Mazepin's new crusade shows just how misguided he is


Nikita Mazepin has announced a new foundation for athletes banned on political grounds – but Chris Medland says his plight shows how inseparable sport and politics are

Nikita Mazepin, Uralkali Haas F1 Team, during the Formula 1 Winter Tests at Circuit de Barcelona - Catalunya on February 24, 2022 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


“But there is something more important here. I ask the question: Is there no place at all for neutrality?”

Nikita Mazepin was fully deserving of a chance to state his opinion after losing his Haas drive, and to face the media at such a controversial time was actually an admirable move in many ways. But if there was an attempt to drum up sympathy for his plight, it failed. Badly.

“When Dmitry Mazepin is called to meet with Putin on the day of invasion, it’s clear Uralkali is far from neutral”

A pre-prepared statement that opened the press conference did acknowledge the war in Ukraine, although again Mazepin would not call it such. Instead calling it “the conflict”, he informed those who are not living in either country that they “see only part of it … For those of us in Russia and Ukraine see it on many more levels”.

I got on my high horse about the situation last week and I know I’m speaking from afar so I can’t tell Mazepin he is wrong for seeing it differently, but I can certainly pick up on his neutrality question. Because there absolutely is a place for neutrality, but he’s missing the point by more than he’s missed some apexes if he believes he could lay claim to it.

Mazepin has been bankrolled by his father’s companies, ones that hold close ties with Vladimir Putin. That enough is too close to be neutral, but when Dmitry Mazepin is called to meet with Putin on the day of the invasion, it is very clear that Uralkali and Mazepin are far from it.

Dmitry Mazepin meets Vladimir Putin in January 2022

Dmitry Mazepin met Vladimir Putin on the day of Russia’s invasion – putting Nikita’s claims over neutrality into doubt somewhat

Mikhail MetzelTASS via Getty Images

Am I saying they support what is happening in Ukraine? No, and all of the information I’ve had surrounding the situation suggests they are unable to denounce it even if they wanted to given the potential repercussions of doing so. But once again, that shows their money and company is not neutral, because of the influence of the state that is being sanctioned by the wider world.

And then Mazepin went on to really miss the point, even if there was an honourable attempt in there somewhere.

“Does an athlete have a right not to just an opinion, but to keep that opinion out of the public space – should an athlete be punished for that?” he asked. “And do we want the sports to become just another public square for protest and political debate?

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“We all know cases where one country refused to compete against another because of their political disagreements. We saw in 1980s a generation of athletes lost their dreams and the chance to compete when countries started boycotting one another – is this where we want sports to be? Or are sports a way to bring people together even at the toughest times, and especially at the toughest time?

“My experience in the last few days has greatly informed my thinking, so today I’m announcing the creation of a foundation that will be devoted to helping athletes who for political reasons out of their control lost their ability to compete at the highest level. It will be funded by Uralkali using the money that had been intended for F1 sponsorship this season.

“The foundation will allocate resources both financial and non-financial resources to those athletes who have spent their lives preparing only to find they were forbidden from competing and collectively punished just because of the passport they held. We will work to find jobs, as many athletes have been counting on sponsorships following their performances that did not happen.

“We will also provide legal aid. We will help them psychologically to cope with the sense of loss and emptiness that comes from being excluded. We all know the career of an athletes is short and it requires years of sacrifice to compete. When that reward is taken away it is devastating, and no one is thinking what happens next. I will be addressing this.

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 03: RPC Para Ice Hockey Coaches display Neutral Athlete on their clothing on during a Russian Paralympic Committee Para Ice Hockey training session at National Indoor Stadium on March 03, 2022 in Beijing, China. The International Paralympic Committee announced last night that the RPC and NPC Belarus will participate as neutrals under the Paralympic flag and will not be included in the medal table at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Mazepin cites the plight of Russia and Belarussian Paralympic athletes who were permitted to travel to Beijing but then barred from competing

Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

“Athletes unable to train due to upheaval will also be included in this. This will include athletes from all conflict zones and our door is open to everybody we will beginning with the paralympic team in Russia which was banned from Beijing having first been told they could travel. The name of the foundation will be ‘We Compete As One’.”

At a time when companies and charities are diverting significant sums – Ferrari donated €1million this week – to help Ukranians in need, Mazepin is calling the effect of sanctions on athletes “devastating”, and refers to a “sense of loss”. At the risk of repeating myself, Ukrainians dying trying to defend their country from invasion is devastating, and there are real civilian losses in that war, not just a “sense” of it.

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You might argue that’s whataboutism, and that athletes do deserve support where they have been unfairly hampered. And you’d be right, because many are truly neutral, or even outwardly condemning of the invasion, but for many of those there are paths available that allow them to compete.

That path might not exist for Mazepin because of his reliance on the Uralkali backing, rather than solely on his talent. To carry that backing promotes a regime that is being sanctioned, a regime that provided the resources that allowed him to reach the global stage from a motorsport perspective in the first place.

It’s not personal against Mazepin, it’s just the reality of the situation. He’s part of a package that an F1 team can’t be associated with, and that’s not the team’s fault.

He also tried to argue that there was nothing stopping him racing this year and that makes Haas’ decision unjust, but aside from the commercial reality, he also tied himself up in knots when discussing the FIA’s provision to allow drivers to compete as neutrals.

“I have consented through this ruling unconditionally when it was prepared by the WMSC, so the decision from Haas was not based either on any directive from the sport governing body or dictated by any sanctions that were placed against either me, or my father or his company, and of course I do not feel this is fair.”

“If he thinks the reason he’s lost his drive is solely down to the passport he holds, he’s very much mistaken”

Yet, Mazepin later admits that “unconditionally” did not mean “unconditionally” at all, because when it actually came to the conditions of accepting the FIA’s terms, he hadn’t been able to do so.

“However the night before my contract had been terminated there was an additional letter that had been made and by the time we were processing that letter and looking at options – because there were a lot of clauses in it – the next morning I received a termination in my contract. So there was no time to even say yes to it.”

I argued last week I felt a ban on drivers was justified, but the FIA chose a different route. If Mazepin could have signed the letter proving his neutrality, brought funding to the team that was not tied so closely to the instigator of the war, and was competitive enough, the avenues for him to continue in F1 do exist.

If he thinks the reason he’s lost his drive is solely down to the passport he holds, he’s very much mistaken.