Is Wimbledon right in banning Russian and Belarusian players?

In response to Russia’s unprovoked, brutal invasion of Ukraine, the All England Club (AELTC) announced that tennis players from Russia and Belarus were banned from Wimbledon, which starts June 27.

The All England Club (AELTC) announced on April 20 that tennis players from Russia and Belarus were banned from Wimbledon, which starts June 27.   -  Getty Images

“Sports and politics do mix. Behind the scenes, the two are as inextricably interwoven as any two issues can be. It’s unrealistic to say you shouldn’t bring politics into sports.”

— Arthur Ashe, who made South Africa’s apartheid policies an international issue and was finally granted a visa to visit that country in 1973.

“Just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

— Pericles

Politics, war, and sports have intersected in historic and contrasting ways since the ancient Greek Olympics when wars were suspended during an “Olympics Truce” so athletes and spectators could safely travel to the quadrennial sports festival. This pattern was reversed for the modern Olympic Games. Not surprisingly, the two World Wars forced the cancellation of the Olympics in 1916, 1940, and 1944. The Games continued unabated during the Cold War, though political protests took a new form — boycotts. The U.S. and 64 other nations boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And in a tit-for-tat, the USSR and 14 Eastern bloc countries boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games, citing security concerns and “chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States.”

READ: Wimbledon loses ranking points over Russia, Belarus ban

In response to Russia’s unprovoked, brutal invasion of Ukraine, the All England Club (AELTC) announced on April 20 that tennis players from Russia and Belarus were banned from Wimbledon, which starts June 27. In a statement, the AELTC said, “It would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships.”

Power play politics: The AELTC committee was reportedly aghast at the prospect of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, presenting the Wimbledon trophy to a Russian because the image of that symbolic moment of sporting respectability—called “sports washing”—would give President Vladimir Putin a propaganda victory   -  Getty Images

 

It wasn’t the first such tennis ban caused by war. Wimbledon barred German and Japanese players for five years following World War II. (Its ban was lifted after only two years against other former enemy nations, including Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Romania.)

Russia’s savage bombardment of Ukraine — especially its war crimes committed against civilians — must have evoked bitter memories of the 1940–41 London Blitz. Then German planes rained thousands of bombs on England, killing more than 40,000 civilians. Sixteen bombs also destroyed parts of the All England Club, including a corner of its famed Centre Court. Eighty-one years later, in an eerily reminiscent scene, Russian missiles reduced the beautiful Ukraine Tennis Center, just outside of Kyiv, to rubble.

“I believe the Wimbledon decision was the right one,” said John Barrett, a former British Davis Cupper, tennis correspondent for The Financial Times, 36-year BBC television Wimbledon broadcaster, and AELTC vice president. “It is a tragic problem that has no solution that will please everybody,” Barrett told me.

“The International Olympic Committee and the British government’s guidelines to sports bodies are not to allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian teams or players. The thought of the Putin regime benefiting from the publicity of any possible Russian success is impossible to accept.”

The AELTC committee was reportedly aghast at the prospect of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, presenting the Wimbledon trophy to a Russian because the image of that symbolic moment of sporting respectability — called “sports washing” — would give President Vladimir Putin a propaganda victory. That the Centre Court Centenary and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee — two celebratory events during the fortnight — might be spoiled by Russian political contretemps was likely another concern.

Sacrificial pawns: World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev (in picture) and No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year, stand the most to lose due to the ban.   -  REUTERS

Rarely has a tennis controversy so inflamed passions and divided ruling bodies, players, the media, and fans. Several of the sport’s leading organisations supported the AELTC’s Wimbledon ban and took parallel measures.

  • The International Tennis Federation (ITF) banned Russia and Belarus from team competitions, most importantly, the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup.
  • The ITF suspended the Russian Tennis Federation and Belarusian Tennis Federation from their membership.
  • The ITF issued a statement on Twitter announcing the suspension of Futures tournaments in Russia until further notice.
  • Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) announced that Russian and Belarusian players will not be allowed to compete at any of the grass-court tune-up events in the United Kingdom.
  • The tennis federations of Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and Norway issued a joint statement saying they support the move.

However, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which removed the national flags and national affiliations beside the names of Russian and Belarusian players in their rankings on their websites, continue to allow players from these two countries in their worldwide tournaments.

