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Geopolitics, War, and Sports

I must say, I think I have become somewhat of a “news junky” in the last few weeks. Just as the news on the COVID-19 pandemic were slowing down, the protests in Canada, the Winter Olympics, and now the war in Ukraine, are keeping me hooked on news channels to stay up to date on latest developments. The coverage on the war in Ukraine is especially difficult as we are witnessing the human cost of that conflict.

Given my experience of working in NATO and later as a Canadian Defence Attaché in Central/Eastern Europe I am very interested in what is now going on in Ukraine. I also have lots of views I could express here. However, I will limit this blog to talking about how the current war and geopolitical situation is affecting sports.

Sport is something appreciated by most people around the globe as most of us enjoy the entertaining value of watching sports. It also brings to the fore much pride in one’s country. But sports, as big businesses and as instruments of nationalism, also have responsibilities at the geopolitical level. As much as we like to think of the Olympic movement as apolitical, its reach and popularity make it a visible symbol of geopolitical power and influence.

Even before the current conflict in Ukraine I must say I have been uncomfortable with the International Olympic Committee’s decision to allow Russian athletes to compete, despite the fact that Russian state-sponsored use of performance-enhancing drugs is well documented. Even though they are competing under the “Russian Olympic Committee” flag rather that the Russian flag, they are still allowed to “kind of” represent their country as it is always clear where these athletes have trained and compete for. As much as it can be seen as heartbreaking to punish individual athletes who may be clean, simply preventing the Russian flag from being represented is not enough in my view to stop the longstanding culture of cheating in Russia. This culture will be difficult to change, especially under the current regime, but it has been done in other countries, like in many countries that were formally allied with the Soviet Bloc.

This issue was brought in the limelight with the controversy surrounding Kamila Valieva, the 15-year old figure skating prodigy from Russia whose blood sample was found to contain a banned substance. I have mixed feelings about the decision to allow her to continue to compete as this situation cannot be blamed on the skater herself, given her age and the fact that she may not even have known she ingested the banned substance. However, I believe that despite the fact that we may “break the heart” of this young girl, the message must be clear that this behaviour, whether it is the state, the coaching staff or others that are to blame, cannot be tolerated.

Outside of the Olympics, there has also been a lot of activity to isolate Russia by preventing Russian teams and athletes to compete since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine. The one sport I am most familiar with is Formula 1 car racing, and it is a good example of some of what has been happening.

The Haas Formula 1 team, which happens to be largely owned by American Gene Haas, was also heavily sponsored by Belarusian/Russian oligarch Dmitry Mazepin while his son Nikita Mazepin was one of the two primary drivers on the team. The Haas team was quick to remove the Russian advertising on their cars (Uralkali and Russian colours) but initially kept Nikita Mazepin on their line-up. Then the FIA (governing body for auto racing) decided that Russian and Belarusian drivers could race under a neutral flag, much like what was done in the Olympics. But then the British Grand Prix decided that they would not allow Russian or Belerusian drivers at their race, hence forcing Haas to replace Mazepin with an alternate driver.

But the most shocking comment in the Formula 1 community for me was from Daniil Kvyat, a former driver for Formula 1 team Toro Rosso who is now a reserve driver for Formula 1 team Alpine, when he said that it was “unfair” to exclude Russian drivers over the invasion of Ukraine. The image that come to my mind when I think of “unfair” is of all the Ukrainians currently leaving their homeland because of the violence that has invaded their cities. When I see young women with their children, while their husbands have remained in Ukraine to fight the invaders, this is what I would consider unfair. None of them asked for this as they just try to protect their loved ones, yet I have not heard any of them calling the situation “unfair”.

I understand that the athletes, Formula 1 drivers or others, argue that they should not be held responsible for their president’s decision but when they compete, whether they like it or not, and even if they compete under a neutral flag, they do represent their countries, and what they stand for. Life is not always “fair” and this comment by Kvyat just shows his lack of maturity, in my opinion. The comparison that comes to mind is Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton from Great Britain. Hamilton, who came from a working class family, became the first black Formula 1 driver in 2007. As a black person, he had to overcome much racism and other obstacles to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Despite the obstacles, Hamilton never blamed others and just got on with the job to become the Formula 1 driver with the most victories of all times.

“Freedom” Convoy/Protest

It’s been a few months since I have felt the urge to write on my blog but the events of the last couple weeks in Canada have motivated me to write a few thoughts. As is usually the case for my blogs, the words below represent my own thoughts about current events and should in no way be interpreted as news, despite my training as a photojournalist.

