Experts agree that Wimbledon alone, despite any earnest intentions, won’t end the Russia-Ukraine war.
On Wednesday, the All England Club—which hosts the only Grand Slam tournament held on grass—announced that players representing Russia and Belarus won’t be allowed to play at the Wimbledon championships this year. Wimbledon is the first tennis event crowning individual champions to ban athletes from Russia, which began its military invasion of Ukraine in February, and Belarus, a staunch Russian ally. (Two international team competitions, the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup, have banned the teams from these countries). “Given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of Government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible,” the club said in a statement.
The actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin are unlikely to be altered by a tennis tournament alone. But that’s not really the point. Rather, a Wimbledon ban joins the long list of political and economic sanctions against Russia which, collectively, could eventually force Putin to change course. “Excluding Russian players from Wimbledon is not going to change materially the outcome of the war, but it sends a very important symbolic message,” says Margarita Balmaceda, professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University. “With Russian players excluded from Wimbledon, the Russian population gets one more signal that Putin is no longer able to guarantee Russia’s status in the world.”
Balmaceda, who is also an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, notes that Putin has tried to flex his power through sports; with the Sochi Olympics serving as the prime example of this strategy. “Putin still has enormous support within Russia and, sadly, so does Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine,” says Balmaceda. “But losing international prestige, together with the slow but certain impact of economic sanctions on Russia, is little by little giving the Russian population a clear signal that Putin is no longer able to guarantee their well being.”
The tennis players impacted by Wimbledon’s ban include the world No. 2 on the men’s side, defending U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, as well as No. 8 Andrey Rublev. The women who can’t play under the regulations announced Wednesday include former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open winner from Belarus, No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka, who reached the Wimbledon semifinals a year ago, and last year’s French Open runner-up, Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Other sports organizations have taken punitive action against Russia. For example, figure skating and track and field banned Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams from their events because of the war. FIFA kicked the Russian men’s national soccer team out of the World Cup qualifying playoffs; UEFA relocated the men’s Champions League Final, scheduled for late May, from St. Petersburg to Paris.
The All England Club cited “guidance set out by the U.K. Government” as a factor in its decision to enact the ban; the U.K. has taken a hard line against Russia, sanctioning, for example, Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch who is selling the soccer team under pressure. As of now the French Open, which starts on May 22, will allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete. The U.S. Open is taking a wait-and-see approach. “The United States Tennis Association (USTA) acknowledges the difficult decision made by the All England Club to decline entries from Russian and Belarussian players to the Wimbledon Championships in response to the unique set of circumstances relating to their government’s guidance,” the USTA said in a statement. “At this time, the USTA has not made a decision regarding the participation of Russian and Belarusian players at the 2022 US Open. We condemn Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine, and the USTA has, and will continue to, support the Ukrainian people through on-going humanitarian relief efforts.”
While Wimbledon has unilateral action against Russian and Belarusian players, tennis’ own tour governing bodies—the ATP and WTA—have opposed the ban. While both tours haven’t allowed Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under the flag of their countries, they haven’t gone so far as to ban them outright. Both the ATP and WTA have labeled the decision as discriminatory. “Individual athletes should not be penalized or prevented from competing due to where they are from, or the decisions made by the governments of their countries,” the WTA said in a statement Wednesday. “Discrimination, and the decision to focus such discrimination against athletes competing on their own as individuals, is neither fair nor justified.”
Critics point out that sporting sanctions against Russia haven’t produced strong results. “From a soft power perspective, the different sanctions Russian athletes faced, including doping bans, stripped national symbols, or moving sports events outside of Russia, has so far not made significant impacts on Russia’s aggression and use of hard power,” says University of Oregon sports business professor Yoav Dubinsky, who specializes in public diplomacy. “This is a slippery slope that could backfire in multiple ways, including organizations deciding on political bans on athletes from other countries which can further polarize the world of sports, or other industries deciding to single out people based on their nationality, which can have negative impacts on inclusion in the workplace. So, while the goal is to end Russia’s aggression while avoiding a direct military clash, such actions can lead to unrelated unintended consequences.”
Even Dubinsky, however, acknowledges the potential benefits of the ban. “This seems like an attempt to add international pressure on Russian leadership to stop the war in Ukraine, without the use of military force,” says Dubinsky. “Although this is a problematic justification, if avoiding World War III is the goal, then participation of a few athletes in a tennis tournament is a small price to pay. No matter how prestigious it is, or where the players are ranked.”
Wimbledon’s decision reminds Linsday Krasnoff, a research associate with the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the SOAS University of London, of the International Olympic Committee’s ban of South Africa during the apartheid era. “Many other things, including boycotts by various different international companies and so forth, created pressure on the South African regime to finally overturn that policy,” says Krasnoff. “I kind of see the Wimbledon announcement in a similar vein. I feel very poorly for the players involved. But when we talk about packages of sanctions, the global sports world response—the immediate removal of Champions League final, the prevention of Russia for qualifying for World Cup—those were the easiest things to do. First and foremost, Wimbledon is another layer of that. And as much as people say that politics and sports should not mix, the reality is they’ve always mixed. We’ve always known that.”
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