In recent statements, the ATP and WTA explained why they strongly oppose Wimbledon’s decision. “We believe that today’s unilateral decision by Wimbledon and the LTA to exclude players from Russia and Belarus from this year’s British grass-court swing is unfair and has the potential to set a damaging precedent for the game,” said the ATP statement. “Discrimination based on nationality also constitutes a violation of our agreement with Wimbledon that states that player entry is based solely on ATP Rankings.... It is important to stress that players from Russia and Belarus will continue to be allowed to compete at ATP events under a neutral flag.”

READ: Medvedev not going to court over Wimbledon ban on Russian players

The WTA said, “A fundamental principle of the WTA is that individual athletes may participate in professional tennis events based on merit and without any form of discrimination.... As the WTA has consistently stated, individual athletes should not be penalised or prevented from competing due to where they are from, or the decisions made by the governments of their countries.”

Are individual athletes responsible?

But are individual athletes, especially in an individual sport like tennis, responsible for their actions — or inaction — when the governments of their countries invade another sovereign nation without justification and commit war crimes? Should Wimbledon have held Russia and Belarus accountable and barred their players in the first place?

In a Washington Post column, Sally Jenkins supported Wimbledon. “The ban that will prevent Russians and Belarusians from competing at the All England Club may seem unfair, given that players such as Daniil Medvedev have not personally contributed to the war in Ukraine. Yet it’s a necessary message: Even the most innocent Russians will be price-payers for the rapacious actions of Vladimir Putin’s regime. Young Ukrainians are being bombed, shot, and orphaned, [yet] they have not participated in the war or done anything to deserve their penalty. Nevertheless, they are part of the conflict. Why should Russian tennis players get a bye?”

Citing legal precedent following World War II, Jenkins added an even more compelling argument. “Do citizens bear responsibility for the acts of a nation, even when they bear no moral blame? International courts often have decided they do when a state wages aggressive war. As [Princeton professor and author Anna] Stilz has pointed out, reparations are often levied on taxpayers — as Russians should know, because East German citizens in 1945 were forced to pay reparations to Soviets. War, unlike tennis, is not an individual enterprise. It’s a national one. Russia — not just Putin — is destroying Ukraine, so the response can’t be limited to Putin while exempting the citizenry.”

Point of contention: Russia's Andrey Rublev scribbled, “No war please” on a TV camera lens after a match in Dubai. While outraged at the ban he called “complete discrimination,” Rublev proposed another way Wimbledon could handle the controversy. “Give all the prize money to humanitarian help—to the families who are suffering, to the kids who are suffering.”   -  AFP

 

That judgement, no matter how valid, will undoubtedly seem harsh to tennis lovers, such as all-time great Martina Navratilova. As a teenager in 1985, Navratilova courageously defected from the former Czechoslovakia to pursue her tennis dream in the U.S. Perhaps because she suffered from Soviet oppression behind its notorious Iron Curtain, she empathises with Russians and Belarusians now. “Exclusion like this, through no fault of these players, is not the way to go … I think it’s the wrong decision,” Navratilova told The Sydney Morning Herald. “Tennis is such a democratic sport. It is difficult when you see politics destroy it. And as much as I feel for the Ukrainian players and the Ukrainian people — it’s just horrific what’s going on — I think this is just going further than needed.”

Most harmed by the Wimbledon ban are the 12 women and five men ranked in the top 100. World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year, stand the most to lose, but No. 8 Andrey Rublev, No. 15 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 2021 French Open finalist, and No. 17 Victoria Azarenka also rate as contenders along with young, improving No. 25 Veronika Kudermetova and No. 31 Liudmila Samsonova.

Explainer: The Wimbledon controversy?

To her credit, Pavlyuchenkova, a 30-year-old Russian, did what no other Russian or Belarusian has done in publicly protesting her country’s unjustified military aggression. “But I am not afraid to clearly state my position. I am against war and violence. Personal ambitions or political motives cannot justify violence,” tweeted Pavlyuchenkova two weeks after the Feb. 24 invasion. “I’m just an athlete who plays tennis, I am not a politician, not a public figure. I have no experience in this. I can only publicly disagree with the decisions taken and openly talk about it. Stop the violence, stop the war.” Her courage was admirable considering that hundreds of Russians have been arrested—and can be sentenced to 15 years in prison—for publicly mentioning Russia is even engaged in a “war” in Ukraine.

