Wimbledon Ban On Russian And Belarusian Players Serves Points About Sports And Politics

By Arthur L. Caplan & Lee H. Igel

Players from Russia and Belarus will not be welcome at Wimbledon this year. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, home to the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, has announced that it will “decline entries” from individuals from both countries due to their governments ’roles in the invasion of Ukraine. Does banning individual players or entire teams from athletic competition serve the purpose of punishing governments engaged in military aggression?

The Wimbledon ban covers all players under the Russian and Belarusian flags, including those who have denounced the military action. That means some of the best players will not be allowed to compete.

Wimbledon’s seeding formula considers the rankings of the top 32 players in the world. Were the ban not in place, Daniil Medvedev, a Russian currently ranked second on the men’s tour and in close reach of the top spot, would certainly make it into the draw. Andrey Rublev, his fellow countryman who is the men’s No. 8, would be in the mix, too. The women’s draw would see six of its top 32, including No. 4-ranked Aryna Sabalenka and No. 18-ranked Victoria Azarenka, both of Belarus.

Many players and officials from across the men’s and women’s tours are blasting the ban. Novak Djokovic and Martina Navratilova, two of the sport’s all-time greats, are among them.

Djokovic, the 20-time Grand Slam champion and currently top-ranked men’s player in the world, is calling the decision “crazy.” His perspective references a personal experience during childhood in Serbiawhen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces ran a weeks-long bombing campaign in an effort aimed at stopping widespread ethnic cleansing by ethnic Albanian Muslims in Kosovo.

Navratilova, a nine-time Wimbledon champion, says she is “devastated” by the decision and that “as much as I feel for the Ukrainian players and Ukrainian people,” excluding players is “unfair” and “not helpful.” She, too, speaks from personal experience of political issues crossing into sports. During her rise to sports stardom in the late 1970s, Navratilova sought political asylum in the United States after defecting from communist Czechoslovakia.

For its part, the All England Club is taking the position that it recognizes banned players are caught in the middle of decisions affected by leaders of sports organizations and government institutions. But it feels the need to make a clear point about playing a role in limiting “Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.” Things could change course if the situation on the ground in Ukraine changes between now and the start of the tournament on June 27. But, sadly, that appears to be unlikely.

The Wimbledon ban follows decisions in other sports to not play with Russia because of its military aims. UEFA moved its men’s Champions League final match — the biggest annual event in club football — from St. Petersburg to Paris. FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, suspended Russia’s national teams from international competition, which means the men’s squad was nixed from even qualifying from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the women from the 2022 Euro championships. The International Paralympic Committee banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from this year’s Winter Paralympics in Beijing. The The Boston Athletic Association banned runners who live in Russia and Belarus from participating in this year’s Boston Marathonthe world’s oldest annual marathon.

Is it unfair to ban athletes based on nationality because of decisions made by their government leaders? Does a policy of this sort set a precedent for the future of sport? Will a ban make a real difference in resolving a humanitarian crisis or ending war crimes?

Athletes, whether they support or oppose warfare by the governments of their countries, have little to do with the decisions. However, holding them directly accountable isn’t the point. The objective is to use the power of sport to put political, social, and economic pressure on government leaders and advisors to bring a halt to atrocious behavior.

A ban like the one instituted for Wimbledon effectively punishes individual players from Russia and Belarus by not letting them compete, even if they publicly oppose war or say nothing because of their personal safety and that of their families could be compromised if they do. It holds even though they would not be competing on behalf of their home countries, as they would in an Olympics or Davis Cup. The ban also takes a toll on the overall competition and the pocketbook of the sport.

It is also true that bans, like boycotts, are highly selective. There are plenty of Russian fighters participating in the UFC and other professional mixed martial arts leagues. There are more than 40 Russian hockey players taking to the ice in NHL games. And there are Russian boxers competing for titles in the WBA and WBC. No one seems to be excluding them from competing.

But bans, exclusions, and boycotts prevent governments from using sports to flex their national muscles on the international stage. Participating in and dominating international sports competitions has been used as a propaganda tool by nations because of the value that sport holds socially and politically, internally and externally. Sport was a key tenet of both national pride and statecraft for the Soviet Union before it collapsed and dissolved into Russia and 14 other separate nations in 1991. It has remained so during Vladimir Putin’s reign over Russia during the past 20-plus years.

For all continents of dictators and states with human rights violations in modern times, sports are deeply embedded in politics and protest. Exclusions, such as the Wimbledon player in or boycotts of trade with Russia, can and do punish the innocent. But they do so in defense of isolating actions by states and governments that many find reprehensible.

Athletes know that they face risks in competing, from illness and injury to terrorism and boycotts. Governments seem to care deeply about being made public pariahs. As is often the case in ethics, every stance has a cost. But given the horrors on the ground in Ukraine, it is hard to argue that the All England Club’s decision about Wimbledon is wrong.

Right now, the military aggression in Ukraine has seen Russia and Belarus being seen as pariahs by many, but not all, of the sport superpower nations. There is enough pressure among them to have Russian and Belarusian athletes banned from competition — more to take a moral stance than to expect a practical change around what is happening in Ukraine.

.

Leave a Comment