The politics of sport: U of T's Simon Darnell on Wimbledon's ban of Russian and Belarusian players

the wimbledon logo is seen through a set of black bars
(Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian tennis players from competing in the Grand Slam tournament due to the ongoing war in Ukraine has drawn sharp criticism from some of the sport’s top players and the associations that represent them. 

The Championships, held annually at the All England Club in London, broke from the rest of the tennis world since Russian tennis players have been allowed to remain on the ATP and WTA tours following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. 

Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, said that “given the high profile environment of the Championships, the importance of not allowing sport to be used to promote the Russian regime and our broader concerns for public and player safety, we do not believe it is viable to proceed on any other basis at the Championships.”

Simon Darnell

Men's world number two Daniil Medvedev of Russia and women's world number four Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus are among the players affected by the decision.

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body of men’s professional tennis circuits, and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) have both issued strongly worded statements condemning the decision, calling it unfair with the potential to set a damaging precedent for the game. The ATP said: "Discrimination based on nationality also constitutes a violation of our agreement with Wimbledon that states that player entry is based solely on ATP rankings. Any course of action in response to this decision will now be assessed in consultation with our board and member councils."

Writer Jelena Damjanovic recently asked Simon Darnell, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE) director of KPE’s Centre for Sport Policy Studies, for his thoughts about the decision. 

Should individual athletes be held accountable for the actions of their governments? 

I think we can all agree that at a basic level it is unfortunate – and even unfair – that individual athletes are being banned from international sports events because of the violent actions of the Russian and Belarussian governments.

If sports existed in a social and political vacuum, this decision on the part of Wimbledon would be unjust. However, in this case I do think the ban is a reasonable and justifiable action for the organizers of Wimbledon to take for at least two reasons: One is that international sport is always firmly connected to politics, and this is especially the case with respect to Russia. The Russian state clearly uses sport – like hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup – to assert and promote its national image and brand. And it invests in the success of its athletes to build consent for its regime. Russia even repeatedly cheats to achieve such ends, evidenced by its state-sponsored doping program. And even though Wimbledon is an event for individual athletes, as opposed to national teams, the tennis players at Wimbledon, and on the ATP tour, are still firmly identified by their nationality and national affiliations.

What this means is that the politics of sport is a language that Russia, and the world, understands. In response, using sport to send a political message of resistance to the invasion of Ukraine makes sense, and I think its justified. Secondly, not banning Russian and Belarussian athletes from international sport is akin to tacit acceptance of the invasion of Ukraine, which is an indefensible position, geo-politically, ethically or in terms of human rights. So, while it is unfortunate that individual athletes might suffer as a result of this decision, the message being sent is absolutely essential.  

Are you aware of any other instances in which individual athletes of one country were banned from participating in sport tournaments? 

This is a unique case given the boycotting of individual athletes, as opposed to entire teams and national teams in particular. But there is a history of international sporting boycotts, which I would argue is what this is, in response to unjust policies. The most well-known example is the role of sport in bringing down the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. The international sporting community refused to play against South African teams until Apartheid ended, and while this sport-based pressure didn’t end Apartheid single handedly, it definitely played a role.

I’m actually happy to see sport organizations engaging in such political issues again.  

This announcement has led to heated debates online about which country’s human rights violations deserve sanctions of this kind and which don’t. What’s your take?

I think all human rights violations deserve sanctions or boycotts. I was disappointed that so little was done during the recent Olympics in China in response to the genocide against the Uyghur people, or the Chinese crackdown on political freedom in Hong Kong. No good comes from comparing the pain or suffering of different groups – the point is that international sporting organizations should recognize their ethical responsibility to defend human rights and not look the other way if and when it interferes with their scheduling or threatens their brands or sponsorships. 

Is it fair to say that there is a lot of inconsistency among the various sport-governing bodies about when politics and sports can mix?

First, sport and politics are connected, whether we choose to acknowledge this or not. The issue isn’t up for debate. The question is do we accept the political implications of sport or ignore them?

I think we have a responsibility to reckon with the politics of sport. Second, I think asking athletes to subscribe to a particular political perspective in order to participate in sport is a deeply flawed idea.

The point here is not that individual athletes be required to have a particular political point of view (though they should be allowed to express their politics if and when they want to). The real point here is that the international sporting community is entirely justified in sending a message of resistance in response to the invasion of Ukraine and in boycotting sport-based engagement with Russia as a way to send this message.

Given the suffering in Ukraine that is happening as we speak, such actions by sport organizations take precedent over the playing schedules of individual athletes.   


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