On April 20, Wimbledon became the first standalone tennis tournament to refuse entries to Russian and Belarusian players. Against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, the All-England Club, set to conduct the 2022 edition of the tournament from June 27 to July 10, stated that the move was to stymie the Russian government under Vladimir Putin from deriving “any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships”.
The move was not the first of its kind. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis in eastern Europe in early March, multiple sports governing bodies, including football’s FIFA, had initiated steps to remove Russian teams from their competitions. Even the International Tennis Federation had announced that Russia will no longer be part of its flagship team competitions, the Davis Cup – of which Russia is the defending champion – and the Billie Jean King Cup.
This is not how tennis works
But the decision from Wimbledon was unprecedented because of how international tennis is structured. It is the most individual of sports, in which players act as independent contractors, and whose worth is decided solely by the magic ranking number next to their names. The link between tennis and national identity has been tenuous at best.
Understandably, the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), who run the men’s and women’s tours respectively, saw it as a violation of the agreement they have with tournaments in which a player’s entry is based on ranking and not nationality. In fact, the foundational principle of the WTA in 1973, when the legendary Billie Jean King led the movement, was “equal opportunity”. Wimbledon was seen as going against that.
Merits of the debate aside, not since the end of apartheid in South Africa and the Cold War has the discussion on sporting sanctions acting as deterrents been this heightened. In fact, since the mid-1990s, there has been a consistent decline in the number of such calls for boycotts and bans. There were murmurs when Beijing played host to the Olympics in 2008, Sochi to the 2014 Winter Olympics and Russia to the 2018 football World Cup. Concerns have been raised about Qatar 2022 (football). But they haven’t snowballed into giant controversies.
The reason could be two-fold. In a globalised world, built on the idea of free movement of people and shared economic interests, sanctions can often turn counter-productive, prompting nations to tread cautiously. A case in point is European nations’ enormous dependence on Russian gas that is proving a hindrance in imposing far-reaching sanctions in the ongoing crisis over Ukraine. Even the U.S. went only so far as a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. It captured little to no public attention.
The other reason is probably the chequered history of sanctions and boycotts that were indeed imposed, including sporting ones, in making a tangible contribution towards political change. The jury is still out on what the U.S. and its allies’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics (over the Afghanistan invasion) and the erstwhile Soviet Union’s of the 1984 Los Angeles Games achieved.
Boycotts take work and logic
A lot needs to come together for boycotts to be successful. They need coordinated global action, a clear set of demands, domestic opposition and a situation where exclusion will diminish the country’s status. Only against apartheid-era South Africa did all of this properly materialise, with sanctions, including those in sports, hitting the ruling elite hard and bringing an end to the brutal regime after a decades-long struggle.
It is very tough to see any of this happening in the current Wimbledon scenario. The All-England Club, for now, is a lone wolf, and there is a good chance that ATP and WTA may make the ban ineffective by stripping the event of ranking points. While many nations use sporting success to further their standing in the world, tennis doesn’t attach itself to national identity like, say, track and field, which did ostracise Russian and Belarusian athletes in early March.
In fact, tennis didn’t suffer much even in apartheid-era South Africa, a point Martina Navratilova made while criticising Wimbledon’s stance. When India pulled out of the 1974 Davis Cup final in protest, South Africa was crowned the champion by default. Johan Kriek won the 1981 Australian Open men’s singles title and Kevin Curren reached the 1984 Australian Open singles final while still representing South Africa. In the period since then, both became U.S. citizens and continued to play.
Seen against this backdrop, Wimbledon’s decision seems purely symbolic, but one that can potentially set a dangerous precedent. Wimbledon’s rationale that the “unjustified and unprecedented military aggression” from Russia was the tipping point is a slippery slope. What constitutes unjustified aggression, and a threat to the rules-based international order, is subjective and in the present situation largely a Western construct.
This by no means is to downplay the tragedy and suffering that has befallen Ukraine and its people. The evidence is too stark. It is also nobody’s case that human rights issues shouldn’t be raised. But it is a bit of a stretch to say that the West and its allies are operating with clean hands. The need of the hour is consistency. As Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, a pioneering Arab tennis player, asked on Thursday on the sidelines of the Madrid Masters, “What about all the other countries where people and children have been dying every day?”
She added: “I’ve had some situations of my own… in the BJK Cup when we were supposed to play Israel. I… feel very sorry for the Palestinian people and I feel sorry for the children that are dying… So, I don’t understand how it’s now okay to mix politics and sports.”
This present era is unlike any other for sporting politics. While athlete activism, thanks to the proliferation of social media, is more than ever, sports bodies have systematically tried to clamp down on different forms of protest. But like in most professional set-ups, the imbalance in power between governments and hosts (read employers) and players (read employees) means messaging, when convenient, is allowed to the liking of the establishment.
So, in 2014 English cricketer Moeen Ali was asked to remove the “Save Gaza” wristbands by the International Cricket Council in a Test match against India because the message was political. But in 2022, the British Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston can demand that the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev publicly denounce their President in order to play at Wimbledon. The Russian duo’s initial message – a public one – was for peace, which unfortunately counted for little.
Acting under British pressure?
It may well be that Wimbledon did not want a fiasco like the one involving Novak Djokovic and Australian immigration authorities earlier this year amidst conflicting advice from the government. It might have also been under pressure to spare the nation of the optics of a Russian or Belarusian player holding aloft the trophy on what is considered the most hallowed of tennis courts.
But by putting itself front and centre, and seemingly doing the British government’s bidding, Wimbledon may have dug a trench that is too deep to climb out of.