Banning Russian players from Wimbledon will backfire

20 April 2022

10:34 PM

20 April 2022

10:34 PM

We need to talk about Russophobia. There really is no other word for the swiftness with which Russian sportspeople and artists are being expelled from international competitions and festivals, for no other crime than being born Russian. While all right-thinking people condemn Russia’s brutal, imperialist invasion of Ukraine, the neo-McCarthyism ripping through various western institutions is getting really ugly – and will prove completely counter-productive.

Hot on the heels of Fifa – that most morally unimpeachable of sports bodies – banning Russia from the World Cup, Wimbledon’s organisers are now on the verge of announcing a complete ban of Russian (and Belarusian) tennis players. This will be felt right at the top of the competition, with world number two Daniil Medvedev and former world number one Victoria Azarenka set to be prevented from appearing at the All England Club this summer. Wimbledon would be the first tennis tournament to issue such a sweeping ban. No doubt more will follow.

Perhaps what’s most chilling about all this is the behind-the-scenes involvement of the UK government. According to the Times, there have been months of discussion between the All England Club and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with officials at one point arguing that Russian players should only be allowed to compete if they issue a private written declaration, promising not to express support for the invasion. Nigel Huddleston, under-secretary of state for sport, tourism, heritage and civil society, first floated this idea back in March.

Wimbledon apparently felt it had to make a choice – either ban Russians outright or ask them to agree to conditions that would, in effect, mark them and their families out in the eyes of an increasingly totalitarian Russian state. It opted for the former. But that it felt it had to make this choice at all is troubling. We are apparently now incapable of distinguishing between the Russian state and the Russian people. We are punishing sportsmen for the crimes of their government. We are demanding they sign denunciation letters. All in the name of standing up for western values! Someone at DCMS needs to pick up a history book.

Expelling Russians from international tournaments and western cultural institutions has swiftly become widespread. But this will be the first time Wimbledon has banned specific countries since the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. South African players were allowed to compete during Apartheid. Why are so many western institutions gripped today by the delusion that banning tennis players or footballers or pianists is what is needed to change the course of a war or topple a despotic regime? There is something absurd as well as mean-spirited about these boycotts.

But they are worse than cruel and pointless. They burnish Putin’s narrative – that the West doesn’t so much support the Ukrainians as it loathes the Russians, and that the supposedly liberal West is hypocritical and full of it. If Wimbledon and the UK government were setting out to prove him right, then mission accomplished.

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