There is, of course, the argument that it would be unfair for Ukrainian players to have to compete against Russian players given what their country is suffering. And yet, it can happen in other tournaments. And where to draw those lines is a road to endless “whataboutery”. (Israel has suffered greatly from this over the years.)
A slightly better argument for the ban – and the one implicit in the club’s statement – is that it denies Putin a proxy win. In theory, sport and politics should be separate spheres. In fact, because humans identify so strongly with athletic competition and achievement, they have always been intertwined.
French President Emmanuel Macron sat in the VIP box with Putin to celebrate France’s victory at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Boris Johnson’s career got a major boost as Mayor of London when he chaired the 2012 Olympics. And he was quick to hitch his wagon to Emma Raducanu’s fairy tale when the British player won the US Open last year.
But, let’s face it, no political leader has elided sporting prowess and national greatness more openly than Putin, a judo black belt whose own shirtless imagery is carefully crafted to push his narrative of Russian greatness past and future. . Putin has invested heavily in sport, hosting many major events, such as the generously funded 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which official media guides have noted, ” the sleeping giant of Russia is awake, ready for change and growth”.
Wimbledon wants none of that. Even the distant prospect of Putin beaming with pride from the Kremlin as the Duchess of Cambridge congratulates Medvedev on his victory, on Wimbledon’s centenary, is a public relations nightmare for the venerable club.
And yet, the Kremlin has already used the decision to bolster its rhetoric that NATO and the West unfairly discriminate against Russians. Banning Russian players therefore has the perverse effect of helping Putin push his message of Russia alone against a hostile world, but only because the Kremlin is twisting everything to fit his message.
The ban also (quite deliberately) reduces the chances of war-related headlines around the tournament. But who is it for? It’s also a ban on the powerful symbolism of a Russian-Ukrainian double act, or the prospect of Russian or Belarusian players using the global platform they would have at the event to send a message to Putin or their Russian and Belarusian compatriots at home to oppose the war.
While it’s not the tournament’s job to facilitate such things, it’s not entirely fair to say that the ban is only to deny Putin’s satisfaction, as it also reduces his risk of him being called by Russian players on the world stage.
A matter of fairness
Navratilova is right to draw a distinction between team and individual sports and to question the fairness of the measure. National teams play under a flag; and sports with state-run development programs that select and prepare players from an early age, such as gymnastics or figure skating, are also standard bearers even when they present individual competitors.
But aside from the national team competitions of the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King (formerly known as the Fed), tennis is a fiercely individual sport where nationality plays a very limited role. In apartheid-era South Africa, many sports were banned and boycotted, but its tennis players were largely free to compete around the world. Johan Kriek won the Australian Open in 1981 and 1982 and Kevin Curren reached the Wimbledon final in 1985. Both men took American citizenship which allowed them to avoid apartheid bans.
Citizenship does not necessarily overlap perfectly with national identity in tennis, partly because great players need to be surrounded by groups of other great players as they develop. Russians are ubiquitous in Spanish and American tennis academies. Retired star Maria Sharapova moved to the United States when she was seven, but represented Russia at the 2012 Olympics. Similarly, many Russians applaud German-born Alexander Zverev as one of theirs because his parents were both Soviet-era Russian tennis players.
Or take Andrey Rublev, another top 10 male player who was born in Russia but also honed his game in Spain. His mother was a coach at the famous Spartak Tennis Club which produced so many strong Russian players and was awarded the Order of “Merit to the Fatherland” medal in 2009. Rublev was the first Russian player to speak out against the war, writing ‘No war please’ in marker on the camera lens after his semi-final win in Dubai. He also made a statement as he teamed up with Ukrainian Denys Molchanov to win the doubles title.
To mention these individual cases is of course to underline the dilemma of Wimbledon. Either the club makes individual decisions based on the player’s situation (much like banks do know-your-customer due diligence for compliance purposes) or they issue a blanket ban on any player holding a card. a Russian passport. It’s the path favored by retired Ukrainian player Alexandr Dolgopolov, who says all Russians should be held accountable in one way or another.
An arguably bigger blow for Putin, a huge hockey fan, would be the expulsion of all 55 active Russian players in the National Hockey League, as advocated by legendary Czech goalkeeper Dominik Hasek. But although the NHL suspended its ties to Russian businesses and its Russian-language social media accounts, it didn’t go that far. As with the All England Club, these decisions tend to be primarily commercial and narrow management of reputational risk.
Two years ago, Wimbledon had reason to feel smug during a time of maximum uncertainty. He had taken out pandemic insurance and was therefore indemnified against an event that took just about every other organization by surprise. The decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s championship is another kind of insurance policy. But while that will ensure the drama stays on the pitch, it’s an unsatisfactory answer to the question of how far to punish ordinary (and even extraordinary) Russians for Putin’s crimes.