This morning, I woke up to the sight of a river of people, from the elderly down to the babies carried in their parents’ arms, trying to escape Ukraine. I watched my TV in horror as they slipped and slid uphill, some of them falling, wondering if they were going to get back up again. Behind them, a building was on fire. To paraphrase a recent viral tweet, when we said we wanted to live in more interesting times, we didn’t mean the entire 20th century in two years.
If you’re a history buff, or have even a cursory understanding of world history, it’s hard to ignore the parallels between what’s happening in Ukraine and the events that led to World War II. And, just as sports were a huge part of presenting Adolf Hitler’s Aryan myth to the world, they are also a part of Vladimir Putin’s delusion of Russian superiority.
Which brings me to Russia’s gymnasts. Or at least a few of them.
Last week, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore a prominent “Z” on his competition shirt at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha, Qatar. You know, the “Z” that you keep seeing on the side of Russian tanks and trucks, the one that’s become a symbol of the invasion of Ukraine. And lest you think this was a decision made by the Russian authorities, it turns out Kuliak taped the “Z” to his uniform just in time to take the podium, which also featured gold medal gymnast Illia Kovtun, who hails from, you guessed it, Ukraine. Kind of an obvious “fuck you” to the winner from the guy who came in third.
What does the “Z” stand for you ask? Here’s a bit from the Daily Beast that gets into it:
Kamil Galeev, a Galina Starovoitova Fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center, has been curating examples of the creepy character’s use on Twitter. “‘Z’ is a letter that Russian Military are putting on their vehicles departing to Ukraine. Some interpret ‘Z’ as ‘Za pobedy’ (for victory). Others - as ‘Zapad’ (West). Anyway, this symbol invented just a few days ago became a symbol of new Russian ideology and national identity,” he tweeted before the invasion. Now Galeev believes the symbol means Putin has taken a page out of the world’s worst tyrants, including Benito Mussolini. “To put it simply, it’s going full fascist,” he tweeted. “Authorities launched a propaganda campaign to gain popular support for their invasion of Ukraine and they’re getting lots of it.”
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) condemned Kuliak’s behavior as “shocking,” and asked the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to take disciplinary action against Kuliak. Which, when you take into account that Russia was allowed to compete in this tournament at all — they’re doing the “you can be here but you can’t wear the Russian flag” thing again, which we know from the past several Olympics is super effective — it doesn’t sound all that promising. Best-case scenario, Kuliak could lose his bronze medal and face a ban from competition. Take a look at that kid’s smug face knowing what’s happening in places like Kharkiv and Mariupol and you get some idea of how ill-equipped the sports world is to deal with acts of international genocide and treachery. Though, as of March 7, Russian and Belarusian athletes and judges will not be allowed to take part in FIG-sectioned competitions.
But Kuliak wasn’t the only Russian gymnast to display his support for Putin in recent days. Former gymnast Svetlana Khorkina, a heavily-decorated Olympian and giant in Russian gymnastics, reportedly posted the “Z” on her social media account and said it was “a campaign for those who are not ashamed to be Russian.”
It’s easy to defend Russian athletes by saying “they have to play the game because they have family back home,” and I’ve already seen this take over and over on social media. But there’s a difference between simply being Russian and trying to curry favor with Putin, as we’ve seen repeatedly from athletes like Khorkina and Alexander Ovechkin. No one forced Kuliak to tape the “Z” to his leotard. Certainly not as he was about to stand side-by-side with the gold medalist whose homeland is in the process of being annihilated by a madman with a stockpile of nukes.
Just yesterday, more than 4,500 war protestors were arrested in Russia, including an elderly woman who said she had survived the siege of Leningrad. Courageous, considering that Putin recently enacted a law that criminalizes “the dissemination of falsehoods about Russia’s armed forces.” The penalty is 15 years in prison.
If Russian citizens can take to the streets to stand up to Putin, it’s long past time that the sporting world crack down on athletes who do his bidding.