© Copyright – 2022 – Athletics Illustrated

Brittney Griner was a pawn

Brittney Griner was a pawn in a game she doesn’t play — that’s the way it is for pawns. The American basketball player is simply an athlete who plies her trade in the WNBA. She has also played for the national team as well as in China and Russia.

On February 17, 2022, Griner was arrested upon arrival at the Moscow–Sheremetyevo Airport after being sniffed out by a narcotics detection dog. The Russian Federal Customs Service claims to have found illegal vaping cartridges in her luggage, which contained cannabis oil. Griner was immediately imprisoned.

A month later, a Russian court extended her pre-trial detention for another 60 days. She faced a 10-year prison sentence in a penal colony. Putin and company, couldn’t have timed it better themselves. As the illegal incursion into Ukraine was going to prove to be more difficult than expected, here was an opportunity handed to the Russians on a silver platter. The heightened international tensions between Russia and the west; meaning an apparent so-called proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, made Griner a convenient pawn. Shortly after the arrest, Russia officially invaded Ukraine and the diplomatic situation, well, wasn’t so diplomatic anymore.

U.S. President Joe Biden negotiated to have Griner returned home in exchange for Russian arms trafficker Viktor Anatolievich Bout, a man nicknamed “the Merchant of Death.” He was imprisoned in the U.S. for ten years and was released on Dec. 8, 2022, 15 years short of his full sentence.

The intolerance of Russia

It is alleged that Russians are not tolerant of lesbians, which Griner is. And, apparently are not fond of black Americans.

During his annual State of the Nation address on Jan. 15, 2020, Putin announced his intention to introduce a series of amendments to the Russian Constitution aimed at “improving the organisation and performance of public authority.”

When the amendments were submitted to the Duma, the proposals included several provisions that sought to enshrine Russia’s traditional cultural and religious values, including a commitment to protect the institution of marriage “as the union between a man and a woman.” Therefore, same-sex marriage in Russia would be considered unconstitutional.

There is no political party in the Duma that supports LGBTQ+ rights. Putin repeatedly made clear his opposition to “Russian tolerance” of gay people, whom he considers genderless and infertile.

Russia has a history of violence directed toward Africans, Asians, Chechens, and Jews; it’s a racial tinderbox. During the mid-1990s, a right-wing movement was frothing in the bigger cities especially Moscow and St. Petersburg. By 2010, Russia was home to up to 65,000 skinheads. Armed with weaponry of all sorts, military-like gangs such as Combat-18, the Society of the Brotherhood of Skins, the Nationalist Socialist Society, and the Aryan Brotherhood considered themselves defenders of the great white race. White extremists held training camps, with the explicit goal of preserving the white Russian nation from foreigners, especially dark-skinned minorities.

When in Rome…

Griner did not help herself out by taking illegal drugs (when in Rome factor) to Russia. She can be blamed for not researching the laws on drugs. Perhaps knowing the culture would have helped her make a better decision. Going into Russia as a dark-skinned, lesbian foreigner is a risk. Taking drugs into the country makes her a target.

In this particular chess move — Griner for Bout — Putin and his comrades believe they won. Biden, presiding over a more free and democratic nation, needs popularity (read votes) — that’s how it is for democracies. Therefore, Biden likely thinks he won. His constituents wanted Griner back. Griner lost nearly a year of freedom. There are no real winners, here — yet.

Taking a knee

The protests during the American anthem at sporting events are protests to denounce domestic police brutality and racism. In September 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a player for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, took a knee during the anthem. Kaepernick’s gesture is seen as a symbol of the fight against racism, inspired by the 1968 Olympic-raised fists protest. The act has spread to hockey as well as football in Europe (soccer) and other sports.

Kaepernack has not played professional football since. In fairness, he was not considered a star player, and therefore the oligarchs or team owners and their management were not going to lose much by not signing him. However, his not working since is construed to be systemic collusion, if you will.

During the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games medal ceremony at the Olympic Stadium, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised gloved fists, during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. While on the podium, Carlos and Smith, who had won bronze and gold medals respectively in the 200-metre sprint, kept their fists raised until the anthem had finished. In addition, Carlos and Smith, as well as Australian Peter Norman, who won the silver medal, all wore human rights badges on their jackets.

In his autobiography, titled Silent Gesture, published nearly 30 years hence, Smith revised his statement that the gesture was not a “Black Power” salute, but a “human rights” salute. The demonstration created a media storm for its political statement and continues to be referenced 54 years later.

But it was too late after Carlos and Smith were ostracized by the sporting establishment and were subject to much criticism in the media for years.

They were subject to abuse and received death threats. At the time, Brent Musburger, a writer for the Chicago American before moving to CBS Sports, described Smith and Carlos as “a couple of black-skinned stormtroopers” who were “ignoble,” “juvenile,” and “unimaginative.”

Time Magazine had criticised them mercilessly at the time, writing that the motto of the Olympics is “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” not “Angier, Nastier, Uglier.”

Of course, Time Magazine has given Person of the Year honours to Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King Jr. Go figure.

Russia’s suspension for systemic doping

In 2015, World Athletics banned the All Russia Athletics Federation (RusAF) from international competition. The ban continues, however, there are discussions to re-instate the nation.

