The athlete's voice is an effective one, and should be given greater support and protection

Athletes around the world are using their profiles to raise awareness and voice opposition to human rights violations, and they need greater support from international federations and associations, writes Shireen Ahmed.

Sports is not new to violent conflict, political protest or to athlete activism

Ukrainian soccer player Roman Yaremchuk right, takes off his Benfica jersey to reveal an undershirt with the coat of arms of Ukraine, also known as tryzub, during a game in February. (Associated Press)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As Russian forces moved into the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, I wondered how long it would take for the sports world to react.

Sports is not new to violent conflict, political protest or to athlete activism. Political strife has never been divorced from sports. Black women of the WNBA have led protests, media blackouts, faced fines and been committed to campaigns long before the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. There are legions of athlete activists who have created a precedent for protesting on global issues or speaking up in the face of injustice and oppression. And it has certainly increased.

Last week, Russian soccer national and Dynamo Moscow player Fedor Smolov put a post on Instagram voicing his opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. Also, Russia's Andrey Rublev wrote "No war please" on the lens of a broadcast camera at a tournament in Dubai that he went on to win. Both are bold moves from athletes from a country where dissent is not encouraged.   

WATCH | Andrey Rublev's plea for peace:

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

1 year ago
Duration 0:37
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.

Even in the world of chess, Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi, using a #saynotowar hashtag, and his compatriot, world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk, posted social media messages illustrating their opposition to the war. 

On the other side, Ukrainian footballer Vasyl Kravets is currently playing in Spain for Sporting Gijon. In an emotional interview with Spain's Radio Marca, he vowed to leave football and go and fight for his country. Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina posted that she would not play Russian athletes until they chose to play in a "neutral" state, meaning not under the flag of Russia. 

Tennis player Dayana Yastremksa fled Odessa with her 15-year-old sister to France via Romania. She intends to play in the Lyon Open just days after a harrowing goodbye with her parents. I can't begin to imagine the emotional and mental anguish of trying to compete under those circumstances.

On the weekend, Ukrainian Roman Yaremchuk got a standing ovation from Benfica supporters at a home game. He was handed a captain's armband and was moved to tears amidst the play.  It was a moment of solidarity and importance. 

Among the terror in Ukraine, foreign nationals are trying to get home to safety. Brazilian soccer players and their families within Ukraine have managed to evacuate by land or rail with more en route

Are we really going to continue to argue that sports are not political? 

Historically, FIFA and UEFA have not taken kindly to acts of protest from players commenting on social justice or supporting any campaigns. As such, national federations did not always appreciate nor support these gestures from athletes.

Some protests are less welcome than others, and policies and practices are in place to curb athletes from taking any action. FIFA is so rigid about this they have published the following in a document called The Laws of the Game. According to Law 04, Section 5: "Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images. Players must not reveal undergarments that show political, religious, personal slogans, statements or images, or advertising other than the manufacturer's logo. For any offence the player and/or the team will be sanctioned by the competition organizer, national football association or by FIFA."

In 2009, Sevilla striker Frederic Kanoute was sanctioned and fined 3,000 euros for a goal celebration. During the Spanish Cup final against Deportiva La Coruna, he lifted his kit to reveal a t-shirt that read 'Palestine'. Fast forward to May 2021 when Manchester United players Paul Pogba and Amad Diallo walked around Old Trafford holding a Palestinian flag. Notably, The Athletic reported that they would not be fined. When asked about their gesture, then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær said: "We have players from different backgrounds, different cultures, different countries and we need to respect their views if they differ from someone else's."

In 2016, Megan Rapinoe, captain of the U.S. women's national soccer team, knelt in solidarity with former NFL quarterback and racial equality advocate Colin Kaepernick. As a direct result of Rapinoe's actions, the U.S. Soccer Federation issued an edict demanding that players stand for the national anthem. The USSF later walked back on this issue after the murder of George Floyd and following the deluge of protests on the courts, pitches and in the streets. Athlete activism is no longer the exception, it is becoming the norm. 

The progress can be encouraging, particularly when it wasn't long ago that FIFA president Gianni Infantino exclaimed at a press conference in Iran, "It's very clear that politics should stay out of football and football should stay out of politics."

With the IOC on the verge of banning athletes from Russia and Belarus and with calls from Ukrainian athletes asking for suspensions of Russian sports federations, these actions of the athletes have not gone unnoticed. 

International governing bodies are often slow to move, but the impetus has come from public commentary coupled with the democratization of social media. If athletes will no longer be penalized for political commentary then it is time to acknowledge their strengths and acknowledge who came before. My Burn It All Down podcast co-host, Dr. Amira Rose Davis, recently said on our show, "Now is not the time for us to be ahistorical."

It is important to remember that racialized athletes paved the way for political disruption, and led with conviction. Whether it was protesting armed conflict instigated by their own country, as Muhammad Ali did, or protesting oppression in another place, it cannot be ignored. Footballers in the UK supporting #BlackLivesMatter or European teams supporting Human Rights campaigns ahead of the men's World Cup in Qatar have cemented a space where Ukrainian athletes can implore the world to hold Russia accountable for violence.

There should be a standard with which international federations and associations cannot rebuke players making statements or gestures to support their beliefs. The next step is ensuring that the governing bodies and organizations continue to oppose all human rights violations, and protect athletes, and the integrity of sport. At this time, it seems athletes are holding the mantle of courage and they should not face this burden alone. 

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