Sports Diplomacy Just Took A Mazespin

Illustration from ISAFIS

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The concept of sports diplomacy is perhaps famous for its meaning as using sports as a tool for political enhancement. However, some people completely disregard that sports diplomacy can go horribly wrong and backfire (Padhi, 2011). The pinnacle of sports diplomacy is to unite people in peace through athletes that compete. However, for all the positives that athletes are the symbol and ambassador of a country, they sometimes become unfortunate victims of over politicization.  Nikita Mazepin, an F1 driver from Russia, just lost his chance to drive in the 2022 F1 season because his F1 contract was terminated due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict (Sky Sports, 2022). In this paper, I would like to present the case of Nikita Mazepin as a study for when sports diplomacy goes horribly wrong.

The case of Nikita Mazepin is a reflection of what transpired in the 1980 and 1984 Olympic games, where the United States and the Soviet Union boycotted the events respectively. Those boycotts, though beneficial in ringing a political alarm through symbolic manners, left an everlasting mark on the athletes. An ex-USA Olympic swimmer, Craig Beardsley, stated in an interview that he felt as if he was just a “pawn in a political game” when he was asked to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow (Brennan, 2020). Right now, Nikita Mazepin is clearly used as a political straw man in order to show solidarity through the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nikita Mazepin is now less than a disgraced athlete and more of a victim of an unfair political situation completely out of his control.

Banning Nikita Mazepin does not actually solve nor deter Russia from doing further damages in Ukraine. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) did what they did and banned Nikita Mazepin as an attempt to show how much they cared for the conflict. What they did not notice is, banning those athletes that perform just showed how they have really low attention towards the conflict. Banning Mazepin is just a lazy PR stunt that seems to be made with panic and haste due to the sudden nature of the conflict. Making Mazepin a trophy of  “peace caring” in the sport will only lead to further political problems rather than solving one.

An ex-F1 Russian Driver, Daniil Kvyat, who is now racing in the  FIA-sponsored World Endurance Championship, has stated that banning Russian athletes in sports would be really unfair. In this sense, Kvyat argued that sports should be the one to unite us together, rather than being a tool for creating a protracted conflict (BBC, 2022). In the same frequency as Kvyat, I would like to present the one-day truce between British and German soldiers in World War 1 to play football on Christmas Day as to how sports are supposed to work in politics. Rather than becoming a carbon copy of the conditions of the world, sports should serve as a neutral arena where warring nations can meet and have a friendly game or two. (Hastings, 2014)

The Nikita Mazepin ban was also not warranted from the actions of the man himself. Nikita Mazepin has shown time and time that he did not support the war and any actions taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin (Foreman, 2022). Banning Mazepin would be counterproductive as this just symbolizes to any future athletes that as much as you want to stay away from politics, you are always intertwined with it. These conditions, rather than preserving a good image for the FIA and sports, will create a condition where Russians will feel alienated from the sports even as the ban eventually goes away. 

The main principle of sports diplomacy is supposed to be about creating an environment where sports became a tool in prospering peace and minimizing conflicts. Sports diplomacy cannot be used as a deterrent because the nature of sports is not something that is truly relevant compared to economic or military manners. Instead, the true power of sports lies in its ability to unite people together through a simple game. The misuse of sports diplomacy to replicate the political conditions of the real world as such happened in the 1980-1984 Olympics as well as the ban of Nikita Mazepin is a sign that sports diplomacy has taken a spin in the wrong direction.

Perhaps, if we take a more humanistic approach in sports diplomacy and considered the athletes that are competing, we can have a more sophisticated look at things. I am not saying that politics in sports are wrong, but I want to convey that the “sports diplomacy” actions that have been taken by most of the big leagues are mostly a wrong way to take the principles of diplomacy. After all, even though it is a competition among nations, athletes ultimately are the people that worked hard for the competition. To see all the hard work and training they have had for years to prepare for the Olympics goes wasted sometimes becomes a blind spot when talking about things like this.

To sum up, I feel like the principle of sports diplomacy has been taken for a spin and wrongly used to kick Nikita Mazepin out of F1. These kinds of acts essentially downgrade an athlete to a mere political pawn and rather than solving a conflict, it has a big chance of protracting a conflict in the future. After all, the actions taken by an individual should not be something that applies to everyone with a similar upbringing. Assuming someone’s position is the same as someone else’s just because of their similarities is basically racism and prejudice, no? Nevertheless, the case of Nikita Mazepin is another telling tale of how sports diplomacy can go horribly wrong and impact the lives of an athlete who does not even represent the actions of a nation-state.

References:

BBC. (2022). Banning Russian athletes is ‘unfair solution’, says ex-formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat. BBC Sport. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/sport/formula1/60561184

Brennan, C. (2020, April 8). Opinion: For 1980 athletes, olympic postponement brings bittersweet memories of boycott. USA Today. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/brennan/2020/04/08/olympic-boycott-40-years-later-us-athletes/2964840001/

Foreman, J. (2022, March 5). Nikita Mazepin accuses Haas of ignoring the FIA’s ruling after they terminated his contract. Daily Mail Online. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/formulaone/article-10580463/Haas-TERMINATE-contract-Russian-driver-Nikita-Mazepin-conflict-Ukraine.html

Hastings, M. (2014). Catastrophe: Europe goes to war 1914. William Collins.

Padhi, B. (2011). Sports diplomacy. Insight on Africa, 3(1), 55–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/0975087814411132

Sky Sports. (2022, March 5). Nikita Mazepin: Haas terminate Russian driver’s contract with immediate effect. Sky Sports. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from https://www.skysports.com/f1/news/36799/12557500/nikita-mazepin-haas-terminate-russian-drivers-contract-with-immediate-effect#:~:text=Russian%20driver%20Nikita%20Mazepin%20will,cutting%20ties%20with%20the%20country. 

Albert Julio is an International Relations student in Universitas Indonesia and ISAFIS’ director of RnD. He can be found on social media with the username @im.the.aj (Instagram) or @YoungZhouEnlai (Twitter)

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