Why post-Ukraine invasion, Russia’s chess players are set to leave Europe for Asia

On February 26, a little more than a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops to Ukraine, the country’s chess federation is likely to leave Europe and join Asia.

If successful – the Russian side expects it to be a mere formality – the 35,000-plus players including 200 Grandmasters, according to chess.com, will be eligible to compete in Asian events and will mark a momentous occasion in world sport, with many others already mulling the option.

The development, which came to light on Tuesday after the European Chess Union released a statement, comes close on the heels of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) inviting Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in its events, including the Asian Games later this year , to help them to qualify for the Paris Olympics. And just last month, it was reported that Russia’s football authorities were considering switching federations and moving to Asia as well, however, that idea has been put on hold.

But if Russian chess seamlessly shifts its positions from Europe to Asia, and becomes the first one to do so, it might inspire other sports to follow the suit. As Andrey Filatov, the president of the Russian Chess Federation, told RIA Novosti in December last year: “I hope we will be the first federation to break the blockade.”

So, why is it that Russian sports are now leaving Europe and joining Asia?

Russia’s strained relationship with most European nations after the country’s invasion of Ukraine last February is the primary reason. Following the war, the country’s sports bodies have faced sanctions by their European counterparts and a majority of the athletes have been exiled from many international sports.

For Russia, the sanctions are starting to have an impact. As the Road to Paris Olympics gathers pace, many qualifying tournaments are set to be held in Europe. The inclusion of Russians in those events is looking increasingly doubtful and so, participating in Asian qualification events gives those athletes a way out.

It is a similar situation in chess, with the Russian Chess Federation currently suspended by its parent body in Europe, making it complicated for the country’s players to compete in tournaments. In football, the Russians have not been included in the qualification draw for the Euro 2024 and with the 2026 World Cup qualification looming as well, the host nation of the 2018 World Cup is hoping to mend its ties.

Why are they turning to Asia?

According to the Olympic Summit held in December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said the Russian athletes were excluded from international tournaments merely as a ‘protective measure’. This, the IOC added, was because the sanctions imposed on Russia by various governments were seen ‘as unacceptable interference in the autonomy of sports organisations’.

“Another reason for the protective measures was that, in some countries, the safety and security of athletes from Russia and Belarus could not be guaranteed anymore,” the IOC said in a statement, adding that pathways were being explored so that athletes from these two countries can compete at the Olympics as ‘neutrals’.

It was during this summit that, according to the IOC, acting OCA president Randhir Singh ‘stated that, on the Asian continent, the reasons for the protective measures no longer exist’. And subsequently, the OCA offered to invite athletes from Russia – a country that has 75 percent of its territory in Asia – to compete in its events.

How does it impact the level of competition?

Russia is a powerhouse in most sports and its presence is bound to increase the level of competition. If the country’s thousands of chess players start competing in Asia, it’ll flood the field with world-class talents.
Similarly, in Olympic sports, too, Russia’s inclusion will raise the standard considerably.

Around 500 Russian and Belarusian athletes are likely to take part in the Asian Games that will take place in Hangzhou, China, in September. They, however, are unlikely to be eligible for medals and the IOC is formulating ways to award them Olympic berths without affecting Asian quotas.

Has there been any resistance in Asia to these moves?

So far, there has been little resistance from Asia. On Wednesday, South Korea’s Olympic body said, as per news agency Yonhap, it will seek further clarity from the Olympic Council of Asia but hasn’t objected to the idea.

The hosts of the Asian Games, China, too, have backed the proposal. “The Chinese Olympic Committee claims that athletes from all over the world should enjoy equal rights to participate in international competitions,” a Chinese Olympic Committee spokesperson was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.

There will be pushback if at all Russia decides to leave UEFA and join the Asian Football Confederation. Given the limited World Cup berths and an already-intense level of competition, Russia’s inclusion will only dent the chances of Asian teams to qualify and hence, any such move is unlikely to pass smoothly.

What about Europe?

Ukraine has threatened to boycott the Paris Olympics if Russian athletes are present. They did something similar last year after the country refused to compete in international events when the International Judo Federation allowed Russia and Belarus to compete under a neutral flag. Ukraine alleged that many Russian judokas also served as members of the military.

Last week, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he had told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that Russia should have “no place” in the Olympics. Britain and Germany have criticized the IOC’s stance while Latvia said on Wednesday it will boycott the Paris Games if Russian athletes are allowed.

Are there any precedents of countries playing on a different continent?

Yes. Most famously, Australia left Oceania and has been competing in the Asian Football Confederation tournaments for close to two decades because of the higher standard.

The Olympic Council of Asia had also invited Australian and New Zealand athletes to take part in the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, where they weren’t awarded any medals. The athletes from these two countries were also set to compete at the Hangzhou Asian Games before they drew citing Covid concerns.


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