The current climate has raised increasing talk of Russia looking elsewhere for sporting competition
The Western response to Russia’s conflict with Ukraine has led to suggestions that Moscow could pivot even more firmly towards Asia. That is a step primarily couched in geopolitical and economic terms, although Russian sport could also follow the trend.
After Russia was sanctioned by an array of European and global sporting bodies, talk is gathering pace that turning east for more competition may be to Russia’s benefit.
But how likely is Russia to sever its European sporting ties, what would that look like in reality, and how much support does the idea have inside the country?
We look at some of the questions surrounding the issue.
Why would Russian sport pivot to Asia?
After Moscow launched its military operation in Ukraine, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended that federations across all sports decline invitations to Russian and Belarusian athletes.
A host of organizations have followed that advice, while others have allowed athletes from the two countries to compete as neutrals.
The strong feeling inside Russia is that sporting sanctions are discriminatory and allow politics to undermine sporting principles.
As the Western world – including Europe – is leading the political and economic charge against Russia, by extension that is seen as being the case in sporting terms, too.
Just as Russia has talked up greater economic opportunities with the likes of China and India, sport is an area where the same possibilities are seen as available. Russia’s geographical position also makes this more feasible.
What would a Russian sporting shift to Asia look like?
A realignment to the east could see Russia end its membership of European sporting organizations and instead join their Asian equivalents.
That would mean more matches, tournaments, and general cooperation with teams and countries from Asia.
For example, instead of Russian football teams attempting to qualify for European events such as the UEFA Champions League, they would bid to appear in the Asian equivalent held under the auspices of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Even if there are no formal alliances, Russian sport could seek more exchanges and knowledge-sharing with eastern countries – more on which we will mention below.
Which Russian organizations are keen on the step?
The Russian Chess Federation (RCF) has already said it will leave the European Chess Union (ECU) and bid to join its Asian counterpart after a unanimous vote in favor of the step.
The Asian Chess Federation (ACF) is headquartered in the UAE and contains national federations representing Australia, China, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Singapore, among others.
A source from the Russian chess authorities told
TASS that a potential move to the ACF would likely take two or three months but cautioned that it could be “ a very complicated bureaucratic process.” Has there been support for the move?
Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjain – who was
banned by international chess federation FIDE for his vocal support of Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine – gave his full backing to the move eastwards. “Just take a look at the policy of European officials in regard to Russia in all of its sports activities, and not chess only,” said the 32-year-old. “We must not be humiliated and beg for forgiveness; we made the right move, initiating the transformation.
“India and China have powerful chess schools. I believe that we will be holding joint tournaments soon. I see only positive outcome in the decision.”
Elsewhere, Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) president Stanislav Pozdnyakov said charting a course to the east could bring benefits but must be carefully considered.
“My personal position is that if this allows us to avoid the political, biased, Russophobic hysteria that occurs in the countries of the West, and mainly in Europe, then I am ready to support such approaches. But, of course, consultation with a wider range of stakeholders is necessary,” Pozdnyakov told Match TV.
After Russian football teams were banned by European governing body UEFA (as well as FIFA), some suggested a switch to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
“Asian football is a good area. If they don’t want to see us here [in UEFA], we will play there,” said State Duma Sports Committee member Roman Teryushkov.
Former Russia and Lokomotiv Moscow midfielder Dmitry Tarasov
said he would support the step “if there was no alternative.” What are the potential complications?
have suggested that the likes of the Russian Chess Federation or Russian Football Union could switch from European membership to Asian organizations without the blessing of their respective global governing bodies.
There are precedents, including when
Australia swapped the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) for the AFC back in 2006, although the FIFA Executive Committee noted that “as all of the parties involved... had agreed to the move, the case did not need to be discussed by the FIFA Congress.”
It should not be taken for granted that the process would be similarly straightforward for Russia. Many Asian federations contain members who have been part of the Western backlash against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Notably, nations such as Japan, Australia and South Korea have all levied sanctions on Russia.
State Duma Deputy Svetlana Zhurova, a former Olympic speed skating champion, said Russia should not necessarily expect to be greeted with open arms despite the presence of allies such as China.
“Now there is a culture of canceling Russia in all areas, those who support [Russian membership] may be pressured,” Zhurova said in comments on Russia’s proposed chess move. Has anyone in Russia spoken against the step?
A potential pivot to the east is not seen by everyone as a positive step; indeed, some have suggested it is fanciful thinking or even undesirable.
“Russia is a European country,” said prominent sports commentator Dmitry Guberniev. “It is necessary to restore our positions in the Old World. If there is an opportunity to participate in competitions through Asia, then this path should probably be considered. But once again I want to say that we are a European country.”
Elsewhere, the RFU has quelled suggestions that it should consider turning its back on UEFA.
“Everything that is discussed in the press is the imagination of various experts and journalists,” said RFU deputy director general Maxim Mitrofanov. “Officially, we see ourselves as part of FIFA and UEFA, depending on how the situation develops further, we will make certain decisions. We have worked out the scenarios for such decisions, while it is probably too early to voice them and say what measures the RFU will take.” What about other areas of cooperation with Asia and the East?
Even if Russia does not formally leave European sporting federations, that does not preclude more cooperation in a range of areas with Asian nations.
Increased sporting links with China have been talked up in recent weeks. ROC chief Pozdnyakov held talks with Chinese counterpart Gou Zhongwen earlier this month in which both stressed their unified opposition to
“political interference” in sport.
The pair discussed bolstering cooperation in
“areas where we can complement each other so that our main beneficiaries – athletes – get additional opportunities,” the ROC later said.
As just one example, Russian officials have said they are
mulling a unique joint bid with China for the Women’s Handball World Championship in 2029 or 2031.
Elsewhere, Russian sporting figures
have touted increased cooperation with Russia’s allies in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) community and with members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Just this week, Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin
proposed a strategy for sporting development within the SCO. “We’re not talking about creating alternative competitions or organizations. We’re talking about strengthening the established organization and supplementing it with a physical culture and sports direction,” Matytsin said. Such statements could become a sign of the sporting times for Russia as it shifts its focus to new areas.
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