Can Russian athletes just compete with others in the world when the Russian army has been killing civilians and destroying homes in Ukraine for a year? How many Russian athletes have distanced themselves from the war, and can they at all? The debate on the (non-)participation of Russian athletes in major world competitions and the Olympic Games was taken up with vigour by the 1998 Nagano Olympic champion, former hockey goalkeeper Dominik Hašek. The interview with him was conducted by Petr Fischer.
You wrote a letter to the NHL, ATP and WTA calling on them to ban Russian sportsmen and women from competing. What did they actually reply to you?
I did not receive any response. Neither publicly nor personally. But I expected that. They don’t want this to be written and talked about. The less said about it, the more at ease their bosses are. I know they refuse even interviews from reputable journalists on the subject. However, what is important to me is that they received the letter and that they were able to read it. Now they have no excuses. And about thirty journalists received it directly from me. The letter is also public, both in English and in Czech, so I estimate that tens of thousands of people, perhaps many more, around the world have read it. That number is still growing.
You don’t differentiate much between sportspeople, for example, is there really no Russian hockey player who has condemned the war in Ukraine?
On the contrary, I always differentiate and treat everyone as a separate exceptional personality. As far as Russian athletes are concerned, certainly a Russian footballer who plays, I think, in Spain, and the Russian footballer Fyodor Smolov, a striker for Dynamo Moscow, have condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine. And then, I think, some chess players. Thanks to all of them. Other sportsmen and women have not condemned the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the crimes associated with it, at least to my knowledge. Of course, I don’t count such isolated “no to wars”.
By the way, me thanking the few athletes who have condemned the Russian war doesn’t help much. Democratic countries, including our country, should have started preparing and issuing refugee visas for these exceptional Russian sports personalities long ago under very strict conditions. And to grant them and possibly their loved ones asylum. This is similar to how it worked in the West forty years ago during the deep totalitarian period. Help for Russian athletes, but not for Russia, is necessary if we want Ukraine to win the war.
The most frequently mentioned case is that of Russia’s biggest star, Alexander Ovechkin, who continues to have his picture taken with Putin on social media. Why are the Americans so considerate of him? Is it just money and advertising, or do people in the NHL also respect his hockey skills and don’t want to impoverish the NHL?
There are several reasons. I’m sure money plays a role. Washington, where he plays, has long based its marketing on him, and that is very much true of the NHL this year as well. Here, however, you have to remember that the war is very far away for Americans, no one close to them is dying and they don’t feel threatened in any way. There is a lack of social pressure for a change in attitude. I would like to change this, because I know that the NHL’s attitude supports Russian propaganda and therefore bears shared responsibility for both the damage and the lives lost in Ukraine.
Similarly, many male and female tennis players don’t actually live in Russia at all, yet they may be afraid to close their doors at home or of the Russian regime’s revenge. What do you think they should do to be able to play?
The general attitude of democratic countries towards Russian athletes is bad and supports the Russian war. It’s sad, but it’s true. During the first months of the war, all Russian athletes should have had their regular visas revoked. And they could only receive refugee visas to stay in that country under very strict conditions. They would have to denounce the Russian regime and the Russian imperialist war in Ukraine. That would not be enough, of course. They would also have to act accordingly, both publicly and non-publicly. If they violated that, they would have to go back home. These Russian refugees should be allowed to compete and they would be the best anti-Russian ambassadors. This approach would save many lives. Unfortunately, this is still not being worked on, at least not that I know of.
You yourself played for Spartak Moscow in 2010, this was after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, Russia continued to pursue an aggressive policy in Chechnya. You didn’t see it as a moral dilemma then?
Actually, I didn’t even know that such a thing had happened in Chechnya. To be more precise, I knew that there had been fighting there a few years ago, and I considered it an internal conflict. In 2010, I would never have thought that Russia would one day attack any other country in order to take its territory.
You described Russia then in the media as a police state, with soldiers and police everywhere, how do you remember your time in Moscow then?
Apart from that whole season, which was not bad at all, it was a great experience to understand the Russian mentality better. In short, I would describe it like this: It works differently there and it’s useless to bother about it and it’s better to take it as it is. That is, if you live there. I also remember that they already had too much admiration for Putin for my taste. I kept getting invited to a sporting event where he was supposed to be. And I said I didn’t enjoy these events and I wouldn’t go. And they kept repeating his name and they couldn’t understand that if he was there, I didn’t want to go.
The new head of Czech hockey, Alois Hadamczik, continues to support banning the Russian and Belarusian teams from the World Championship, which is good, but how should the federation treat Czech players who play in the KHL?
The Czech federation decided that players who signed contracts in Russia before the war could be on the national team, and those who signed after the war broke out could not be on the national team. But nobody from the federation, unfortunately, explained to the fans, and especially to those players, why.
My criticism here is aimed at our legislators (senators and representatives). As we know, labor, by definition, creates value, and each state uses that value to further its own interests and goals. Russia’s goals are known to all of us. It is offensive war coupled with crimes including genocide against children. It is incomprehensible to me that almost a year after the war broke out, our lawmakers have not yet come up with a law to protect us and our allies from this dangerous behavior. Working in the land of our enemy must be prohibited by law if we are really serious about helping Ukraine and the security of our country!
The dispute over Russian athletes continues beyond hockey, with more and more politicians opposing the Russians’ participation in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala is also against their participation, as are other former Soviet bloc countries, especially the Baltic states. Will you also join the campaign against Russia’s participation here?
By the way, our new President, Petr Pavel, is also against the participation of Russian athletes, as are the majority of senators. And I am convinced that the vast majority of our citizens do too. Just to reiterate, the participation of Russian citizen-athletes in the Olympic Games would be a multi-billion dollar advertisement for Russia’s war and crimes, including the genocide of Ukrainian children. It would therefore mean many more Ukrainian lives lost. Otherwise, I have been running this campaign since the outbreak of the war, almost a year…
IOC chief Thomas Bach talked about starting under a neutral flag and only those athletes who explicitly don’t support the war, wouldn’t that be enough?
No, not enough! This would be a mockery, first of all, to all Ukrainian athletes, but also to the whole democratic world. We all know that these are Russian athletes, no matter what they wear, and no matter what song they play. This Bach decision would mean a lot of dead Ukrainians. I’ve already explained why several times here, so I’d just be repeating myself unnecessarily.
Bach had one main argument: sport is supposed to unite, to bring people together; if it now divides, it will be to everyone’s detriment.
Yes, I will be happy if the Olympics bring athletes and people together. Giving Russian refugees the opportunity to compete in the Olympics would certainly help this bonding. But the IOC would have to start working on that. So far, as far as I know, it hasn’t lifted a finger to do so.
This article was translated from the original interview published in the online revue Přítomnost.
published: 20. 2. 2023