It is time for the IOC to apply its self-titled “quiet diplomacy” to the Brittney Griner situation and to actively involve itself in ending Russia’s mistreatment of Brittney Griner for political purposes. Brittney Griner has been unfairly sentenced to 9 years in prison following a show trial in Russia, and she is currently on her way to a penal colony. At the moment, her family and her friends do not know where she is and have no way to communicate with her. There is no question that as a high-profile American athlete, she is a political pawn, and the United States needs to do everything within its power to bring her home. What has happened to Brittney Griner is a possibility for all Americans; not just professional athletes. Recall Paul Whelan, an American also being detained in Russia.
Brittney Griner was arrested on February 17, 2022, when she was stopped at an airport in Russia with a THC vape pen that she had accidentally brought with her. She was on her way to rejoin her professional basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg that she had played on for since 2014. This is a ritual that most women’s professional basketball players follow at the end of the WNBA season due to the salary disparities between the WNBA and NBA. In order to bridge the salary disparities in the United States, top women’s basketball players routinely sign contracts to play in countries such as Russia, China and Turkey.
There is no question that the United States government has been working hard to secure Brittney Griner’s release, and the administration has been vocal in condemning Brittney’s wrongful detention. But Brittney Griner is not just an American; she is also a member of the Olympic family as a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Where is the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in all of this? The IOC historically has a close relationship with Russia, and could and should be involved in the efforts to return her to her family and her country. Its silence has been deafening.
It was just over one year ago that China’s Peng Shuai disappeared after a social media post accusing former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into having sex. The Women’s Tennis Association – much like the WNBA in Brittney Griner’s case – was vocal and outspoken in support of Peng Shuai and its condemnation of her disappearance. The IOC – in advance of the impending 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing – made a big show of its diplomatic efforts in support of Peng Shuai – this is evident from its official statement, where it congratulated itself for its diplomatic efforts:
“There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety. We have taken a very human and person-centred approach to her situation. Since she is a three-time Olympian, the IOC is addressing these concerns directly with Chinese sports organisations. We are using “quiet diplomacy” which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.”
There is a long and tragic history of Olympic sport being used for political purposes – the most catastrophic example being the massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games. The Olympic Charter provides that one of the IOC’s responsibilities is “to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes.” It appears that the IOC has done nothing about the Brittney Griner situation – certainly nothing publicly. That must change. It is well past time for the IOC to actively involve itself in ending Russia’s mistreatment of Brittney Griner for political purposes and assist in bringing her home, whether through “quiet diplomacy” or some other means.