There are two types of hard decisions. There are those where, after enough thought, you can arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. And there are those that, however many permutations you explore, you still end up in a bad place.
It’s in this second bucket that we find Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian tennis players from this year’s tournament.
The decision is unfair to individual Russians such as the world men’s number two Daniil Medvedev, who lives in Monaco and said last month that he wanted “peace in all the world”. Unlike Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, who missed the Australian Open because he chose not to be vaccinated, Medvedev and others will miss Wimbledon for an accident of birth. Their exclusion risks alienating even Putin-sceptic Russians.
But consider the alternative. Russian and Belarusian players may be drawn against Ukrainian opponents. They would be pressed to condemn Vladimir Putin in every press conference, yet may feel unable to do so. One or two might even sound pro-Putin, just as a Russian go-karting champion made an apparent Nazi salute after a race this month in Portugal (yet denied ever supporting Nazism). Either way, Russian players’ victories could be exploited by the Kremlin. After Medvedev won last year’s US Open, Putin issued congratulations, saying: “That is how real champions play!” To allow a repeat would be to ignore a lesson of apartheid South Africa: sporting isolation can work.
UK government guidance allows for a compromise: Russian players can compete in events if they privately pledge not to speak in favour of Putin. That wouldn’t satisfy Ukrainian tennis players, like Elina Svitolina, who argue that “silence is betrayal”. But it might be too much for some Russian players, who know the price of dissent. Wimbledon decided it was unworkable. Others, like the British Boxing Board of Control, have also opted for a sweeping ban.
I favour a different compromise. Russian and Belarusian players could compete at Wimbledon if they backed a declaration condemning the invasion. This would show respect to Ukrainian competitors. At least then the players would have a choice. But it would still be messy: some would not feel able to sign, and those who did could face reprisals. And even if Wimbledon’s stance is misguided, let’s keep the damage in perspective. Russian athletes may fear for their careers, but Ukrainian athletes fear for their families.
There’s irony in Wimbledon taking the moral high ground. In 1939 a German player, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, was not granted entry to the draw. The All England Lawn Tennis Club says he wasn’t put forward for entry. Others believe he was blackballed for his opposition to Hitler. In 1973 Yugoslavia’s Niki Pilic declined to represent his country in a Davis Cup tie in New Zealand. He wanted to play in a paid-for match instead. In response, he was banned from Wimbledon.
Even now there are questions. What about Chinese players who don’t condemn the Uyghur genocide? What about Alexander Zverev, the German star who faces domestic abuse allegations that he denies? But these don’t cast the shadow that the Ukraine war does. Just because sport can’t address all injustices does not mean it can’t address any injustice.
Since the war started, I have watched a film by a Russian director and read some Tolstoy. But sport is different. It is imbued with national competition, as Putin, a former football World Cup host, knows. Even in tennis, every player is associated with their nationality. The French Open’s venue, Roland Garros, was named after a fighter pilot killed in the first world war and held internees in 1939-40. The shunning of Russian athletes worldwide is a predictable result of Putin’s atrocities. If the rest of the world has no good options, the person responsible is him.
Letters in response to this article:
Clamour to ban Russian culture has eerie echoes / From Simon Shamash, Ramat Yitzhak, Israel
Wimbledon ban provides ammunition for Putin apologists / From Jeremy Gunawardena, Professor of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, US