Guest post by Boris Lanin and Lana Lanina — Russia’s relations with Ukraine are overloaded with political symbolism, even more so as we get closer to the November Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit. Last week’s boxing match in Moscow between Russian Alexander Povetkin and Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko was a clear case of such symbolism.
For decades, high-profile athletic competitions, particularly trans-national ones, have regularly contained political undertones. One example is the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, which became the documentary base for Leni Riefenstahl’s classic totalitarian art. And then there was the USSR, which used athletes, sports, and competitions to dramatize the virtues of the communist system’s prowess.
One can agree with sports researcher Mikhail Prozumenschikov when he said that at different times and in different countries an ideological base has been highly visible during sporting events and successes and failures in the stadium have had political repercussions.
First, the boxers gave their introductory speeches. Klitschko expressed great respect for his opponent, while Povetkin simply chose to announce that he is Russian, pointing out that this is why he is so strong. This exchange of remarks outlined two disjointed messages: political politeness vs. flabby nationalism.
Then the slogan “Sasha Povetkin: Russian Knight” appeared before the public. His appearance was accompanied by an amateur song about “the descendants of Svarog” performed by bearded men dressed as Russian knights. When his robe was removed, he was wearing a grey-and-black T-shirt with a “Russian Knight” logo.
The imagery surrounding Povetkin demonstrated the entire event’s ideological context—the ascendance of a Russian knight, an epic hero, accompanied by a Russian coach, a Russian team, and mysterious Russian-esque music. With so much Russian fanfare, could Povetkin possibly lose? In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the stage-managed “patriot” rarely loses, right? What would happen if he did?
Wladimir Klitschko, who seemed fully concentrated on the fight, was introduced with an upbeat English-language song performed by a singer from the West. There were no allusions to his Slavic origins or any Slavic history for that matter.
However, Ukrainian nationalism made an appearance when Ukrainian singer Dzhamala—who was once congratulated by Prime MinisterYulia Tymoshenko when she won a regional song competition in 2009—sang an a-cappella version of the Ukrainian national anthem, all the while with a tragic-looking facial expression that matched the extraordinarily seriousness of Klitschko. Dzhamala wore a yellow dress decorated with two blue doves – the colors of the Ukrainian national flag.
The Russian anthem was performed by Iosif Kobzon, a Soviet-era artist and a State Duma member from United Russia, who sounded unusually pompous for a boxing event. In the audience were the royal couple of Monaco and different branches of Russia’s political regime: Rosneft president Igor Sechin, business tycoon and Putin loyalist Gennady Timchenko, patriotic film director Nikita Mikhalkov, singer Aleksander Rozenbaum, and Olympic champion Elena Isinbaeva, who is known for her support of the Kremlin and the Russian “anti-gay” laws.
Through the circus, inside the ring itself, the forces were clearly unequal. Klitschko was more experienced, taller, and more athletic than his Russian opponent.
After Klitschko won, Povetkin licked the blood off his face and promised he would win in a rematch. Klitschko’s speech was booed by the angry spectators, causing the television producers to cut the broadcast (the entire footage is available on YouTube).
And so, the Russian boxer’s painful defeat made it pointless to hold a press-conference after the event—another lapse of good sportsmanship. The fight, for which the winner took home $17 million and the loser $6 million, elucidated the structure of politicized sports performances. Yet these political performances may not always go as planned and not yield the results their designers expect. Now with the Sochi Olympics approaching, it may be best for sports promoters not to over-play the partisan card.
Guest contributors Boris Lanin (Russian Academy of Education, Moscow) and Lana Lanina (European University of Humanities, Vilnius) were invited by Andrey Makarychev.