Wimbledon's Ban on Russian Players Is the Coward's Way Out

Wimbledon’s Ban on Russian Players Is the Coward’s Way Out

Andrey Rublev writes “No War Please” on a camera in February.
Photo: @TSN_Sports/Twitter

You know whom most of the world hated back in 2005? The United States. By then, the Iraq War had firmly been established as a debacle; Hurricane Katrina had proven our government so incapable of handling basic disaster response that it was fair to wonder whether Kanye West would make a good president; and our allies and adversaries alike saw us, not unfairly, as a collective gaggle of cowboy-hat-wearing, gas-guzzling, swaggering dipshits. Go back and watch a movie from around that time and see how any non-American character treats anyone from the US We were definitely the global bad guys in a way we hadn’t been before. And, you could argue, we haven’t really recovered since then.

You know what else happened in 2005? Tiger Woods won the British Open at St. Andrews, Venus Williams won Wimbledon (with Andy Roddick reaching the men’s final), and Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France. (He later had to give up the trophy, as he did all his trophies, but still.) Those four Americans were at the absolute top of their field that year, and there wasn’t a single person who thought that, because they were Americans, they didn’t have the right to play in European-hosted competitions. I founded Deadspin in 2005 and spent that entire year combing through every sports story on the planet. The notion of individual American athletes being somehow responsible for the actions of their government was not even a topic of discussion; it didn’t even occur to anyone. And, uh, just saying: Those athletes’ country was committing all sorts of war crimes at the time.

It’s worth keeping all that in mind when digesting Wimbledon’s decision last week to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in tennis’s most prestigious event. As my colleague Benjamin Hart has noted, prohibiting individual athletes is a fundamentally different proposition than taking action against state-sanctioned teams, as FIFA did when it banned the Russian soccer team from playing in the World Cup or the IOC did when it disallowed Russian athletes from representing their country in international competition. And the ban is total and unyielding: Daniil Medvedev, the No. 2 player in the world, can’t play, and neither can No. 8 Andrey Rublev. If that last name sounds familiar to non–tennis fans, he’s the guy who, in the first days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, wrote on a camera, “No War Please.”

Remember, too, what Rublev was doing that very week: playing a doubles match with his partner, Denys Molchanov, who is Ukrainian.

Just about everyone else in the tennis world opposes Wimbledon’s policy, from the ATP (which runs the top-tier tour for men) to the WTA (which runs the top-tier tour for women) to icons like Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Novak Djokovic. No other tournament has followed suit, though the US Open has not yet explicitly ruled it out.

Perhaps that’s because this isn’t really about sending a message to Russia or about tennis. It’s more about UK-specific political optics. Well, maybe political is too broad a term. Tea Times of London reported Wimbledon was terrified that, if a Russian player were to win, the photo that would be taken with Kate Middleton afterward could be used as propaganda. “Wimbledon were certainly aware that whatever they did would be framed as a sportswashing moment for Putin,” a source told the Times. “This championship is going to be a big moment for Wimbledon, and Kate will undoubtedly be part of that.” Banning some of the top athletes in the world — athletes who mostly have little connection with the Russian government and have in fact been living and working overseas with their families for many years — over royal-family photos is perhaps the most Wimbledon thing imaginable.

It has been heartening to see so much pushback because it’s not difficult to see all this getting to a scary place. UK sports minister Nigel Huddleston recently said, “We need some potential assurance that they are not supporters of Putin, and we are considering what requirements we may need to try and get some assurances along those lines.” That sure sounds a lot like a loyalty pledge. Requiring players to maintain the “correct” political position of a host country is pretty much the definition of a slippery slope. It’s a particularly ill-conceived idea with regard to the war in Ukraine, considering that there could be dramatic ramifications for Russian athletes’ families if they were to speak out against Putin. The one Russian NHL player to do so, the Rangers’ Artemi Panarin, deleted the criticism from his Instagram and has since made the account private.

Huddleston spoke of the optics of a player potentially waving a Russian flag in the winner’s circle, which pretty obviously wouldn’t happen if Medvedev or Rublev or top Belarusian women’s player Victoria Azarenka won, but you know … what if it did? How do you think that would go over? How is a crowd of England tennis fans booing Russian aggression en masse, which is definitely what would happen in this scenario, any sort of propaganda win for Putin? It would be the opposite!

There is something inherently cowardly in Wimbledon’s decision. It isn’t trying to fight Putin; it’s trying to cover its ass. It’s attempting to avoid anything uncomfortable, lest it possibly detract from the sacred tournament. But erasing Russians and Belarusans doesn’t erase the conflict. It just allows Wimbledon to hide from it. It’s the sort of move an organization makes to look as if it cares without actually caring about anything but protecting itself.

There is a better way to handle this. On Monday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Stanley Cup champions, visited the White House, where Joe Biden honored them. Among them were star wing Nikita Kucherov and goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy, both key cogs of that title team, and both Russians. They were treated just like everyone else. They weren’t asked to state a pledge of support for democracy, and they weren’t put in a position in which they had to speak out against Putin. They just got to take part in a hokey American ritual and celebration, which is to say: They helped represent the Democratic institutions Putin is fighting against. Biden wasn’t worried that hosting Russian athletes would fuel Putin’s propaganda machine. In fact, their presence only hurt it.

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