Wimbledon bans Russian tennis players, prompting accusations of unfairness

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Is it fair to punish Russian athletes for their president’s invasion of Ukraine?

This is the moral dilemma that Wimbledon, the most prestigious individual sporting event on the planet, has wrestled with. And ultimately, tournament authorities decided they had no choice but to ban competitors from Russia and its ally, Belarus.

Why we wrote this

Should athletes carry the can for their political leaders? Wimbledon banned Russian tennis players in reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. Many of their peers say it’s unfair.

The sports world is divided, with compelling arguments on both sides. Opponents of the ban point out that Russian players – including world number 2 Daniil Medvedev – would have competed as “neutrals” anyway. And Russian President Vladimir Putin did not consult any tennis player before invading Ukraine. Besides that, where do you draw the line when it comes to government behavior?

In the end, Wimbledon decided to preempt the possibility that a Russian player could win the tournament, handing Mr Putin a Grand Slam-sized propaganda victory. But they have also avoided pitting Ukrainian players against Russian opponents, even as their own families may cower under Russian bombardment.

After all, it’s a matter of perspective: place the opportunity denied to excluded players against the life-or-death fate faced by millions of Ukrainians. They don’t compare.

London

It is the most prestigious individual sports competition on the planet. Yet the event now finds itself in the eye of a political hurricane – because of its decision to exclude Russian players.

The blowback surrounding the Wimbledon tennis championship next month is part of a wider controversy surrounding global efforts to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine.

At the root is a moral dilemma: whether it is right to punish individual Russians – sports stars, cultural figures or other influential expatriates – for their president’s act of aggression, and the terror that his forces are unleashed on the Ukrainian civilian population.

Why we wrote this

Should athletes carry the can for their political leaders? Wimbledon banned Russian tennis players in reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. Many of their peers say it’s unfair.

Since the invasion, this question has been greatly refined. Sports and cultural sanctions have targeted groups rather than individuals – Russia’s national sports teams and its troupes and cultural organizations, for example.

But the decision by Wimbledon, the oldest and most famous of tennis’s four Grand Slam tournaments, was a game-changer, especially with this week’s pushback from sports tour organizers the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association.

They announced that they were stripping Wimbledon of its tour ranking points, reducing it to an exhibition event.

There are compelling arguments on both sides. And if only because my own instinct, all things considered, is to go along with Wimbledon’s decision, I’ll start with why it provoked such anger from player reps.

Their main argument is that tennis is an individual sport and that Wimbledon discriminates unfairly. He is denying Russian players – including world number 2 Daniil Medvedev – a chance to compete simply because of the passports they hold.

Neither he nor other players being excluded – including stars from Belarus, Mr Putin’s autocratic ally and neighbor – represent any particular country. The touring organizations themselves had already responded to the Ukraine invasion by asking them to play as “neutrals”.

Other individual competitors raised other objections.

This war is Vladimir Putin’s war, they claim. He did not consult any Russian tennis player before invading Ukraine.

They also worry about precedent. Yes, the war in Ukraine is a particularly vivid example of a country launching a brutal attack aimed at erasing the independent existence of a neighboring state. But a host of other countries face allegations of serious human rights abuses. Where do you draw the line?

Power points, all. And Wimbledon was aware of this when it started thinking about whether and how to exclude Russian players.

This was uncharted territory for tournament organizers. They would normally have focused on keeping the club’s grass pitches in perfect condition, preparing for hundreds of thousands of spectators and stocking up on strawberries and cream from Wimbledon.

But they came to believe that inaction was not a viable option. This may in part be due to Britain’s leading role in the West’s backlash against Mr Putin, although senior Wimbledon brass stressed the government had merely offered ‘advice’.

Equally important was the depth of popular anger, in Britain and elsewhere, at the invasion.

Wimbledon ended up weighing a range of options. Russians and Belarusians would have been allowed to compete, but only if they had given private assurances that they did not support the war. This has been shelved amid fears that players and their families could face repercussions back home.

Ultimately, one of the main reasons for the ban, organizers said, was to avoid the possibility that a Russian or Belarusian could win the championship. It would have given him the lead role in an international televised presentation ceremony on Wimbledon’s iconic Center Court – a Grand Slam-sized propaganda victory for Mr Putin.

But another consideration seems to have been to avoid forcing Ukrainian players to play against Russian opponents, even if their own families might cower under Russian bombardment.

And that’s what, in large part, makes me lean towards what Wimbledon did.

It’s a matter of perspective: place the opportunity denied to excluded players against the life-and-death fate faced by millions of Ukrainians. They don’t compare.

There is another reason, which I admit may be unfair to Russian and Belarusian players, as only they can fully assess the implications for themselves and their families of how they react to the war.

That’s it: they are well-known personalities among us. In a conflict like this, so obviously the result of Mr. Putin’s attempt to crush a militarily weaker neighbor, their voices matter. A Russian player, world number 8 Andrey Rublev, scrawled the words “No war please” on a television lens in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, days after the invasion. None, however, explicitly criticized the Russian attack or Mr. Putin. Most remained silent.

But some Russians are speaking out, despite the potential cost. Just this week, Boris Bondarev, a career diplomat with the Russian UN mission in Geneva, publicly resigned from his post.

“The war of aggression unleashed by Putin against Ukraine is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people,” he wrote in an open letter of protest, “but also, perhaps, the most more serious against the Russian people”.

It served as a reminder that in addition to the terrible ordeal facing millions in Ukraine, the Russian people are also paying a price – far deeper than their tennis stars being denied a chance to shine at Wimbledon. .

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