John Riordan: Sports diplomacy greases the wheels to set Griner free 

America woke up Thursday morning to a highly choreographed feel good story which was a delicate mix of celebrity advocacy and the less famous US Marine left behind.
John Riordan: Sports diplomacy greases the wheels to set Griner free 

RELEASED: WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner speaks with her lawyers Alexander Boykov, right, and Maria Blagovolina at a court room prior to a hearing in the Khimki district court, just outside Moscow. (AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov, File)

International sports diplomacy clawed back a little of its World Cup-tarnished name when the US government announced the release of two-time Olympic Gold winning basketball star Brittney Griner in a historic prisoner swap with Russia.

America woke up on Thursday morning to a highly choreographed, feelgood story which was a delicate mix of celebrity advocacy and the less famous US Marine left behind.

The family of Paul Whelan was informed by the White House on Wednesday afternoon ahead of the public rollout of what is mostly a story of relief and celebration.

Whelan, a former Marine who later worked as a corporate security executive, was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and has spent 440 days in prison having been convicted in June 2020 on espionage charges that are said to be manufactured, according to his home government.

Russia regard Whelan as different to Griner because of those accusations of spying. The arms dealer seized back by Russia, Viktor Bout, was serving 25 years for deeds that infinitely outweigh the lightest of charges levelled at the basketball star, whose race and sexuality rendered her extremely vulnerable.

Griner was arrested in February at a Moscow airport for possession of a vape pen and hash oil, just as the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine was looming.

The lobbying effort aimed at the Biden administration began in earnest after the true horror of her predicament began to crystallise.

In May, the state department declared Griner a wrongful detainee and she then put pen to paper in July, sending correspondence to president Joe Biden in which she confessed to being “terrified”.

Later that month, the US offered to trade Bout for Griner and Whelan but just days later, Griner was found guilty.

I have been compelled to write about Griner twice in these pages and not without some pushback from friends who like to play devil’s advocate.

She had taken a stupid risk, they argued, carrying illegal contraband through an infamously hostile territory. She was an easy and obvious target so why be so careless? She didn’t deserve the subsequent nine years of servitude at a remote Stalin-era prison camp but why should a busy Biden administration debase themselves in lopsided negotiations with the Kremlin?

The weight of support has been heavier than the obvious flaws in the fight. Griner may have generational sports talent on her side but she is weighed down with the sort of marginalisation someone like me could never fathom. Black, queer, and female in America and then in Russia.

As part of his address to the nation from the White House, Biden preferred to view her in a different way, referring to her as “representing the best about America, right across the board, everything about her”.

It’s probably because he got to know her character and her people over the course of a painful process. In that July letter, she didn’t ask him for special treatment but begged him not to forget about her and her fellow prisoner, Whelan.

This was intentional, of course. As bleak as her outlook had been up until private negotiations ended happily Wednesday, Whelan’s prospects were always bleaker.

Her wife, Cherelle Griner, led an incredible advocacy campaign that had some of the biggest names of sport signed up to it.

When the relieved Cherelle stepped to the podium at the White House after Biden, she made sure to highlight the fact that her boundless energy will now focus on the man left behind.

“Over the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life,” Cherelle told gathered media. “Today my family is whole, but as you are all aware, there are so many families who are not whole.” Cherelle added that she and Brittney will remain committed to “getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today”.

The backlash will of course be obvious too, given the lopsided nature of the central characters who crossed paths in this deal. One was a WNBA icon, the other was nicknamed The Merchant of Death.

And naturally there are propaganda upsides for the two world leaders who get to show their people what they have achieved. Again this is lopsided; whereas one president likes to portray himself as the loveable Joe from Scranton, at least it’s an immeasurably more acceptable persona than the deranged warmonger imposing his will on Ukraine.

What had been sports diplomacy will quickly morph into carefully managed PR campaigns that will keep Griner engaged after she enjoys a well-earned rest during the festive period back home with family and friends. It was her freedom or nothing, that will be the tough message that everyone connected with the effort will need to line up behind, unfortunately.

David Whelan, Paul’s brother, described the news in a statement as “a disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul.”

But he added that “the Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms Griner home and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen”.

Viktor Bout had served 14 years in US prison and while it wasn’t ideal to grant Putin a win, there is a sense among US officials and experts that 14 is a chunk of time served and good riddance.

“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said.

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittany’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We are never giving up.”

Becky Hammon, the Las Vegas Aces head coach who previously worked in Russia, offered the insight that Griner’s infraction was magnified first and foremost due to her citizenship. The fact that her Russian basketball club wasn’t able to earn her freedom meant that it came from the top.

“She was somebody who was well known. Not only in the United States but throughout the world… [the drug possession] wasn’t a big deal for them. It was a political snatch of a top athlete being detained for political purposes. Some people are short-sighted when they say ‘oh well she did that’... so wait, you’re going to arrest her but meanwhile invade an entire country?”

The upshot of all of this is avoidance of an unimaginable trauma that would be all but life-ending for Griner.

And if it’s sports diplomacy that greased the wheels a little more efficiently, then so be it.

As we get ready to settle back into the incredible drama of the World Cup in Qatar today, it’s worth comparing and contrasting how that nation is using sports to further its diplomatic well-being. As transfixed as we all have been by the incredible drama between the lines, I’m grateful to advocates and right-minded journalists over there helping us to remember.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the Griners do next and how they use her sporting talent to help us remember their battle and the plight of Paul Whelan and so many others.


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