletes of their rights.
Will the sports boycott and other prohibitions actually help Ukraine or will they instead have a paradoxical effect? Let’s not forget that the South African sports boycott, because of its apartheid policies, started in 1977 and only ended in 1990 when the regime fell. It was even longer if you also consider the fact that South Africa was first barred from the Olympics in 1964.
Some countries including Malaysia and Iran deny entry for Israeli athletes to locally hosted tournaments, but it has done nothing to help elevate the cause of the Palestines. In fact it was sports that suffered. Malaysia for instance lost the right to host both the World Para Swimming Championships and the World Team Squash Championships, for the very same reason,
For decades the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had denied athletes their right to protest against social and political rights during their Games.
Their mantra that sports and politics should not mix is used sparingly and adjusted according to what’s best for them.
Until very recently, Rule 50 of the IOC’s Olympic Charter barred athletes from participating in “(any) kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.”
It was only last year, just before the Tokyo Olympics that the IOC announced changes to Rule 50 that allowed some forms of demonstrations, an attempt to respond to the reality of athlete protests.
Under the new rule, athletes are now able to engage in a non-disruptive demonstration to “express their views” while on the field of play before their events begin, though athletes aren’t allowed to protest during competition or while on the podium.
The IOC has done virtually nothing when it comes to countries like the USA, which has been enacting laws against the participation of transgender athletes. An increase of natural testosterone level has been enough for many IF’s including the IOC to ban female athletes’ participation at international meets.
The IOC and the IF’s do not even bat an eye when national federation victimize athletes, often hding behind the cloak of national autonomy.
The Badminton World Federation (BWF) were virtually silent when the Badminton Association Malaysia (BAM) threatened suspension of top player from international competition, for merely turning professional.
Lee Zii Jia and Goh Jin Wei were close to being shut out of international competitions, until the intervention of the Malaysian Prime Minister put an end to the threat.
And now two national athletic federations, both in Malaysia and the Philippines, have denied their top athletes from participation at the World Indoor Athletics Championships in Belgrade for reasons that boggles the mind.
The Malaysian Athletic Federation (MAF) had denied national record high jump holder Nauraj Singh while their Philippines counterpart saw no reason why Asia’s best Pole vaulter EF Obiena should go for the meet.
Among the reasons apparently given for Nauraj’s exclusion from the meet was that the German based athlete needed visa to go to Serbia and that it would be too late to send the official attire to him. For the record, the world indoors starts on March 18, and DHL International takes only between 1-6 days to deliver any parcel from Kuala Lumpur.
Obiena, who has been making waves for Asia in international meets recently, giving top world pole vaulters a run for their money had this to say on his FB page:
“Today the Country I Love Loses”
I love my country. I am proud of my country. I am driven to be a shining example of the excellence and world-class talent of the Philippine nation.
Despite the adversities, and despite the attractive offers from other nations, I have refused to abandon my country. I believe in my country and I believe my fellow countrymen also love our country. And hence would put country first also. Ang bayan ko, Pilipinas!
With my recent results I have qualified for the World Indoor Championships. I am currently ranked 5th and holding the 4th highest jump of the season. This competition is next week in Belgrade, Serbia.
I am in prime physical and mental condition. I am ready to be the first Philippine HOME-GROWN athlete to compete in the Worlds, and I am ready to compete and bring home a medal. Now is my time; NO, now is our time!
But sadly, we will never know.
Country has not been put first by all. Country comes after personal considerations for some. This is more than unfortunate. The nation pays the price.
I have not been endorsed for the Worlds. Registration is now closed. I won’t be attending. I am the only top-ranked vaulter not participating.
If country was ever put first, I should be headed to Belgrade now. But I am not. I will watch it on TV like millions of others. I will see other nations take the medal that Philippines should be winning.
I shed a tear now with a heavy heart, but not just for myself. I shed a tear for my country. We had a chance to show the world our greatness. And we lost it.
Obiena, the world number five ranked vaulter, speaks from the heart for athletes, who are being suppressed and victimized for no good reasons.
And what will be the reaction from the World Athletics in this matter? The answer is obvious – Silence is Golden.
Obeina was also left out of the Hanoi SEA Games entry list by the Philippines Athletics but the decision was overruled by their Olympic body that used their discretionary powers to include the athlete.
Is it that both Nauraj and Obiena are training in Europe and not under the thumbs of their respective national federations, a bone of contention?
Or is this a retribution towards Nauraj, who certainly does not hold the national federation in good stead.
Last year the Malaysian Athletics Federation (MAF) had issued a show cause letter to Nauraj following his criticism of the national body on social media.
The national record holder was alleged to have claimed that MAF have not done anything “to help its athletes achieve standards” in a Facebook post.
That national sports governing bodies have so much discretionary powers to stop deserving athletes from participation in competitions for any flimsy reason they could muster, exemplifies the need to revamp the system.
Most international sports are no longer amateur sports. This is a professional era and sports and the athletes are part of a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Sports cannot and should not allow power crazed warlords, who have no interest of athletes’ welfare and needs, to control basic rights of participation.
Sport is an industry and athletes are valuable commodities. Left at the hands of the incompetent, the industry and the product would naturally suffer.