RusAF believes that they will indeed be reinstated. Acting president Irina Privalova feels that RusAF is “only a small step” away from reinstatement following encouraging reports to the body’s Council meeting in Rome.

“I believe that in the current difficult situation in which all Russian sports are located, a big step forward has been taken,” Privalova told the Russian state news agency TASS.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said, “things are moving in the right direction,” however, he added, “independent of the ruling, Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials will continue to be banned from international events while the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues.”

After a series of salacious systematic doping and coverup allegations, Russia was served a national ban in 2015. Many of them were proven after an investigation by a special team assigned by the World Anti-doping Agency. There was data manipulation, extortion, bribery, and apparent money laundering. During the ban, a long series of failures and manipulation has continued unabated. Russia in 2022 is no different than it was in 2014.

Since the Russian incursion on Ukraine, the world’s largest nation has gone from persona non grata to status invisus — hated, globally.

In September, Anastasia Davydova, the secretary general of the Russian Olympic Committee fled Russia according to the Russian news agency TASS. Davydova is a five-time Olympic gold medallist.

The artistic swimming coach has no plans to return to Russia and has fled due to the drafting of thousands of civilians into the illegal incursion in Ukraine. A war that Russia appears to be losing.

The athletics crisis in Russia

Doping was described in great detail in the book The Rodchenkov Affair, written by Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov who was a primary and central figure in covering up doping in Sochi during the Winter Olympics and before and after those Games.

Further to that, there is the book, The Russian Affair, by whistleblower Vitaly Stepanov, a former anti-doping officer. It was co-written with award-winning author David Walsh. Both Russians — Stepanov and Rodchenkov — are in exile in the US.

It wasn’t enough that the Oscar-winning documentary Icarus illustrated the doping issues in Russia. And it didn’t matter that German broadcaster ARD TV and the fine work of investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt made it perfectly clear that doping in Russia is a way of life. Even Stepanov told Athletics Illustrated, “In Russia, we don’t call it cheating, we call it, we have an understanding.”

Apparently, it also does not matter that the Russians blocked WADA’s access to the Moscow Laboratory’s mainframe computer after they manipulated data (about blood values et al), there remains discussion to reinstate.

Russian corruption continues

Corruption continues to run rampant in Russia. News agency Tass reported that former RusAF anti-doping coordinator Robert Popov was recently placed under house arrest in connection with an embezzlement case.

Popov, as well as former Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) deputy chairman Gennady Aleshin, were both suspected of “aiding in misappropriation or embezzlement by an organised group on an especially large scale”, TASS reported.

Connected to the case is Alexander Kravtsov, the head of the Centre of Sports Preparation for Russian national teams. More is to come from this.

Kravtsov, Russia’s Chef de Mission at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games, is alleged to have hired people who did not work in any related capacity.

In 2021, the Russian Triathlon Association was banned due to doping. The trouble in Russia is not going to end soon.

Iranian football player to face death

Twenty-six-year-old, Amir Nasr-Azadani, who plays football (soccer) in Iran, is facing execution after he participated in a demonstration for Iranian women’s rights. The decision in his case drew worldwide scorn after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in September. Amini was allegedly beaten severely by Iran’s morality police after she was arrested for an alleged hijab-wearing violation. The beatings are believed to have caused her fatal head injury. Iranian authorities have denied that accusation.

However, Iranian officials are calling Nasr-Azadani’s protest armed and that he was “waging war with god,” so, their denial seems downright ridiculous.

Just as “church and state” need to be kept separate, so should “church and sport.” God doesn’t do the training, nor does he kill women for their attire.

Politics is in sports and there is nothing we can do about it

Many sports fans enjoy the teams and athletes that they follow as a form of escapism. It is the required distraction from the drain of daily stresses, and they do so as a member in good standing in the class of proletarianism. It’s the way it is for the proletariat. At the end of the day, they pay the bills.

Democracy’s strongest level of governance is supposedly the people. That’s the illusion, however, historically speaking the people are powered primarily by the votes they cast and little else. Try withholding your taxes as a form of protest or demand stronger third and fourth candidates in your next federal election.

Protests do cause change, however, the masses need to be inconvenienced enough to properly inconvenience the government enough for them to act.

Kaepernack hasn’t worked a day in the NFL since his last knee. Carlos and Smith suffered years of abuse. Their politics, 54 years hence, are every black athlete’s politics today. Now that the inclusion message is in vogue, perhaps change is imminent in regard to racism. However, power continues to be wielded mightily by oligarchs.

Griner was just a pawn in a proxy war that she has nothing to do with. Her 10-year detention to a penal colony was inescapable if it wasn’t for Biden’s move to toss up the Merchant of Death in a trade. Politics is in sports. It is ubiquitous and the power remains in the hands of billionaires and elected officials.

There is nothing anyone can do about it. However, change in very small increments happens when the paying customer is inconvenienced enough and harbours the audacity to act. Perhaps an empty NFL football stadium on any given Sunday would send a strong enough message.

Hey, if the oligarchs can wield their apparent power, so may the paying customer.