It’s not only countries and politicians around the world that are implementing sanctions and restrictions on Russian economic participation due to the country’s attack on Ukraine: major athletics federations and some private sports companies have now suspended the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in athletic events, including in our sports of trail running and ultrarunning.
On February 28, 2022, following Russia’s attack on Ukraine beginning on February 24, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) took a stand in banning athletes from certain sports, framing it as a move to make participation fair for everyone, as many Ukrainian athletes would not be able to compete due to the attack on their country. World Athletics (WA) followed suit the day after, although they were more clear in their wording that this was aimed to be a consequence of the Russian incursion.
Though many Russian athletes have been banned from competing under their country’s flag in international competitions due to the nation’s systematic doping scandal since 2015, this would additionally remove the athletes who had obtained Authorized Neutral Athlete status.
Following the recommendation of these global sports leadership organizations, multiple athletics federations and organizations have also announced their support for these suspensions, including the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), the International Trail Running Association (ITRA), and the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) here in trail running and ultrarunning. Additionally, several private, for-profit corporations have joined in, with the UTMB Group as the most notable in trail running and ultrarunning.
The UTMB Group, which operates the 25 ultrarunning events comprising the UTMB World Series, in their ban, cited the current hostilities in Ukraine, saying, “While we regret penalizing athletes who have trained hard, this decision reflects our solidarity with Ukraine and its people, our belief in the need to protect the integrity of sport, and our condemnation of the atrocities being committed by Russian leadership.”
The UTMB Group’s partner, Ironman, the world’s largest triathlon organizer, announced shortly after UTMB’s announcement that they were canceling their upcoming event in St. Petersburg, Russia, and suspending Russian and Belarusian athletes from their world championship events. Ironman indicated that athletes are still allowed to compete in non-championship events and in a neutral (not under the Russian or Belarusian flags) capacity.
It should be noted that both organizers, at the same time as they announced these suspensions, also said, “We offer our full assistance to all Ukrainian runners who have entered our events and will support each individual’s entry in whatever way we can.”
These combined positions and suspensions — in particular, the one by the UTMB Group, who is much more connected to the general trail running and ultrarunning populace than the sport’s governing bodies — I believe, set a precedent. Taking a stand such as this one, in a sport that has long stayed out of the political arena, marks a shift in the role event organizers can play in determining how they position themselves with respect to highly charged, controversial issues outside of sport as well as how they use sport as a force for change. It is indeed a refreshing and constructive development.
Not surprisingly, there are some in the trail running and ultrarunning communities who have expressed disappointment in the decision to punish the athletes for something that is clearly out of their control and is not something that they necessarily support. Indeed, there are several beloved Russian runners in the trail and ultra scene who have specifically, and at risk to themselves, posted publicly about being anti-war.
However, the feeling is, in running as in other sports, that if these bans can exert just a bit of pressure on the regime in Moscow, then perhaps the government will take note and change course for the good of their people, athletes and non-athletes alike.
Certainly, there are many people who think that sport is not a place for politics, and many who think that Vladimir Putin and his regime seem impervious to public opinion and prefer to wage war with Ukraine regardless. There are also double standards at play: never have athletes from the United States or other nations been banned from international competition due to various actions throughout the Middle East that led to hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties in the last two decades.
That said, it is my hope that these very public stands within the athletics community will bring enough attention to the issue, and appeal to whatever compassionate nature there might be in Moscow, to end the war and allow athletes, as well as millions of common, well-meaning citizens, to return to some semblance of normal life and renew, for many, the opportunity for people to simply do what they love.
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