Sport4Peace: Athletes Unite in Words and Action

As the world awoke on February 24 to the news that Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we spoke of little else: with our family and friends; with our colleagues and on social media.
For most of us, those conversations helped us to better understand what was happening and to make some sense of our emotions around it. For the world’s most high-profile athletes, however, those same interactions took place on social media, reached millions and soon hardened into action. It was they who led some of the first sanctions to exile Russia from the rest of the world. It was their example that promoted unity and peace over division and conflict.
In 2022 the words of Nelson Mandela, the founding patron of Laureus, from the start of this century, remain true: sport has the power to change the world. Mandela saw sport as a way to win hearts and to change minds. In the early 1990s, when the idea of a black president standing next to a white Springboks captain with one hand each on rugby’s Webb Ellis Cup seemed an impossible dream, this is how Mandela argued for the use of the sport as an engine for change in the new South Africa:

“Up to now, rugby has been the application of apartheid in the sports field. But now things are changing. We must use sport for the purpose of … promoting the ideas which will lead to peace and stability.”

Nelson Mandela
Sport has even greater potential now, and Mandela could not have imagined the changes in global communication that enabled today’s athletes to lead the international effort to achieve peace in Ukraine.
The world champion Max Verstappen, and fellow Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel issued public and passionate refusals to race in the scheduled Russian Grand Prix. Formula 1 listened and responded: the race in Sochi, scheduled for September, was taken off the calendar.
The captain of Poland’s national football team, Robert Lewandowski, was an immediate and visible champion of the players’ decision to refuse to play Russia in a forthcoming World Cup play-off. “We can’t pretend that nothing is happening,” said the Bayern Munich striker. It was the first move in a chain reaction that saw Russia exiled from international football.
The day of the invasion was also Daniil Medvedev’s first day as the new World No.1 in men’s tennis. The Russian said: “As a tennis player, I want to promote peace all over the world.” His compatriot, Andrey Rublev, won his semi-final at the Dubai Tennis Championships and was handed a pen to sign his name on the lens of the television camera in front of him. Instead, Rublev wrote: No war please.
The closer the story got to Ukraine itself, the starker the message, the higher the stakes and the more urgent the need for action. We saw Oleksandr Zinchenko of Manchester City and Roman Yaremchuk of Benfica break down in response to the vocal support of football fans in England and Portugal. In London, Ukraine’s footballing legend Andriy Shevchenko attended an anti-war protest and wrote: “We only want peace. War is not the answer.Oksana Masters, the Ukrainian-born American Paralympian (and 2020 Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability), said: “I still have dreams that can only come true in Ukraine. I pray for peace and safety for all Ukrainians. For the safety of my friends and family. Forever and always I will stand with Ukraine.”

I still have dreams that can only come true in Ukraine. I pray for peace and safety for all Ukrainians. For the safety of my friends and family. Forever and always I will stand with Ukraine.

Oksana Masters, 2020 Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability 
And on the streets of Ukraine itself stood two sporting titans of that nation and long-standing friends of Laureus: the brothers Klitschko, Vitali (now the Mayor of Kyiv) and Vladimir, both former heavyweight champion of the world, armed and prepared to fight for their country and its future, but calling for peace, even as the tanks rolled toward them.
That is the message that runs through the words of all these athletes today and it is the message sport has carried for as long as it has captivated our gaze. It was there when Nelson Mandela handed that trophy to Francois Pienaar in 1995; it was there when Muhammad Ali refused to step forward when drafted to fight in the Vietnam War in 1966, and it was there when soldiers ceased fighting on Christmas Day, 1914, and played football on No Man’s Land.
Sport has the power to change the world. Sport unites. Sport is for peace.


Want to stay up to date with all things Laureus?

Email Sign up

Email Sign-up

Sign up for all things Laureus

Get regular updates throughout the year