In news that is sending shock waves well beyond the world of tennis, Wimbledon has banned players from Russia and Belarus from its two-week tournament in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Banning Russians and Belarusians is the policy the All England Club, which hosts the tournament, settled on after its widely criticized and hyper-Orwellian original plan: a demand that players from those countries who want to play in the prestigious tournament denounce Putin and Russia and disregard any fear for their lives or the lives of their families back home.
Banning Russians and Belarusians is the policy Wimbledon settled on after its widely criticized and hyper-Orwellian original plan.
Wimbledon’s ban will swallow a swath of prominent competitors, including Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, the No. 2 ranked player in the world and the winner of last year’s U.S. Open, and Russia’s Andrei Rublev, the No. 8 ranked player in the world. On the women’s side, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, ranked 15th, would be barred.
ESPN reports that nine of the top 30 players in the world on the men’s or women’s circuit are from Russia or Belarus, including the No. 4-ranked woman Aryna Sabalenka and No. 18 Victoria Azarenka, both from Belarus.
The Wimbledon organizers justified their awful decision in a statement that reads in part: “Given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of Government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible. In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships. It is therefore our intention, with deep regret, to decline entries from Russian and Belarusian players to The Championships 2022.”
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Deep regret aside, this is horrible — even indefensible — politics and one hell of a slippery slope. It is one thing to ban a country from hosting events or keep out a team that would play under a particular flag at contests such as the Olympics or World Cup. In those instances, nations compete against each other. But banning individual players because of the actions of their governments is a path rife with hypocrisy and pitfalls.
No U.S. players were banned from Wimbledon or any other tournament when the United States was occupying multiple countries, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans as well as thousands of U.S. troops paying the cost of the invasion with their lives. Individual players from Israel are not prevented from competing because of the ongoing occupation and increasingly violent collective punishment aimed at the Palestinian people for the crime of being Palestinian.
Then there is China, with its human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslims, labor organizers and the people of Tibet. Their players, also, are in the clear. If you go down the list of imperial or even genocidal offenses throughout the world and ban players accordingly, some of our finest athletes would find themselves on the outside looking in, and it would make a mockery of the most central tenet of organized sports: the idea of seeing the best against the best for the greater purpose of seeing what heights are possible.
Keeping out players based on the actions of their countries would take away the agency of individual athletes to protest the injustices of their governments.
But diminishing the quality of the contests is not the only reason this ban is rancid. Keeping out players based on the actions of their countries also takes away the agency of individual athletes to protest the injustices of their governments. Should U.S. Olympic track stars Tommy Smith and John Carlos have been banned from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City because of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam? Of course not. If they had been, they would not have been able to defiantly raise their black-gloved fists in the air while standing on the medal platform. That they were from the United States, raising their grievances before a global audience on foreign soil, is precisely what has given their gesture an increasing power over time.
In this particular instance, Wimbledon is banning Rublev, one of the first prominent Russians from any sphere to speak out against the war. Rublev went viral at the start of Russia’s bloody offensive by writing an anti-war statement on the lens of a television camera with a marker after a tournament. A Rublev victory is hardly something that Putin will celebrate.
But banning Rublev is more than illogical. It’s cruel. Rubiev spoke out against the war in Ukraine at great personal risk. Putin wants Rublev silenced, and now Wimbledon is assisting in those efforts. Then there is the superstar Medvedev, who, albeit more tepidly than Rublev, has also called for peace. What if Medvedev would have found his voice at Wimbledon? Now we will never find out. Sports Illustrated’s L. Jon Wertheim summed up the absurdities of punishing individuals for the actions of their country when he wrote:
“Wimbledon has essentially said that individual athletes — who may no longer even be residing, much less voting, in their country of nationality — can be punished for acts of that country’s leader. And this is not banning a Russian soccer or biathlon team from competition, nor is it making athletes compete under a neutral flag. This is the banning of independent contractors, none of whom compete with funding from their countries of origin.”
None of this is to say that Wimbledon should stay out of politics. Issue statements; have moments of silence for the Ukrainian people; press Russian players about Putin’s crimes. But to keep them from playing sends a statement that all Russians are in lockstep with Putin and should be punished accordingly. That approach is positively Putin-esque and should offend those seeking avenues toward peace.