IS BANNING RUSSIAN PLAYERS REALLY THE ANSWER?


Photograph: Getty Images

Wimbledon officials have reportedly confirmed that the All England Club has banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing in the 2022 edition of the prestigious tournament due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Belarus’ support of the Russian-led war.

As first reported by The New York Times, the All England Club is set to become the first tennis tournament to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competition.

To date, athletes from the provoking countries have been permitted to play on the ATP or WTA tour as neutral athletes (in that the player is not associated with their homeland) and have not otherwise suffered (other than perhaps internalised guilt) for their countries military aggression.

However, Wimbledon organisers have (along with the British Government) taken matters into their own hands.

While this ban will not bar these players from competing on the tour more generally; it is believed it will apply to all events on British soil this season, including the annual tournaments at Queens Club and Eastbourne.

Those now unable to compete in the event include Russians Daniil Medvedev (world number 2, who is currently recovering from a hernia), Andrey Rublev (8), and Aslan Karatsev (33), as well as Belarusian's Aryna Sabalenka (6) and Victoria Azarenka (18).

Unexpectedly, the reaction to the move has been diverse.

While some applaud the move to punish the Russian and Belarusian players for the actions of their respective governments. Others question whether banning a few tennis players from playing one event will accomplish anything.

Both can be correct.

On one hand, it is hard not to feel for the suffering players. They are mere citizens, not members of their government. They have no control over the decisions of the Kremlin or the Lukashenko-led Belarusian government. Similarly, if global economic and banking sanctions cannot bring about a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, it is impossible to imagine that preventing, say, Daniil Medvedev from triumphing at Wimbledon will achieve a different outcome.

Moreover, players such as Andrey Rublev, who has been outspoken in his disapproval of the war could barely have done more to share his anti-war sentiment.

Equally, society and the tennis world ought not to punish those who elect not to speak out against the war. As a Russian, to speak out against Putin, a violent and tyrannical dictator, is not without risk. Especially if your family remains in Russia.

This sentiment was shared by both the All England Club and the UK Government who, according to The Times, felt that a blanket ban was more appropriate than the previously reported requirement of having players sign a private anti-Putin declaration, due to the risks an effective denunciation could potentially bring to the players’ family members given Russia’s human rights record.

Another consideration that has been repeated online – seemingly by loyal fans of the banned players – is whether this is merely a selective display of virtue signalling from Wimbledon officials. For instance, why hasn’t Wimbledon punished other players for other governmental failures in recent years?

While this is an interesting point, such logic is irrelevant. Prior inaction ought not to demand future inaction.

On the other hand, these are extraordinary times; and we have precedent.

This is the first time Wimbledon has banned certain players from competing since enforcing a similar ban against German and Japanese players in World War II.

While banned players are indeed entitled to feel like they have been unfairly targeted, tennis is the least of the world’s concerns right now. If this is the price that must be paid as part of the global anti-war effort, then it is hard to argue it is not necessary.

This writer, for one, certainly won’t try telling recently retired Ukrainian tennis players now fighting on the front line against Russian forces Sergiy Stakhovsky and Alex Dolgopolov, that Russian players should be allowed to compete at Wimbledon.

Moreover, given the alternative involved a private yet public denunciation of the Putin regime – in that the world knew players could not compete without such a denunciation – there is a distinct possibility that this alternative, while extreme, is in everyone’s best interests.

Naturally, some people will decide that the integrity of the tournament is now in question and that the tournament winner will have an asterisk next to their name as they won in an incomplete field. This argument is both boring and circular. I wonder, will this year’s French Open winner have an asterisk because Barty should’ve been there?

It is also worth observing that this is but one tournament. Other sports have been far more heavy-handed with Russian and Belarusian competitors.

To illustrate, in similar acts of principle, Russian football, basketball, cycling, and ice hockey teams have effectively been suspended from all international competitions.

Such a ban isn’t the end of the world. However, without them, it could mean the end of Ukraine.