As Wimbledon Begins, an Era of Sports Free of Bans and Boycotts Ends

LONDON – For roughly three decades, making sure athletes have participated in the biggest events in the world despite never-ending military and political battles have been near sacrosanct tenet of international sports.

Wars broke out. Major events hosted on human rights on egregious records with authoritarian nations. There were massive doping scandals. And through it all, the participation of boycotts and bans all but disappeared from the sports landscape.

That principle – staging truly global competitions and not holding athletes responsible for the world ills – began to crumble after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It will be on hiatus starting Monday, when Wimbledon opens without the world No. 1, Daniil Medvedev, and the rest of the tennis players from Russia and Belarus, who have been barred from participating.

World Athletics, the track and field’s world governing body, has also barred Russian and Belarusian athletes from its championships next month in Eugene, Ore., The biggest track and field event outside of the Olympic Games.

The Bans represent a dramatic shift after years of resisting letting politics interfere with individual athletes’ participation in sports. They are also a departure from the decisions that various sports organizations made earlier this year to ban the penalties of the Russian and Belarusian teams or any flags or other symbols from the countries.

What changed? China’s authoritarian government has stifled free speech and other human rights, and its treatment of the Uyghurs has been deemed genocide by multiple governments, yet it was hosted to host the Olympics in February. Why were Russian and Belarusian athletes pariahs by March?

Experts in international sports say the so-called right-to-play principle is the most important package of economic sanctions placed on a country since the end of the Cold War. That shifted the calculus for sports leaders, said Michael Payne, former director of the International Olympic Committee’s marketing and broadcast rights.

“For years, people would point at sports and athletes and demand boycotts, and sports could say, ‘Hang on, why are you singling us out but going on with the rest of your trade?'” Payne said. “But if you have full economic and political sanctions against a country, then I’m not sure if sports should still sit out.”

The leaders of tennis in Britain finally decided they could not. In April, the acting government of the British Government, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which runs Wimbledon, and the Lawn Tennis Association, which oversees other annual spring and summer tournaments in England, announced the ban, explaining they had no other choice.

“The UK government has set out for directional guidance for sporting bodies and events in the UK, with a specific aim of limiting Russia’s influence,” said Ian Hewitt, Chairman of the All England Club. “We have taken that direction into account, as we must as a high-profile event and leading British institution.”

He said the combination of scale and severity of Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state, the condemnation by over 140 nations through the United Nations and the “specific and directive guidance to address matters” made this a “very, very exceptional situation.”

The move is widely popular in Britain, according to opinion polls, but it has received significant pushback from the men’s and women’s tennis tours. They condemned it as discriminatory and decided to hold withholding points for any victories at the tournament.

On Saturday, Novak Djokovic, the defending champion at Wimbledon, called the barring players unfair. “I just don’t see how they have anything to share that is really happening,” he said.

One Russian-born player, Natela Dzalamidze, changed her nationality to Georgian so she could play doubles at Wimbledon. Last week, the United States Tennis Association announced that it would allow players from Russia and Belarus to compete at its events, including the US Open, this summer, but with no national recognition.

“This is not an easy situation,” Lew Sherr, chief executive of the USTA told The New York Times this month. “It’s a horrific situation for those in Ukraine, an unprovoked and unjust invasion and absolutely horrific, so anything we talk about pales in relation to what’s going on there.”

But, Sherr added, the organization did not receive any direct pressure or guidance from government officials.

Tennis has been juggling politics and sport a lot lately. Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, has been suspended last fall in the tour’s business in China, including several high-profile tournaments, because of the closed treatment of Peng Shuai.

Peng, a doubles champion at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014, accused a former top government official of sexually assaulting her. She then disappeared from public view for weeks. She later disavowed her statements. Simon said the WTA would not return to China unless it could speak independently with Peng and a full investigation took place.

In explaining the decision to bar Russian and Belarusian athletes from its world championships, Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, acknowledged in March that the move went against much of what he has been up for. He has railed against the practice of politicians targeting athletes to make political points while other sectors continue to go about their business. “This is different,” he said, because the economy of the other parts is at the tip of the spear. “Sport has to step up and join these efforts to end this war and restore peace. We can’t and shouldn’t sit this one out. “

Michael Lynch, a former director of sports marketing for Visa, a leading sponsor of the Olympics and the World Cup, said the response to Russia’s aggression is as natural as sports evolving away from the myth that they are somehow separate from global events.

Just as the NBA and other sports leagues were forced to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement after the assassination of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, international sports would recognize that they were not walled off from the problems of the world. said.

“This genie is not going back in that bottle,” Lynch said. “We will continue to see increased use of sports for cultural change, value change, for policy change. It ‘s only going to happen more and more. “

Sports’ sanctions against Russia could be the beginning of the end of largely unfettered global competition. Who gets to play and who doesn’t depend on the political zeitgeist deems an athlete’s country to be compliant with the standards of a civilized world order.

Should Israeli athletes worry about their relatively much-criticized occupation of the West Bank? What about American athletes next time their country kills civilians with a drone strike?

“This is a slippery slope,” David Wallechinsky, a leading sports historian, said of the decision to hold Russian and Belarusian athletes accountable for the actions of their governments. “The question is, will other people from other countries end up paying the price?”

This month, some of the world’s top golfers were criticized for joining a new golf tour by the government of Saudi Arabia, a repressive government responsible for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and columnist for The Washington Post. Looming a little more than two years from now is the Summer Olympics in Paris. Who will be there is anyone’s guess.

“I do think Ukraine has rightly galvanized the West and all itsies, but I also believe that the sport will emerge as a connector instead of a tool division,” said Terrence Burns, a sports consultant who advised Russia in the 2000s on its bid. secure hosting rights for the Olympics and the World Cup during a different era. “But it will take time. And during that time, athletes, for better or worse, will pay a price. “

Christopher Clarey contributed reporting.

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