Anyone for Tennis, except you “Russkies”

Dave Kellaway finds the banning of individual players from the Wimbledon tennis tournament, just because they come from Russia or Belarus, problematic.

Every day we witness the horrific scenes from Ukraine with the mass slaughter of civilians from the bombings and cold blooded shooting at the hands of the invading Russian army. One might ask how worked up should we be about the Wimbledon ban of Russian and Belarusian tennis stars from the upcoming tournament?

Andrey Rublev writes No War Please afer match

Anyone opposing the war or supporting the Ukrainian resistance should indeed be concerned about this decision which targets individuals – some of whom are on record as being against the war – and which confuses the people of Belarus or Russia with their repressive regimes.

Men’s world No 2 Daniil Medvedev and No 8 Andrey Rublev from Russia, as well as women’s fourth-ranked Aryna Sabalenka and world No 18 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus have been taken out of the draw.

As we have argued before we are in favour of targeted sanctions against the oligarchs, Putin’s political clique and Russian sporting or cultural bodies that represent the nation and are part of the regime’s ‘soft power’. Sanctions can express international condemnation of the illegal, bloody invasion and solidarity with the Ukrainian people fighting to defend their self determination and against their forced incorporation into a less democratic and more authoritarian state.

So banning Russian teams from international competitions or boycotting Russian organised international sporting events has a sense and has usually been accepted by sports fans who have expressed their solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

Banning Russian tennis players from Wimbledon takes these sanctions too far. Individual players – who often base themselves in tax havens like Monaco – are not integrated into the Putin regime and have not been cheerleaders for the invasion. Indeed top ten player, Andrey Rublev, even wrote ‘no war please’ as his traditional end of match signing on the court camera. If an individual player were to be openly promoting the war or was a close associate of Putin, then there may be some case for a ban. The argument that sports and politics should be entirely separate has long been buried.

Winning or doing well as an individual tennis player hardly has much impact in burnishing the image of the Putin regime. When Rafa Nadal won the slam event in Australia it did not have particular repercussions on the way the Spanish State presents itself internationally or domestically.

Ukraine has some top tennis players and there has been a mixed reaction to the ban. A few have supported it, others have voiced concerns and others have suggested that the Russian colleagues should play if they distance themselves in some way from the regime.

Clearly they must have been some political pressure from the Johnson government on the Wimbledon authorities. Johnson has been milking the war to try and bolster his declining support due to partygate and the cost of living crisis. It is an ideal war from his point of view since he can use it to promote NATO, an aggressive alliance that defends neo-liberal capitalist interests, increase British military spending and prance about as a war leader – without the negative consequences of British boots on the ground and any casualties.

He can take advantage of real mass sentiment that stands with the just struggle of the Ukrainian people to boost a patriotic, militaristic anti-working class agenda. The failure of the left and labour movement – up to now – to build a mass anti-war movement in defence of the Ukrainian people gives him more space to achieve that end.

There have been some instances of authorities – cultural, state or otherwise – making decisions that target Russian culture or which lump the whole Russian people into the repressive Putin regime. Some Russian language classes were suspended or Russian composers or authors’ work were pulled from cultural events. Thankfully this has not been a widespread phenomenon. Expressions of hostility against Putin himself – similar to British popular opposition to Trump – are quite justifiable and should not be packaged into some sort of wave of Russiophobia that is supposedly sweeping the land.

Photo taken in Lea Valley, Hackney

Wimbledon’s decision is particularly ridiculous when you think of all those years when British and US armies were militarily invading Iraq and Afghanistan but no British or US player was banned from playing at Wimbledon. The last and only time players have been banned at Wimbledon was directly after the Second World War when German and Japanese players were excluded. This is one case where the whataboutery arguments that have often been used on social media to downplay the importance of Putin’s criminal invasion, is totally justified.

Progressive feminist tennis icons like Martina Navratilova has denounced the ban and she is hardly one to be soft on Russia, having defected from the Czech pro-Soviet regime’s tennis set up to live and play in the USA:

“Russian players and Belarusian players, some have even expressed their opposition to the war,” Navratilova, who gave up her Czech nationality amidst the Cold War conflict in 1975 in exchange for US citizenship, said: “I understand the banning of teams, of course, but on an individual level, I just think it’s wrong.”

Guardian 22 April 2022

Anti-Vaxer, Novak Djokovic, has also spoken out and he directly experienced the horrors of war in his native Serbia when he was younger. Azarenka, a women’s grand slam winner has been stopped from playing and she left Belarus when she was fifteen. She has spoken out against the war on Twitter. Scandalously, Lucy Powell, speaking on behalf of the Labour Party, has come out in support of the ban:

“We welcome this decision by Wimbledon and the LTA. The LTA is ahead of the curve compared with other national tennis bodies and they should be applauded”.

Lucy powell

The official governing bodies of the sport and the players’ associations are also opposed. Although it is reported that Wimbledon had taken detailed legal advice there is the possibility of challenge based on the principle of sporting events not being allowed to discriminate against players on the basis of race or nationality.

Socialists should support targeted economic, cultural or sporting sanctions that directly affect the oligarchs, state institutional sporting bodies or which expose the nature and isolation of Putin’s regime. Hitting a few individual sports people who are not responsible for the regime and do not even necessarily support the war just reflects a deliberate failure to distinguish between the regime and the Russian people.

Despite the lack of accurate information about the war in Russia there is still a significant minority of people there prepared to stand up against Putin’s war. Wimbledon’s decision will just make it a little harder for that movement to win greater support. It will feed into Putin’s main ideological offensive that it is the Western imperialists ganging up on Russia and that the Ukrainians are mostly Nazis being supported by them.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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