The All-England Lawn Tennis Club’s (AELTC) recent decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from upcoming tournaments, including the prestigious Wimbledon Championships, is controversial to say the least. Daniel Evans argues against the resolution.
I will pretend for a moment that this decision makes sense and outline some of the arguments being used to support it. In its statement the AELTC argued that its actions were meant to ‘limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible’. Banning Russian and Belarusian players certainly sends a strong message and is arguably in line with the actions taken by other sporting bodies. Sport is a key component of soft power and Putin undoubtedly understands this, so it could be argued that this decision restricts his influence.
The banning of a handful of tennis players has next to no effect on restricting Putin’s influence
The death toll in Ukraine numbers in the tens of thousands and it is vital to remember that each of those victims was an individual who has had their life taken from them by a tyrant. We can all agree that Putin’s influence must be restricted by the strongest possible means and that we should take any realistic measures to achieve this.
On the other hand, the banning of a handful of tennis players has next to no effect on restricting Putin’s influence. He no longer has any interest in exercising soft power and is pursuing a policy of violence and destruction; banning players will have no detriment whatsoever to the ongoing invasion.
Russia and Belarus are autocracies, and their populations have no say in their leaders’ decisions. Punishing individuals for the actions of unelected despots is utterly pointless.
Russian and Belarusian tennis players have also not received major backing from the state. Many have previously considered changing national allegiances and it is fairly standard practise to train outside of their home states. Putin has invested billions into sport to increase his power, but this is largely put into athletics and football. Tennis is also a highly individualistic sport.
Dictatorships do not traditionally lay claim to sports lacking mass appeal and reliant on individual drive, like tennis
It is true that titles are difficult to achieve and require excellent coaches and financial backing. However, to reach the absolute top requires a drive and mentality that cannot be bought. Dictatorships do not traditionally lay claim to sports lacking mass appeal and reliant on individual drive, like tennis. They generally favour football for its potential for mass control and athletics because it can allow for spurious claims about ethnic supremacy. Tennis also has an elitist reputation and supposed ‘men of the people’ often prefer to avoid association with it.
The AELTC’s decision has also punished individual athletes who have spoken out against Russia’s crimes. Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Andre Rublev, Aryna Sabalenka and others have all called for peace. It seems unfair to punish them when they do not even support the actions of the leaders they had no part in choosing.
It is true that the Ukrainian player Marta Kostyuk has criticised Russian players on the tour, saying that their calls for peace have ‘no substance’. But fellow Ukrainian Elina Svitolina has argued that players should only be banned if they refuse to speak out. The Russian state has a long history of executing opposition and thousands have already been arrested for protesting the war. The very act of calling for peace is a challenge to Putin and therefore has substance to it.
If they are allowed to play, they are given a platform to speak out against the invasion
It is only fair that Russian players should be allowed to play if they have spoken out and banning them only does Putin’s work for him. If they are allowed to play, they are given a platform to speak out against the invasion. If barred, they are prevented from having that chance. Opposing Putin is incredibly dangerous – there is personal and family risk to those who do. But banning those who have already called for peace in the face of this danger makes very little sense at all.
The AELTC’s decision is problematic on another level. If we ban Russians for the actions of their unelected despot, where should the line be drawn? Surely all Chinese players should be banned because of their state’s ethnic cleansing of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang? Serbia and Hungary are allies of Russia, so why are there are no calls for their players to be banned?
The AELTC states that it is a ‘diverse and inclusive organisation which is committed to confronting and eliminating discrimination’. Excluding players based off their nationality flies in the face of this commitment to inclusivity. Should we strip all Russians living in the UK of their jobs and homes on a general basis, regardless of their support for Putin?
Russia has been committing war crimes for years, during which there were scarce calls for players to be banned
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a horrific crime, but Russia has been committing war crimes for years, during which there were scarce calls for players to be banned. If the deliberate bombing of Syrian hospitals was not grounds for banning Russian tennis players, can crimes against Ukraine cannot be used as justification to ban them now? The AELTC did not value Syrian lives to the same extent as Ukrainian ones, and it is hypocritical for them to act now that public opinion of Russia has shifted beyond a line they seem to deem acceptable.
The AELTC’s decision is blatantly unfair and will have absolutely no impact. It silences valuable Russian opposition to the war and punishes athletes who are both against it and have had no say in its prosecution.
Sport has a great power to bring people from different cultures together, especially in times of strife, and the AELTC has sent a clear signal it would rather divide people than unite them. I can only hope this decision is reversed and the players who speak out against the invasion are able to play and use their platform to further do so.
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