Wimbledon, the most iconic tennis grand slam, considers its stance on the participation of Russian nationals.
Britain’s Sports Secretary Nigel Huddleston recently suggested that for any Russian to play at Wimbledon, “guarantees” may be needed about their stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:
Absolutely no one flying the flag of Russia should be allowed or enabled. We need some possible assurance that they are not supporters of Putin and we are considering what requirements we need to try and get some assurances in that direction.
The All England Lawn and Tennis Club is in talks with the Minister for Sport about the nature of any pledges and whether they will be applied to Wimbledon.
It now seems likely that Russian players, including the second-ranked male player, Daniil Medvedev and top women like Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, are expected to get rid of symbols and language that ties them to the Russian state, and commit to participating in Wimbledon as “neutrals”.
Medvedev has already taken a step in this direction by removing the Russian flag from his social media profiles. He also expressed a wish for world peace.
However, the general statement of hoping for peace is not the same as taking a position on a war in which one’s own country is the adversary. Medvedev himself takes a neutral stance on a war opposed by the British government.
Make no mistake: the Wimbledon tournament – hosted by a NATO country – is more than an exhibition of tennis. It is also a demonstration of what Britain sees as appropriate, which is probably not diplomacy and accommodation.
Huddleston seems only comfortable with Russian athletes who either oppose or do not support the war, and are thus willing to distance themselves from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In or out?
The global fear of Putin has been so deep that the sport itself has been forced to get behind its usual veil of “neutrality” in political affairs. As such, sports organizations around the world have taken positions on the participation of both Russian and Belarusian teams and athletes.
One response has been exclusion, with the expectation that isolating Russian teams from world sports is a necessary affront to the largest military invasion of Europe since World War II. That is the position of swimming, athletics and football.
However, some sports organizations, such as tennis and biathlon, allow Russian and Belarusian individuals to compete on the condition that they do so as “neutrals”. However, tennis organizations have suspended both Russian and Belarusian players from team competitions.
Even the steadfast International Olympic Committee, which has long refused to take positions on geopolitical matters, pleaded with sports organizations and event organizers not to “invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions” .
In addition, several countries refused to compete against Russian teams at the recent Paralympic Games in Beijing, with the result that organizers were pressured to exclude Russian athletes.
Spider or substance?
The All England Lawn and Tennis Club has the authority to determine the rules of entry to Wimbledon. It can diplomatically align with the ATP and WTA (the organizing bodies of the men’s and women’s tours), or it can ban Russians outright.
All this is controversial. Some critics have suggested that the human rights of Russian athletes are being denied because they are not responsible for the military activities in Ukraine.
However, some Russian sports stars – voluntarily or not – have expressed their views. Several have appeared publicly with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of support for the Russian attack on Ukraine.
Perhaps the most emphatically pro-Putin lawyer is Russian chess champion Sergey Karjakin, who took to Twitter to praise his country’s “special military operation”.
By contrast, some Russian sports stars have expressed disapproval of the war, a dangerous stance given that dissent is now considered a crime – with some 15,000 Russian people already arrested.
Countries opposed to Russia’s continued demolition of Ukraine have currently relied on economic sanctions as their primary deterrent. Unfortunately, these measures hurt and harm ordinary Russians.
Some critics argue that the West’s sanctions are hypocritical given US and allied military interventions in places like Iraq or Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
From that perspective, global sanctions should have been introduced against the United States or Israel, affecting the sport. The discussions about Ukraine therefore focused not only on Russian imperialism and Putin’s fascism, but also on the depravity of the Washington-led “rules-based order.”
Whether the All England Club bans Russian players or accepts them as neutral, it will have come to a decision in consultation with the British Sports Secretary, at a time when Britain is supplying arms to Ukraine.
None of this is constructive.
Russian tennis players, if they are allowed to play, will be heavily monitored both on and off the court. Would a victory for Medvedev be a victory for Putin? Would Medvedev’s absence contribute to the anti-war effort?
In the midst of all this are athletes who, like ordinary Russians, could become – perhaps unjustly – the target of sanctions.
But war is the epitome of dishonesty.
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