Wimbledon’s Ban: Mingling Sport and Politics

April 25, 2022 Updated: April 25, 2022

Commentary

The organisers of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, which will be held from June 27 to July 10, announced that Russian and Belarussian tennis players would be banned from participating in the iconic tennis tournament.

This means that Russian players, Daniil Medvedev, the number two tennis player in the world and a former U.S. Open winner, and Andrey Rublev, ranked eighth, will not be able to compete in the championships this year. The same ban extends to female Belarussian players, Aryna Sabalenka, ranked fourth on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) list, and Victoria Azarenka ranked 18th and two-time winner of the Australian Open.

The statement released by Wimbledon on April 20 noted that: “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.”

The Wimbledon organisers explained that the decision was made after seriously reflecting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the unequivocal response of the United Kingdom (UK) government to President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive war.

Even in early March, UK Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston suggested that Russian players should only be allowed to compete if they denounced Putin. Of course, Huddleston’s suggestion is unrealistic because the players’ lives and the safety of their families might be in jeopardy if they were to denounce the Russian regime and its leader.

Hence, the prevailing political climate in the UK inexorably evolved into the decision by Wimbledon’s All England Club to ban the tennis players. In this context, it is worth noting that, in its announcement, the Club refers to Russia’s “unjustified and unprecedented military aggression,” thereby making a value judgment that reinforces the official UK response to the invasion of Ukraine.

The Wimbledon organisers admit in their announcement that the decision must be personally painful and disappointing for the banned tennis players, but it felt that it had no choice after the UK government made its position clear on the “unjustified and unprecedented’ invasion of Ukraine.

Epoch Times Photo
The Wimbledon logo is pictured in a water fountain on the first day of the 2021 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in London, England, on June 28, 2021. (Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

The announcement, however, was met with consternation, condemnation, and disagreement. The WTA and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) opposed the banning decision. Novak Djokovic, still the highest-ranked tennis player in the world, voiced his displeasure with the decision. Andrey Rublev furiously voiced his disapproval and branded the ban as “totally discriminatory” and asserted that Wimbledon’s proffered explanation of the ban was illogical. In contrast, Australian player John Millman supported the ban, referring to the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine as a justification for the controversial measure.

What conclusions could be drawn from this unpleasant but expected announcement?

One obvious conclusion is that Wimbledon is subject to, or influenced by, political events in the UK and the world. However, in targeting only the Russian and Belarussian tennis players, the Wimbledon organisers selectively endorsed and implemented the views of the UK Government.

The ban should equally apply to Chinese tennis players because the People’s Republic of China, refusing to criticise the Russian invasion of Ukraine, seems to have allied itself with Russia. And, in any event, China’s abominable violations of human rights, which occasionally result in lives lost, would equally have justified the application of Wimbledon’s ban on Chinese athletes.

The Wimbledon organisers, in acknowledging the impact on the banned players, reveal some sensitivity to the personal sacrifices which these tennis champions will make. Nevertheless, the ban is counter-intuitive, considering that Daniil Medvedev has repeatedly indicated that he favours peace, not war.

The greatest casualty of the ban, of course, is the irreparable damage it will cause to tennis, and sports in general, for several reasons.

First, the ban inevitably will distort the outcome of an important tennis tournament. Indeed, the banned players all have the capacity to win the championships, thereby improving their ranking and fulfilling their legitimate aspirations.

While the ban gives an advantage to the banned players’ opponents, notably Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Alexander Zverev, the advantage is underserved.

US Open Tennis
Daniil Medvedev of Russia (R) talks with Novak Djokovic of Serbia after defeating Djokovic in the men’s singles final of the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York on Sept. 12, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

In fact, the championship winners also may not be happy because there will always be a suspicion that they won because of the absence of stiff competition from the banned players. In other words, their win would somehow be tainted.

Second, the ban results in an unfortunate mingling of politics and sports. Of course, the negative impact of politics on sports has a long history. As is well-known, nations have boycotted the Summer and Winter Olympics on many occasions and have banned players from countries that demonstrably violated universally accepted standards of human rights.

This long history can also be illustrated by reference to the extradition by the Australian government of Novak Djokovic, who was unable to play in the Australian Open 2022. This grand slam competition was won by his rival, Rafael Nadal, thereby eclipsing the grand slam achievements of the number one player in the world.

Third, the organisers of other grand slams have not (yet) banned any Russian and Belarussian players who are allowed to compete in their events. Hence, the Wimbledon announcement discloses the existence of a fault line in the administration of the grand slams, resulting in inconsistent approaches.

Even so, the discriminatory nature of the treatment of the Russian and Belarussian players is plainly obvious. Indeed, the official ranking of ATP and WTA players does not make any references to the nationality of Russian and Belarusian players, and their country’s flag does not appear next to their names. So, they are earmarked as belonging to an evil regime, even if they do not personally contribute to its horrible activities.

It is thus reasonable to conclude that the ban represents discrimination on the ground of a person’s nationality. This is surprising because, in the European Union, discrimination on the ground of nationality is one of the overriding principles of that legal system. Admittedly, the United Kingdom is no longer subject to this principle, but it could be expected that it would be ingrained in the membranes of the UK legal system.

It is to be hoped that the situation in Ukraine will improve in the coming weeks. If so, it might still be possible for the banned players to participate in the Wimbledon Championships and entertain their worldwide audiences with their tennis skills and athletic prowess.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).