Why does Putin want to control university sports?

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Big money in sports is a major incentive for many people hungry for power. But why did Putin also want to sit on the throne of university sports, where there is less money and fame?

Like it or not, sports and politics go hand in hand. Sports involves huge amounts of money, offers politicians a chance to be more visible, and creates a convenient diversion from less pleasant matters, such as human rights violations.

For these reasons alone, it’s quite understandable why countries and politicians are desperate for position in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the international football federation FIFA. But why is Russia also interested in dominating university sports, where money and visibility are less of a factor compared to other sporting contexts?

University sporting events part of domestic politics

People in countries with free elections ridicule Putin’s election success, but there are regions in Russia where Putin’s support is actually pretty close to the reported results. These regions are often considered less prestigious than Moscow and western Russia. This is why the winter 2019 University Sports Games were held in Krasnoyarsk, a Putin stronghold in Eastern Siberia.

The new sports facilities and improvements to infrastructure prove that the local residents have not been neglected.

The games not only have a sporting and entertainment aspect, but are huge in terms of local investment. The new sports facilities and improvements to infrastructure prove that the local residents have not been neglected – “Putin cares about you”. A new terminal was built at Krasnoyarsk Airport for the games, with passengers welcomed by a huge picture of Putin’s face. This way, everyone knew who to thank. Of course, Putin inspected the terminal before it was officially opened.

And it was no coincidence that the summer games were held in Kazan, in the Republic of Tatarstan, and in Yekaterinburg in the Sverdlovsk region. They are among the most populous regions in Russia. Putin’s support in these regions is not as high as in Eastern Siberia, so keeping the locals happy was high on the list of priorities.

Mega events sought by Russia are carefully selected, but there is always the country to be selected as host. World University Games are among the easiest to win bids to host among major sporting events.

Sporting success emphasises superiority to the people

The main purpose of sporting success is not to show the rest of the world that Russians are better, but to the Russians themselves. There must be success at all fronts, that has been the trend during Putin’s era.

The Russian team is filled with top athletes who, surprisingly, have just begun their studies before the event.

The success of Russian athletes is emphasised is games hosted by Russia, where underhand methods are easier to get away with, which shows in the election of athletes, for example. The Russian team is filled with top athletes who, surprisingly, have just begun their studies before the event. For example, a certain Elena Vesnina, who just a month earlier had won the French Open, took part in the tennis doubles in the summer event in Kazan.

The list of medal winners of World University Games, the biggest event in student sports, make for comic reading: in the Kazan summer games, for example, the second-best country received 77 medals, while Russia amassed 284. In the winter games in Krasnoyarsk, the second-best country was South Korea with 14 medals, with Russia miles ahead with 112. There is some disgruntlement about this, but as long as Russia is in control of the International University Sports Federation (FISU), no change has been considered necessary.

Kazan 2013, dress rehearsal for doping scam

The Winter Olympics of Sochi in 2014 are remembered for Russia’s state-run doping scam. This was participated in by, among others, the Russian Ministry of Sport, doping laboratories and the Russian security agency FSB, which changed athletes’ urine samples into clean ones through a hole drilled in a wall. This doping scam was practised at the Kazan University Sports Games in summer 2013.

It would indeed have been a juicy plot if Russia had wanted to host the World University Games in order to carry out the Sochi doping scam. But this was not the case: the report by Richard McLaren on the Russian doping scam claimed that it was Russia’s poor performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver that was the reason for planning the scam. The University Sports Games in Kazan in the summer simply provided an excellent opportunity to test it under less scrutiny.

Russian athletes have been able to compete under the Russian flag in University Sports Games unlike in other competitions.

Power in university sports has enabled Russia also to affect the operation of FISU. Led by Matytsin, FISU has denied evidence presented by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) about the doping scam at the University Sports Games, demanding further evidence. This is why Russian athletes have been able to compete under the Russian flag in University Sports Games unlike in other competitions. On the FISU board, the only person to bring up this problem was the board’s Finnish representative Hilkka Pöyhönen. The other members remained silent.

Power can be useful in the strangest of circumstances. This is why extensive power can act as a guarantee against decisions that are unfavourable to Russia. A similar example of power being held by Russia is the International Boxing Association’s (IBA) plan to admit Russian boxer into the world championships. This would not happen if Russia did not hold a powerful position in the IBA.

Networks and information

The use of power in international organisations does not end there.

When in a position of power, it is easy to create networks and collect information that is beneficial to you. Both FISU and IOC are based in Lausanne, Switzerland. The offices next to the same park enable not only cooperation but also easy transfer of information. Much can be achieved on a daily basis, while senior management only meet rarely. The number of Russian employees has been increased in FISU, as having more employees is an easier and more controlled way of getting to the core of matters as opposed to traditional lobbying.

A pro-Russian coalition and collecting friends around them has also created networks in sports associations in different countries, as the leaders of university sports tend to be in close contact with other sports and national sports associations. This way, there are multiple avenues available within a certain country to achieve your objectives.

Change on the way?

FISU recently summoned an Extraordinary General Assembly but failed to explain why. It will be interesting to learn whether it has to do with Russia, Matytsin and the possibility of Russia to take part in University Sports Games.

This would be a good opportunity for FISU to balance power and change the way it operates to resemble something that preceded Putin’s time. Though if Russia is knocked off its perch, there will be a power vacuum that China will pounce on.

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