Duncan Mackay

Russia's isolation from international sport has become almost total since the country launched its invasion of Ukraine at the end of February.

The first missile had barely been launched by President Vladimir Putin when sport began excluding Russian athletes from its competitions following advice from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Most International Federations at first imposed sanctions until the end of this year but are now beginning to extend them, with the result that Russian athletes are increasingly having to come to terms with the fact that they could be facing a long exile from top-level competition.

The International Basketball Federation yesterday announced that Russia, along with its main ally Belarus, would be banned from next year’s World Cup in the Philippines and were removed from the qualifying competition. 

The longer the war in Ukraine goes on, the more likely it is that other Federations will start taking sanctions stretching into 2023. 

The 2024 Olympic Games in Paris is increasingly looking like it will be missing a Russian team in any form.

Sport has not been used as such a powerful weapon in trying to bring a country to heel since South Africa was cast into the wilderness for more than 30 years because of its apartheid policy.

The IOC withdrew its invitation to South Africa to the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo when the country’s Interior Minister Jan de Klerk insisted the team would not be racially integrated. 

After South Africa were also prevented from competing at Mexico City 1968, the IOC expelled them in 1970. 

They did not return until the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

It seems ironic now, bearing in mind all the calls coming out of Moscow at the moment to stop "politicising sport", but it was the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries who initially applied most of the pressure for the IOC to act. 

At the time, the Soviet Union was the biggest financial supporter of the African National Congress, the party at the vanguard of trying to end apartheid.

Just as with Russia, FIFA played an early leading role in isolating South Africa, suspending them in 1963. 

When Sir Stanley Rous, FIFA's President at the time, went to negotiate its reinstatement, the South African FA proposed entering an all-white team in the 1966 World Cup and an all-black team in the 1970 World Cup. 

This proposal was rejected, and the South African Football Association was finally expelled from FIFA in 1976.

South Africa's international isolation from sport was only lifted after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990.

FIFA and the IOC were among the first sports organisations to take action against South Africa over its apartheid policy ©Getty Images
FIFA and the IOC were among the first sports organisations to take action against South Africa over its apartheid policy ©Getty Images

More than almost any other country, Putin’s Russia measures its place in the world by its prowess at sport. 

Olympic gold medallists are treated with more reverence than in almost any other country, a fact bought home when Russia’s leader surrounded himself with them at his pro-war rally at the Luzhniki Stadium in March.

Looking back now, it is tempting to assume that sport was united in its condemnation of what was happening in South Africa, and they all believed that they needed to act collectively to send a powerful message to the hideous regime in Pretoria and to come together in support of freedom for everyone.

That would not be true, though. 

The International Cricket Council imposed a moratorium on tours to and from South Africa in 1970, following Basil D’Oliveira’s infamous rejection, but those running the sport in England at the time seemed reluctant to impose too much punishment.

Consequently, there was little appetite for vigorously punishing the so-called "rebel" cricketers who jetted off to South Africa with eyes closed and palms outstretched. 

Both Graham Gooch, who led the first tour in 1982, and Mike Gatting, leader of the last in 1990, were banned for three years. 

Yet both returned to play for England after their bans ended and held high-ranking positions in the sport after they retired. 

Gatting was even elected President of the Marylebone Cricket Club, the original governing body of the sport.

The Afrikaners' favourite sport rugby was even worse than cricket. 

South Africa remained a member of the International Rugby Board throughout the apartheid era, although they missed the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991.

The Paralympic Movement was another who failed to cover itself in glory during the apartheid years. 

Ludwig Guttmann, founder of the International Stoke Mandeville Games (ISMG), supported South African participation until his death in 1980.

South African teams were allowed to participate in the Paralympics up until 1976, where its team was racially integrated after refusal of the organisers of the Games in Toronto to allow an all-white team.

Even after that major concession on part of South Africa, its presence in Toronto caused the withdrawal of the Canadian Federal Government's promised funding, along with teams from Hungary, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Poland, Sudan, Uganda and Yugoslavia. 

Only pressure from the Dutch and United States Governments prevented South Africa competing at the 1980 and 1984 Paralympics, held in Arnhem and New York City, respectively.

The ISMG, the forerunner of the international Paralympic Committee, even gave a lifetime ban to Britain’s Paralympics 1976 table tennis medallist Maggy Jones for distributing anti-apartheid leaflets at the 1979 Stoke Mandeville Games.

Some sports, particularly cricket and rugby, were reluctant to punish South Africa over apartheid ©Getty Images
Some sports, particularly cricket and rugby, were reluctant to punish South Africa over apartheid ©Getty Images

In contrast, sport’s reaction to Russia has been swift, decisive and universally unanimous.

The main argument against sports sanctions is that they hurt young athletes, who have no power over what actions their country’s leaders take.

Dr Ali Bacher, a key figure in South Africa’s cricket team when they were widely considered the best in the world, captained the national team during the 1969–1970 series against Australia at home in which the South Africans won all four Tests. 

He was selected to captain the touring teams to England in 1970 and Australia in 1971–1972, but neither tours took place, owing to anti-apartheid protests in the host countries.

He has no doubt how powerful sending a country into the sporting equivalent of the North Pole can be.

"General sanctions, including sport, worked to bring down the apartheid regime so it makes sense to do it with Russia too," Bacher said. 

"You can't take on the world - that's what they're doing.

"Unfortunately, the Russian athletes have to suffer because of their leader, but the same happened to us as South Africans. 

"Many, including myself, didn't support apartheid but we had to suffer the effects of isolation as well."

A sporting boycott of Russia will probably not hurt Putin, however much he loves judo and ice hockey, and alone is not going to make him change his mind. 

But it will deny valuable PR opportunities and send a powerful message that any sport which maintains normal ties with Russia is, in effect, endorsing his regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has used country's Olympic medallists as propaganda tools to help justify his invasion of Ukraine ©Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used country's Olympic medallists as propaganda tools to help justify his invasion of Ukraine ©Getty Images

It was the force of trade sanctions and diplomatic intervention which brought the walls crashing down in South Africa but when Mandela walked free from jail on that memorable February day in 1990, he knew sport had done its work well.

"It wasn't only sports sanctions that played a role in bringing down apartheid," Bacher said. 

"Economic and other sanctions also helped but the impact of sports sanctions was very important considering how popular sport is with South Africans.

"We had the best [cricket] team in the world in 1970 and we only returned to world cricket in 1991 so for 21 years world sanctions impacted on South African cricket, no question about it."

Ukraine - and sport - will be praying that it does not take so long for Putin to be brought to his senses.