LONDON. For nearly three decades, the participation of athletes in major competitions, regardless of the never-ending global military and political battles, has been an almost inviolable principle of international sport.
Wars broke out. Authoritarian countries with flagrant human rights violations have hosted major events. There were massive doping scandals. And as a result, boycotts and bans have all but disappeared from the sports landscape.
This principle of holding truly global competitions and not holding athletes accountable for the world’s ills began to crumble after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He will have a break starting Monday when Wimbledon opens without the world No. 1. 1, Daniil Medvedev and other tennis players from Russia and Belarus who are not allowed to participate.
World Athletics, the world governing body for athletics, has also suspended Russian and Belarusian athletes from its championship next month in Eugene, Oregon, the biggest athletics event outside of the Olympics.
The bans represent a radical shift after years of resistance to policies to interfere with individual athletes’ participation in sports. They are also a departure from decisions made by various sports organizations earlier this year to limit penalties to ban Russian and Belarusian teams or any flags or other symbols from those countries from competing.
What changed? China’s authoritarian government stifles free speech and other human rights, and his treatment of the Uyghurs has been labeled genocide by many governments, yet he was allowed to host the Olympics in February. Why did Russian and Belarusian athletes turn out to be outcasts by March?
International sports experts say the so-called “right to play” principle was the most significant package of economic sanctions imposed on the country since the end of the Cold War. It has changed the calculus for sports leaders, said Michael Payne, former International Olympic Committee director of marketing and broadcast rights.
“For years, people have pointed to sports and athletes and demanded a boycott, and sports could say, ‘Wait, why are you singling us out but continuing to do the rest of the business?'” Payne said. “But if you have full economic and political sanctions against the country, then I’m not sure that sport should be left out.”
The leaders of tennis in Britain eventually decided they couldn’t. In April, acting on instructions from the British government, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which runs Wimbledon, and the Lawn Tennis Association, which oversees other annual spring and summer tournaments in England, announced the ban, explaining that they had no other choice.
“The UK government has put in place guidelines for sporting organizations and events in the UK with the specific aim of limiting Russian influence,” said Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club. “We have taken this direction into account as we must do so as an important event and a leading UK institution.”
He said the combination of the scale and severity of the Russian invasion of a sovereign state, condemnation by more than 140 countries through the United Nations, and “concrete and directive guidance to resolve issues” made the situation “very, very exceptional.”
The move is widely popular in Britain, according to opinion polls, but has received significant opposition from the men’s and women’s tennis tours. They denounced this as discrimination and decided to withhold ranking points for any tournament wins.
On Saturday, Novak Djokovic, the reigning Wimbledon champion, called the player ban unfair. “I just don’t understand how they contributed to what is actually happening,” he said.
One native of Russia, Natela Dzalamidze, changed her citizenship to Georgian in order to play doubles at Wimbledon. Last week, the US Tennis Association announced that it would allow players from Russia and Belarus to play in its events, including the US Open this summer, but without national identification.
“This is not an easy situation,” USTA Executive Director Lew Sherr told The New York Times this month. “This is a terrible situation for the people of Ukraine, an unprovoked and unjust invasion, absolutely terrible, so everything we talk about pales in comparison to what is happening there.”
But, Scherr added, the organization received no direct pressure or direction from government officials.
Tennis has been juggling politics and sports a lot lately. Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, suspended tour activities in China last fall, including several high-profile tournaments, due to the country’s attitude towards Peng Shuai.
Peng, the 2013 Wimbledon doubles champion and the 2014 French Open champion, has accused a former senior official of sexual assault. She then disappeared from public view for several weeks. She later retracted her statements. Simon said the WTA would not return to China until it could speak to Peng independently and a full investigation had been carried out.
Explaining the decision to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from world championships, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, admitted in March that the move goes against much of what he stands for. He spoke out against the practice of politicians targeting athletes to achieve political goals while other sectors go about their business. “It’s a different matter,” he said, because other parts of the economy are at the tip of the spear. “Sports must step up and join this effort to end this war and restore peace. We cannot and must not sit on the sidelines.”
Michael Lynch, former director of sports marketing for Visa, the main sponsor of the Olympics and World Championships, said the response to Russian aggression is natural as sport moves away from the notion that it is somehow separate from world events.
Just as the NBA and other sports leagues were forced to join the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, international sports will have to recognize that they are not walled off from the world’s problems, he said. said.
“This genius is not going back in the bottle,” Lynch said. “We will continue to see more use of sport for cultural change, for value change, for policy change. It just keeps happening more and more.”
Sports sanctions against Russia could be the beginning of the end of near-unfettered global competition. Who plays and who does not may depend on whether the political zeitgeist deems the athlete’s country to be up to the standards of the civilized world order.
Should Israeli athletes be concerned about their country’s occupation of the West Bank? What about American athletes the next time their country kills civilians with a drone strike?
“It’s a slippery slope,” David Wallechinsky, a leading sports historian, said of the decision to hold Russian and Belarusian athletes accountable for the actions of their respective governments. “The question is, will other people from other countries pay for it?”
This month, some of the top golfers came under fire for joining a new golf tour funded by the Saudi Arabian government, the repressive government responsible for the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and columnist for The Washington Post. A little more than two years later, the next Summer Olympic Games in Paris are scheduled. Who will be there, one can only guess.
“I do think Ukraine has done the right thing in encouraging the West and its allies, but I also believe that sport will become a bridge rather than a divider,” said Terrence Burns, a sports consultant who advised Russia on its bids in the 2000s. to obtain the rights to host the Olympic Games and World Championships in another era. “But it will take time. And during that time, athletes, for better or worse, will pay their price.”
Christopher Clary made a report.