Ripple effect: Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who publicly protested her country’s unjustified military aggression, will also miss the grass-court Grand Slam.   -  AFP

 

Two other Russians made a token protest. Russian veteran Vera Zvonareva wrote “No war” on her visor. And Rublev scribbled, “No war please” on a TV camera lens after a match in Dubai. While outraged at the ban he called “complete discrimination,” Rublev proposed another way Wimbledon could handle the controversy. “Give all the prize money to humanitarian help — to the families who are suffering, to the kids who are suffering.”

Double standard

Others viewed the Wimbledon ban as a tennis double standard. Weren’t South African players allowed to compete there when that country sanctioned apartheid? And what about other amoral, horrific wars?

Nikola Pilic, a Croat who formerly coached world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, denounced the ban. “It’s just a shame," he told Kurir, a Serbian newspaper. “Did they do something similar when the Americans entered Iraq and killed over a million civilians there? Did they ban their tennis players from playing?” For good measure, he bashed “Russophobia” in Britain, adding: “It’s been like that for the last 150 years.”

On the other hand, Ukrainian players point out that Russian football and basketball teams were kicked out of the European competitions, such as the Champions League, Europa League, Euro League, and Eurocup. Some want the ATP and WTA to suspend Russians and Belarusians from tour events to show solidarity with the ITF, LTA, and Wimbledon.

Former player Olga Savchuk, who captained Ukraine’s team at the recent Billie Jean King Cup tie against the U.S., told TIME magazine, “My strong position is, if there are sanctions, there have to be sanctions on everyone. Russia has to be isolated. Look at our kids and our families. People are dying. Women and children. Russian tennis players at least have to feel uncomfortable.”

What Marta Kostyuk, the world No. 49 from Ukraine, wants would divide and polarise still more: a loyalty oath. Kostyuk proposed that the ATP, WTA, and ITF ask Russian or Belarusian players to answer a series of questions about their support for Putin or Alexander Lukashenko's regime in Belarus. In a statement, she wrote: “If applicable, we demand to exclude and ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in any international event, as Wimbledon [has] already done. There comes a time when silence is betrayal, and that time is now.”

Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim debunked that misguided proposal, rightly arguing, “Loyalty oaths are just a horrible, retrograde idea. The idea that we make an athlete condemn or support something/someone as a condition for competition is not just a flawed concept — what does sufficient repudiation even look like? — but a scary one. This is McCarthy-era trash. Especially when there can be reprisals for speaking out against Putin and the Kremlin.”

The last word in this raging controversy goes to Christopher Clayton, of Christleton, Cheshire, England. In an April 25th letter to The Guardian, he rightly wrote, “Criticism of Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players (Letters, 22 April) seems to me to embody the currently fashionable fallacy that people are entirely individuals and have negligible collective identity (‘There is no such thing [as society]. There are individual men and women and there are families,’ Margaret Thatcher, 1987).

Since this is demonstrably nonsense, for such players to compete would send a message to Russian viewers that their country has incurred only limited opprobrium for invading another sovereign state, killing tens of thousands of people and reducing cities such as Mariupol to uninhabitable ruins, and that those are less important than hitting a ball over a net.”

Two retired Ukraine tennis standouts are letting their guns do the talking now. To defend their beloved country against Russia, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Sergiy Stakhovsky enlisted in the military reserve. “Maybe I’ll be killed. Maybe I’ll have to kill,” said Dolgopolov.

“Tennis needs to learn from FIFA and many other sports, on taking a real position on barbaric actions of Russia. Maybe I’ll be killed. Maybe I have to kill. What can I say? This is war. This has gotten to a magnitude where Russia is really threatening world war and the death toll is very high — tens of thousands of people. Russian soldiers. The Ukrainian soldiers. Ukrainian civilians. They are getting murdered, thousands of them.”

Among the millions who sacrificed their lives serving their countries to defeat fascism were tennis stars in their primes, such as New Zealand’s Tony Wilding (World War I) and American Joe Hunt (World War II).

From this perspective, missing out on Wimbledon seems a small price to pay for those on the side of the criminal aggressors.

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