/It’s a pleasure to present this guest column by one of the most knowledgeable observers of the Olympic Movement, Britain’s David Miller. For more than 50 years, the former English footballer has covered the Olympic Games and the sports within it, including 15 years as the Chief Sports Correspondent of The Times of London, with stints at the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph. Author of books on athletics, football and the Olympics, he was Official Historian of the IOC from 1997-2018. His opinions are, of course, his own alone./
In Britain, there is no cynical visit to the heart-rending grave of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old victim of police rapist-murderer Wayne Couzens in 2021 … as outrageously perpetrated by Russian President and mass murderer Vladimir Putin of mothers and children in Ukraine’s ravaged city-wide cemetery of Mariupol last Saturday. Social universality and tyranny are hardly companionable philosophies: surely it is unconscionable for the International Olympic Committee, in proclaimed fidelity to its honourable Charter simultaneously to campaign for admission to the Olympic Games in Paris next year for any performance-qualified athlete including nominations from Russia? The International Criminal Court’s war crimes arrest warrant against Putin for deportation of over 16,000 children is the ultimate terrorist insult to the democratic world.
Since the twelfth-century’s geographic and strategic empire of Genghis Khan from the Sea of Japan to the Atlantic – whether physical, political or both, either military or bureaucratic – tyranny has manacled multiple European and Asian nations. Under the aegis of Tsar Peter the Great in the eighteenth century, all the Romanovs, then Lenin, Stalin and now Putin, myriad minor nations have been entrapped in cultural and intellectual submission. The rebellious lyricism of Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff or authors Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak has served to emphasise the penury of the masses, whose self-less courage in wartime is evidence of their brutal betrayal during alleged peace.
Deportation of innocent Ukraine children for “re-naturalisation” in Russia with which Putin and his Kremlin commissar for children’s rights are now charged is surely an atrocity to cause the IOC pause for thought.
Prior to Berlin’s Olympic Games in 1936, Belgian banker and IOC President Compte Henri de Baillet-Latour quailed in the face of Hitler‘s despotic anti-semitism. Future president Avery Brundage, ex-Olympian and head of the American Olympic Committee, forced the expulsion of IOC’s American protestor, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ernest Jahnke. Six million Jews were condemned. Is the IOC impervious to Russian crime: denying no doubt some Ukrainian children who might have become Olympians for their birth nation? Or indeed being immune to the extinguished religious sovereignty of China’s Uyghur Muslims’ “re-education” under duress, or even alleged genocide?
Central to the IOC’s dilemma, critical to the equilibrium, even survival of Paris’s long-awaited third Olympics (post-1900/1924), is President Thomas Bach. The redoubtable German has ridden a string of crises: Russia’s doping scandal of Sochi ’14; near financial collapse of Rio ’16; North/South Korea ideological conflict in 2018; Tokyo’s COVID postponement of 2020; Beijing’s politically fraught Winter Games last year. Yet amid bureaucratic mayhem, reformist Bach perceptively rescued the IOC from its out-dated constitution, transforming host city election protocol to bypass damaging public campaigns. Voting scandals financially threatened the world’s foremost cultural festival, but now 90 per cent of the multi-billion-dollar IOC income is being re-invested back into sport.
Now, perhaps forlornly, Bach is attempting to harvest sufficient IOC votes to maintain Olympic universality: the right of all individuals to participate free of identity with national transgressions – he himself excluded from defending his Olympic fencing title at Moscow ’80 because of West Germany’s allegiance to America’s boycott.
Bach, whose fifty-year career I recorded in a recent biography, is an honourable servant of a unique institution: I sense he must now relent on his jurisprudence on behalf of Russia’s proposed “universality.” The cause is long-standing: traced by Mikhail Shishkin, exiled Russian novelist living in Switzerland, in his just published My Russia: War or Peace (2023).
Shishkin recalls Russia’s generic autocracy from the Middle Ages, “Princes behaved like occupiers in their own country, robbing citizens of their villages, people not slaves but selfless participants in a collective struggle.” The polemic was magnified by the Orthodox Church dialogue being conducted in Slavonic, “not the Latin of Europe’s Reformation and Enlightenment.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, “the people yearned not to escape its prison but to build a new one.” Lenin revisited.
If Bach is to save a still precious institution, it will not be through geniality towards a nation in which every international athlete is an involuntary political tool. The only innocent Russians are that minority who have witnessed the outside world beyond domestic propaganda: some friendly zealots such as St Petersburg’s World War II siege hero Mikhail Bobrov, a personal acquaintance. The democratic world is largely ignorant of Russia’s manic empire lust, meekly encouraged in the Paris 2024 context by the Olympic Council of Asia. The IOC cannot ameliorate Russia’s war crimes through the gesture of sport. Tony Estanguet, Paris 2024 Olympic chief, anxiously holds breath for IOC’s decision: bleak for Paris should 40 Western nations stay away, worse still for IOC’s future – and all of us – if Russia (and China?) were excluded.
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