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International sport is turning from a carrot into a whip, but it could be too late

A message in Ukrainian colors is displayed above the crowd ahead of the English League Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool on February 27 at Wembley Stadium in London, England.JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

With geopolitical norms changing so rapidly, some people find themselves in a different world than others.

On Sunday, the world governing body of football was still alive in Pre-Feb. 24 world. FIFA announced that Russia would be stripped of the right to wear its colors, fly its flag and hear its anthem as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the three countries Russia was set to face in the final qualifying round for the World Cup in November were living in the post-February era. 24 world.

Poland was the first to announce that under no circumstances would they play Russia. Sweden followed this example. The Czech Republic finished the trifecta.

Shortly thereafter, England, who have not scheduled any games against Russia, also agreed to join the boycott.

For a moment there was a possible future where a flagless Russia would automatically qualify, would see any team that would resign win the 2022 World Cup without ever having played a game.

This is what happens when you play Smash the Mole with a superpower – it looks like the Road Runner and you start looking ridiculous. After a while you get used to being ridiculous and so you continue in your ridiculous ways. Until finally the other game participants pull the hammer out of their hand and start hitting it.

The possibility of a general revolt sharpened many dull heads.

The International Olympic Committee is grappling with a public relations disaster of its own – the Paralympics, due to start on Friday. It’s too late to ban anyone, so the IOC did the next best thing – urging everyone else to ban Russia.

FIFA, now desperate, jumped at the suggestion. Less than 24 hours after Russia got away again, FIFA banned it from all international football competitions.

We’ve been playing this Footsie game with Russia for almost a decade, but it only took two days to reach the final. If Russia wants to play in the years to come, they will have to play with themselves. It will be in the 21st century what South Africa was in the 20th century – a sporting underdog.

If this continues, the next step will be to slowly weed out those Russian professionals who do not distance themselves from the Russian regime. Signed NHL players are probably fine — unless one or more of them are showing up on social media.

But if all these top tennis players want to keep floating around the world, it won’t be enough to flash peace signs and mutter about how hard it is for everyone involved. Unlike NHL teams, tennis tournaments have sponsors to think about.

We are in the process of eradicating Russian influence from Western cultural sectors, of which sport is the most visible. A week ago we might have said that this is unfair. Today that looks like a real Pollyanna to us from a week ago.

Now that it’s falling apart, some things have become clear about the way the sporting world has grappled with Russia over the past decade.

First, that sanctions were not only ineffective, but counterproductive. The IOC’s doormat routine in the face of Russian belligerence must have spilled over into their foreign policy thinking. It arranged an entire Olympiad and the IOC’s collective response was, “I really wish you hadn’t.”

It would have been better if it didn’t do anything at all rather than giving the impression that this was the best payback we could come up with.

Second, that the utopian dream of a world permanently connected and pacified through sport becomes impossible.

During the Soviet regime’s most provocative moments – the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution, the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan – it was still welcome at the Olympics and World Cup. I guess there didn’t seem to be much point in holding an “international” sporting event unless half of the ruling world order was invited.

Now a new precedent is being set – if you ambush your sovereign neighbors, you can take your ball and go home.

Do you have the feeling that something like this will happen less or more in the near future? There could be noticeably fewer athletes at the next Olympic Games in Paris.

Third, international sport is turning from a carrot into a stick. This goes against every capitalist instinct of the bodies controlling sport – and by that I would mean all of their instincts, since the whole edifice is girded with greed.

But pride turns out to be a stronger motivator than greed. FIFA must have seriously thought they could explain to Poland how good it is for everyone to play against a Russian team without a flag. And then Poland told FIFA that it had had a bit of an epiphany when it comes to the country it’s been keeping under its heel for 50 years.

If you were a top Polish footballer, what do you think would bring you more glory – playing in an unforgettable game against Russia or being one of the guys who principledly stood up for the free peoples of the world? The more they punished you, the greater your glory.

We’ve spent the last few years encouraging athletes to speak out on all sorts of political issues. Here is your golden opportunity. For the first time in history, the names in bold on either side of a possible global conflagration are all working for the same people in the same offices. Not much is always new, but that’s it.

As these forces realign, power shifts within sports organizations. It is moving away from the administrators and towards the member nations and through them to the individual athletes. There is not enough bait left on the hook to prevent the IOC, FIFA and Co. from throwing themselves fully into politics. From now on, international sport is only for friends.

If anyone in Zurich starts issuing opposing fiats, I’m not sure the sport will be Zurich-based for very long.

What really counts is sport only when times are good. That’s why people like sports so much. But in bad times, sport can give you a general sense of where things are headed.

In that regard, the last few days show a direction – down – and a speed that is faster than those in charge can handle.

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