Wimbledon calls ‘fault’ on Russian tennis stars. Good move?

Alberto Pezzali/AP/File
A spectator holding a Russian flag watches Daniil Medvedev play a match at last year's Wimbledon. The All England Club has banned Russian players this year over the invasion of Ukraine, prompting the sport’s tour organizers to withhold ranking points from the tournament.
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Is it fair to punish Russian athletes for their president’s invasion of Ukraine?

That is the moral dilemma that Wimbledon, the most prestigious individual sports event on the planet, has been wrestling with. And eventually, the tournament authorities decided they had no choice but to bar competitors from Russia and its ally, Belarus.

Why We Wrote This

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

The sporting world is split, with compelling arguments on both sides. Opponents of the ban point out that the Russian players – including world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev – would have been competing as “neutrals” in any case. And Russian President Vladimir Putin did not consult any tennis players before invading Ukraine. On top of 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 might win the tournament, handing Mr. Putin a Grand Slam-sized propaganda victory. But they also avoided putting Ukrainian players up against opponents from Russia, even as their own families might be cowering under Russian bombardment.

After all, it’s a matter of perspective: Set the opportunity being denied the excluded players against the life-and-death plight that millions of Ukrainians face. They don’t compare.

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

The blowback enveloping next month’s Wimbledon Tennis Championship is part of a broader controversy surrounding worldwide efforts to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine.

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

Why We Wrote This

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

Since the invasion, that question has been largely finessed. Sporting and cultural sanctions have been aimed at groups rather than at individuals – Russia’s national sports teams, and its cultural troupes and organizations, for example.

But the move by Wimbledon, the oldest and most celebrated of tennis’s four Grand Slam tournaments, has changed that – especially with this week’s pushback by the sport’s tour organizers, the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association.

They announced 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, on balance, is to side with Wimbledon’s decision, I’ll begin with the reasons it has provoked such anger from the players’ representatives.

Their main point is that tennis is an individual sport and that Wimbledon is practicing unfair discrimination. It is denying Russian players – including world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev – a chance to compete merely 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 tour organizations themselves had already responded to the Ukraine invasion by requiring them to play as “neutrals.”

Other individual competitors have raised other objections.

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

They also worry about the precedent. Yes, the war in Ukraine is an especially stark 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 violations. Where do you draw the line?

Powerful points, all. And Wimbledon was aware of them when it began contemplating whether, and how, to exclude Russian players.

It was unfamiliar territory for tournament organizers. They would ordinarily have been focusing on ensuring the club’s grass courts were perfectly tended, preparing for hundreds of thousands of spectators and stocking up on Wimbledon’s trademark strawberries and cream.

But they came to believe inaction was not a viable option. This may have been partly because of Britain’s leading role in the West’s pushback against Mr. Putin, though Wimbledon’s top brass has stressed the government merely offered “guidance.”

Equally important was the depth of grassroots anger, in Britain and elsewhere, over the invasion.

Wimbledon ended up weighing a range of options. One would have allowed Russians and Belarusians to compete, but only if they gave private assurances they did not support the war. That was shelved amid concern it would leave the players and their families open to repercussions back home.

In the end, a main reason for the ban, the organizers indicated, was to avoid the possibility that a Russian or Belarusian might win the championship. That would have given him or her the starring role in an internationally televised presentation ceremony on Wimbledon’s iconic Centre Court – a Grand Slam-sized propaganda victory for Mr. Putin.

But a further consideration seems to have been to avoid obliging Ukrainian players to play against opponents from Russia, even as their own families might well be cowering under Russian bombardment.

And it’s that which, in large part, sways me in favor of what Wimbledon has done.

It’s a matter of perspective: Set the opportunity denied to excluded players against the life-and-death plight that millions of Ukrainians face. They don’t compare.

There’s another reason, which I admit may be unfair to the Russian and Belarusian players, since only they can fully assess the implications for themselves and their families of the way in which they respond to the war. 

It is this: They are well-known figures back home. In a conflict like this one, so obviously the result of Mr. Putin’s attempt to crush a militarily weaker neighbor, their voices matter. One Russian player, world No. 8 Andrey Rublev, scribbled the words “No war please” on a courtside TV lens in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, days after the invasion. None, however, has explicitly criticized the Russian attack or Mr. Putin. Most have stayed silent.

But some Russians are speaking out, despite the potential cost. Just this week Boris Bondarev, a career diplomat with Russia’s United Nations mission in Geneva, resigned his post publicly.

“The aggressive war 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 serious crime against the people of Russia.”

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

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