I have had the chance to witness the initial “freedom convoy” as they went through Kingston on their way to Ottawa on January 28. Then I had a chance to walk downtown Ottawa on February 8, and finally I was in the thick of a protest and counter-protest downtown Kingston on February 12. In all cases, I was carrying my camera and had a chance to meet and chat with a few people on both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, I was also the target of some verbal attacks in Kingston, just because I was wearing a mask and carrying a camera, so much for freedom. I am now trying to make some sense about all these ongoing events.

OTTAWA, Ont. (08/02/2022) – Freedom Convoy. Photo by Daniel Geleyn

Like many Canadians I’m sure, I watched the events of January 6, 2021 in Washington DC with amazement while thinking that something like that would never happen in Canada. Unfortunately, I am being proven wrong, although it has certainly been less violent here so far. Watching news around the world, I should not be surprised as populist governments/policies are on the rise in western democracies. Naively, I thought we were better and smarter than that in Canada but I should have realized that the events that are happening south of our border continue to influence us significantly.

There are no doubts that people are tired of the uncertainty and the restrictions imposed on us due to the pandemic. This is new for all of us as the last comparable pandemic was over a century ago. But one only has to be aware of what’s going on elsewhere to realize that Canada is actually one of the most free and open society. But freedom has a limit, especially as it relates to how it’s affecting the rest of our society.

As I reflect on this, I cannot help but think of what John F. Kennedy famously said in his inauguration speech in 1961; “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” With this simple sentence, JFK challenged every American to contribute in some way to the public good. When one lives in a group/society and takes advantage of the benefits associated with this group, such as universal health care for Canada but also so much more, there are some responsibilities that come with that.

Applying this principle to this COVID-19 health crisis means that we may have to live with some inconveniences, such as wearing masks and limiting our contacts, in order to protect what we unfortunately sometimes take for granted, like our healthcare system. Most Canadians can agree about the difficult situation in our hospitals due to the COVID-19 crisis. This pressure on our healthcare system is not only affecting individuals that are infected with COVID-19 but also so many whose care and treatments have been postponed due to the enormous pressure on our healthcare network. I believe that the small inconveniences we are asked to “suffer” are a very small price to pay to protect what we hold so dear and precious. As most living Canadians have never lived through difficult times like a depression or a war, they take what we have for granted and get very upset with any small setback in their “freedom”.

Our capitalist society tends to promote the value of individual freedom and success over the value of our community at large. This unfortunately leads to a more selfish attitude of “what’s in it for me”. So people are not willing to make even the smallest sacrifice if they do not see what is in it for them as individuals rather than society at large. This explains the rise in popularity of populist parties across western democracies, which promise more individual freedoms at the expense of societal responsibilities.

I hope that the silver lining of this pandemic will be for all of us (yes I do include myself as well) to learn that sometimes we have to make some sacrifices for the benefit of our society at large. I know I will not be able to convince everyone who reads this, but even if I can convince just a few, it will have been worth it.

Fall beauty

I have come to appreciate how beautiful our fall is in Canada. Sure the temperature is cooler and we have a number of rainy days, but being a photographer has helped me appreciate the beauty around us, especially the fall colours in Canada.

Living in Canada, it is easy to take the beauty of our fall colours for granted. But living in Europe for a number of years has given me a greater appreciation for what we have right here. When the weather permits, I take every opportunity to go for a walk in wooded areas to see the colours change.

I have also been lucky enough to do a few family shoots with our fall colours as background. It certainly is a great time of year for family photos.

Fall Regattas conclude CORK events for 2021

I was back on the water for the last two weekends to cover the Fall Regattas at CORK in Kingston. As much fun as it was to cover the Laser classes in the summer, the September Regattas gave me the chance to cover some other fleets such as the 505, Skiffs (29ers, 49ers, FX), the 420s and more Optimists.

There were some restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic which resulted in fewer participants, especially international participants. But after not being able to host regattas in 2020, it was a great success to be able to host the 2021 regattas. A great thank you to the organizers and all the volunteers that make CORK possible. Looking forward to 2022 on the water.

Fun on the water at CORK Kingston

It’s been great to get back on the water at CORK (Canadian Olympic Regatta Kingston) in the last couple weeks. There were no CORK regattas last year due to COVID-19. The regattas have now taken a different shape, with fewer competitors at the same time due to restrictions, but it was nice to see some action at the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour again.