Athletes are having their say about the Russia-Ukraine war. Experts say this may become the norm

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted people to choose sides, and athletes and their governing bodies are no exception. As tanks rolled into Ukraine, athletes around the world used their platforms to speak out, often amplified by social media. 

Olympics and global sporting events don't happen in a bubble, say experts

Taras Rad, Vasyl Kravchuk, Maksym Yarovyi and Oleksandr Aleksyk, left to right, of Team Ukraine are seen during an official Paralympic training session at Zhangjiakou National Biathlon Centre in Beijing. Many athletes and sports organizations have spoken in support of Ukraine amid an invasion by Russia. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted people to choose sides, and athletes and their governing bodies are no exception.

As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, athletes around the world used their platforms to speak out, with their messages often amplified by social media. 

Global organizations governing tennis, soccer, the Olympics — even the Ontario Hockey League — have been involved. They've gone from signs of support for Ukraine, to outright competitive bans for Russian athletes. 

"I thought about the athletes right away," said Danielle Campo McLeod, a Paralympic swimming gold medallist and world-record holder from Windsor, Ont. 

"I could just be so empathetic for how devastated I would have felt if that choice was made for me."

Sports bubble bursts

On Friday, the president of Ukraine's Paralympic committee touted his team's ability to bring in gold medals despite the turmoil at home.

The team nearly didn't make it to the Games due to issues caused by the war, and just before its opening ceremonies, the International Paralympic Committee expelled athletes from Russia and Belarus.

The Games have often been in a bubble of their own, said Campo McLeod, but the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has shown the sporting world isn't impenetrable to what's happening. 

"I think seeing this and having the way everything is at our fingers these days, it just showed it's not that bubble, and I think we will see future changes from this, but I hope we can always remember the spirit of sport," she said. 

Paralympian Danielle Campo McLeod said she feels for all the athletes impacted by the International Paralympic Committee's ban on players from Russia and Belarus. (Submitted by Danielle Campo McLeod)

The International Olympic Committee has famously steered clear of political turmoil, as seen earlier this year when many condemned the competition in Beijing due to China's disregard for civil liberties, making the outright ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes relatively "unusual."

That's according to Ann Pegoraro, the Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Many countries have historically been able to avoid political issues at international events, she said.

"For a long time we've seen the idea that sports and politics don't mix, the [IOC] in particular likes to keep athletes apolitical when they're competing, and yet I think the last few weeks have shown us that's not possible anymore," said Pegoraro. 

"We're watching international sport federations grapple with their charters and their bylaws to see how they can enact these bans, so they're having to re-examine themselves."

Athletes in the middle

As governing bodies figure out what to do, athletes are recognizing their own agency in these types of political situations, said Pegoraro. 

"I think it's the beginning of more political activism from athletes," said Pegoraro. "I do think we're going to see increased athletes stepping forward in these situations because they have a voice, they have these platforms now in social media, and they have a lot of agency when nations are competing."

WATCH | Russian star makes plea for no war in Ukraine: 

Russian tennis star writes 'No War Please' on camera, after match

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After winning to advance to the final of the Dubai Tennis Championships, world No. 7 Andrey Rublev, who is Russian, wrote "No War Please" on the lens of a broadcast camera.

It's something Campo McLeod said is also becoming more common. 

"I think there's a new confidence in being able to share and I think we've also put a new responsibility on our athletes.

"We know they put the hard work in and we know they've given the dedication to achieve such a high level, so there's a level of respect given, and so people are going to listen and people are interested in what they have to say."

Earlier this month, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) issued a statement condemning Russia's actions, saying it agrees with the International Ice Hockey Federation's and Hockey Canada's moves to suspend Russia and Belarus from international competition.

"The OHL remains in communication with its member teams, monitoring the well-being of all players and especially those European players originating from countries directly impacted by the conflict," read the statement. 

The OHL's Windsor Spitfires alone have two Russian players on the roster this season.

"These young student athletes have the full support of the Ontario Hockey League as they continue to represent their respective teams, regardless of their country of origin," said the OHL's statement. 

While many athletes have spoken out against the war, some — like those from Russia — might be unable to freely share their opinions for fear of repercussions from their home nations, said Craig Greenham, a University of Windsor kinesiology associate professor.

"I think in certain countries that don't necessarily have our record of human rights, athletes are bullied to the point where they can't speak up, and we're even seeing that with with Russians in North America right now," he said.

"They're living in a North American context where we're expecting them to stand up and say things, but they have realities back in Russia that I think have kept them a little more closed lipped." 

There may be more of an appetite for athletes to speak up right now in the West, said Greeham, but it may not be the case in the rest of the world. 

He also wonders if the types of bans seen in the sporting world now will be sustainable, if Russia continues to occupy Ukraine. 

"It'll be interesting to observe how countries will treat Russia moving forward," he said. 

"How long will we be moral about this? I don't have a lot of faith in our resolve to isolate Russia for, say, 10 years if it remains in Ukraine that long."

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