On Wednesday, the All England Lawn Tennis Club – best known as the venue for the Wimbleton Championships – took the decision to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at the grass court grand slam event due to the countries’ role in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The controversial decision, which marked first time players have been barred from competing on grounds of their nationality since German and Japanese players were excluded in the aftermath of World War II, meant that men’s world No 2 Daniil Medvedev and No 8 Andrey Rublev from Russia, as well as women’s fourth-ranked Aryna Sabalenka and world No 18 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus will be among those banned from the tournament.
In a statement released Wednesday, the AELTC revealed that the decision was made in an effort 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,” Wimbleton said in the statement.
The AELTC’s decision to ban athletes based purely on their nationality sets a troubling precedent that penalizes individual athletes for decisions made by their governments. It is a form of discrimination that serves little purpose other than to fuel the Kremlin’s victim complex and strengthen Russian propaganda narrative of Western Russophobia.
The ban was also met with strong disapproval by the men’s and women’s tour, as well as some of the sport’s leading athletes and former champions. The Women’s Tennis Association said that the ban was “neither fair nor justified,” while the Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs the men’s tennis tour, noted that discrimination based on nationality “constitutes a violation of our agreement with Wimbleton that states that player entry is based solely on ATP Rankings”.
World No 1 Novak Djokovic, who was raised in war-torn Serbia, called Wimbleton’s decision “crazy”, adding that athletes should not be held responsible for the ongoing conflict.
“I will always condemn war; I will never support war being myself a child of war,” Djokovic said at the Serbia Open on Wednesday.
Martina Navratilova, one of the sport’s most renowned and successful champions, denounced the ban in an interview for LBC Radio, stating that she was “almost in tears” at the decision.
“Russian players and Belarusian players, some have even expressed their opposition to the war,” Navratilova, who gave up her Czech nationality amidst the Cold War conflict in 1975 in exchange for US citizenship, said: “I understand the banning of teams, of course, but on an individual level, I just think it’s wrong.”
Navratilova’s distinction between individual and team sports is worth elaborating upon. While team sports such as football are usually state-funded and utilized for soft power and state prestige – much like the Russian national team during the 2018 World Cup – the same methodology does not necessarily apply to athletes competing in individual sports such as tennis. Unless athletes have openly expressed their support for Russia’s ongoing war efforts in Ukraine, or have previously been associated with Russian president Vladimir Putin or other warmongers, it is incorrect to assume, as AELTC has, that their involvement in Wimbleton will be used to promote the Russian regime.
Among those who are banned from competing at Wimbleton is Russian tennis star Andrey Rublev, who wrote “no war please“ on a camera following a victory at the Dubai Tennis Championships just days after Russia launched its war on Ukraine. He followed up at the press conference by stating: “It’s not about my match, how it affects me. What’s happening is much more terrible.” Yet despite his courageous stance at his own personal expense, Wimbleton has decided to bar him from competing at its event.
Azarenka, a former world No 1, has also been banned from competing at Wimbleton despite not having lived in Belarus since she was 15. The two-time grand slam winner and gold medalist at the 2012 Olympic Games in London also released a statement on Twitter condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, aided by her native Belarus.
While several Ukrainian players welcomed Wimbleton’s ban, others such as Elina Svitolina argued that if some Russian and Belarusian players didn’t choose or vote for the governments responsible for the war, “then it’s fair they should be allowed to play and compete.”
Wimbleton’s controversial ban also raises questions about whether such restrictive action will be applied equally to various conflicts around the world. Will tournaments ban Saudi Arabian athletes and block events in the United Arab Emirates for their respective roles in the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen? Will Israeli athletes be subjected to bans for the treatment of Palestinians, which Human Rights Watch labeled as “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution?” Will Chinese athletes be held accountable for the Chinese Communist Party’s crimes against humanity and systemic targeting of Uyghur Muslims?
Unless athletes have shown support for any of the aforementioned crimes or the governments portraying them, it would be unfair to blame them for matters outside of their control.
Wimbleton noted in its statement the possibility of revising its position “if circumstances change materially between now and June.” However, that would require a shift in policy from the British government or an end to the conflict—outcomes that are highly unlikely to occur in the allotted timeframe.
There is also a case to be made that the decision to ban athletes from competing at international events will do little to prevent Putin from furthering his brutal war effort in Ukraine. Putin’s attack on Ukraine is rooted in imperialism, expansionism, and a determination to ensure Russia’s unimpeded status as a global superpower. This is evident from his prior war efforts in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria. Therefore the suggestion that barring Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in international tournaments will pressure the despotic Russian leader from continuing his war is as misguided as it is laughable.
While it is imperative to limit the scope of Russia’s influence and its ability to fund its war and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine through targeted sanctions and by providing Ukraine with economic aid and support, a blanket ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes does not achieve the stated goal and instead fuel anti-Russian fervor and further divides an already polarized sports world.