How Wimbledon made a mistake in tennis and politics

By banning some Russian and Belarusian players, he dug a trench that is too deep to get out of.

By banning some Russian and Belarusian players, he dug a trench that is too deep to get out of.

Wimbledon became the first stand-alone tennis tournament on April 20th refuse entry to Russian and Belarusian players. Against the backdrop of the Russo-Ukrainian war, the All-England Club, which was scheduled to hold the 2022 tournament from June 27 to July 10, said the move was to prevent the Russian government under Vladimir Putin from reaping “any benefits due to involvement of Russian or Belarusian players in The Championships ”.

The move was not the first of its kind. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis in Eastern Europe in early March, several sports bodies, including FIFA football, took steps to remove Russian teams from their competitions. It was even announced by the International Tennis Federation Russia will no longer be part of its leading team competitionsThe Davis Cup – whose Russia is the defending champion – and the Billie Jean King Cup.

Tennis doesn’t work like this

But the Wimbledon decision was unprecedented due to the structure of international tennis. It is the most individual sport in which players act as independent performers, and whose value is decided exclusively by the magic ranking number next to their names. The connection between tennis and national identity was weak at best.

Understandably, the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), which run men’s and women’s tours, saw it as a breach of agreement they have with tournaments in which player entry is based on rank, not nationality. In fact, the fundamental principle of the WTA in 1973, when the legendary Billie Jean King led the movement, was “equal opportunity”. Wimbledon was thought to be going against it.

Photo from Belarus Victoria Azarenka after defeat by Romanian Simone Halep during the Wimbledon match in 2019 | Photo: Reuters

The merits of the debate aside, not since the end of apartheid in South Africa and the Cold War, the debate on sporting sanctions that act as a deterrent has not been so intensified. In fact, there has been a steady decline in the number of such calls for boycotts and bans since the mid-1990s. There was a commotion when Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, Sochi the 2014 Winter Olympics and Russia the 2018 World Cup. Concerns were expressed about Qatar 2022 (football). But they did not grow into big controversies.

The reason could be twofold. In a globalized world, built on the idea of ​​free movement of people and common economic interests, sanctions can often be counterproductive, forcing nations to step cautiously. An example of this is the enormous dependence of European nations on Russian gas, as evidenced by the impediment to the imposition of far-reaching sanctions in the ongoing crisis over Ukraine. Even the United States has gone only as far as the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. It attracted little or no public attention.

The second reason is probably the checkered history of sanctions and boycotts that have indeed been introduced, including sports ones, making a tangible contribution to political change. The jury still does not know what the boycott of the United States and its allies by the 1980 Moscow Olympics (due to the invasion of Afghanistan) and the 1984 Los Angeles Games by the former Soviet Union has achieved.

Boycotts require work and logic

A lot has to come together for boycotts to be successful. They need coordinated global action, a clear set of demands, domestic opposition and a situation in which exclusion will diminish the country’s status. Only against apartheid-era South Africa did all this work out in the right way, with sanctions, including those in sports, that hit the ruling elite hard and brought to an end the brutal regime after a decade-long struggle.

It is very difficult to see any of this happening in the current Wimbledon scenario. The All-England Club is a lone wolf for now, and there is a good chance that the ATP and WTA may make the ban ineffective by depriving the event of points in the standings. While many nations use sporting successes to improve their position in the world, tennis is not tied to a national identity like, say, athletics, which persecuted Russian and Belarusian athletes in early March.

In fact, tennis did not suffer much even in apartheid-era South Africa, which Martina Navratilova pointed out while criticizing Wimbledon’s stance. When India withdrew from the Davis Cup final in 1974 in protest, South Africa was crowned champion by default. Johan Kriek won the Australian Open in the men’s singles competition in 1981, and Kevin Curren reached the final of the Australian Open in 1984 while still representing South Africa. In the period since then, they both became American citizens and continued to play.

Viewed in this context, Wimbledon’s decision seems purely symbolic, but one that can potentially set a dangerous precedent. Wimbledon’s explanation that “unjustified and unprecedented military aggression” from Russia was a turning point is slippery ground. What represents unjustified aggression and a threat to a rule-based international order is, subjectively, in the current situation, mostly a Western construct.

Selective action

This in no way diminishes the tragedy and suffering that has befallen Ukraine and its people. The evidence is too harsh. Also, no one thinks that human rights issues should not be raised. But it is a little tense to say that the West and its allies are acting clean. The need for a watch is consistency. As Tunisian Ons Jabeur, a pioneering Arab tennis player, asked on the sidelines of the Madrid Masters on Thursday: “What about all the other countries where people and children die every day?”

She added: “I had some situations of my own … in the BJK Cup when we were supposed to play against Israel. I… I feel very sorry for the Palestinian people and I feel sorry for the children who are dying… So I don’t understand how it is okay to mix politics and sports now. ”

This present age is unlike any other for sports politics. While the activism of athletes, thanks to the proliferation of social media, is more than ever, sports bodies are systematically trying to suppress various forms of protest. But, as in most professional settings, the power imbalance between governments and hosts (read employers) and players (read employees) means that sending messages, when appropriate, is allowed at the will of the establishment.

So in 2014, English cricketer Moeen Ali was asked to take off the “Save Gaza” bracelets by the International Cricket Council in a test match against India because the message was political. But in 2022, British Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston may demand that people like Daniil Medvedev and Andrei Rublev publicly denounce their president in order to play at Wimbledon. The first message of the Russian duo – public – was for peace, which unfortunately meant little.

Act under British pressure?

It is possible that Wimbledon did not want a fiasco like this one involving Novak Djokovic and the Australian immigration authorities earlier this year amid conflicting government councils. He could also be under pressure to spare the nation of opticians a Russian or Belarusian player holding the trophy on what is considered the holiest tennis courts.

But by putting himself at the center and seemingly carrying out an order from the British government, Wimbledon may have dug a trench too deep to climb out of.

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