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Explained: War destablises the ‘neutral’ in sports; Wimbledon contemplates snapping ties with Russian players

Wimbledon is contemplating snapping ties with Russian players in view of the country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine – the largest military invasion in Europe since World War II.

British Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston raised concerns regarding Russian players participating in Wimbledon this year and said he was in talks about it with the All England Club, which runs the grass-court Grand Slam tennis tournament.

The International Olympic Committee, which has long refused to take positions on geopolitical matters, recently implored sporting bodies and event organisers to “not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions”.

“Absolutely nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed. Many of us would be willing and able to (allow them to) compete as non-aligned, non-flag-bearing entities. But I think it needs to go beyond that. We need some potential assurances that they are not supporters of Vladimir Putin and we are considering what requirements we may need to try and get some assurances along those lines,” Huddleston said.

What could this mean for Russian tennis players?

The move could entail Russian players like Daniil Medvedev and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova divesting themselves of the flag, symbol and language of their homeland. They would then be expected to commit to taking part in the tournament as “neutrals”.

The seven groups helming the sport around the world have condemned the war. They have cancelled events in Russia and Belarus, kicked them out of the Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup team competitions and announced on 1 March that players from those countries will be allowed to compete in WTA, ATP and Grand Slam tournaments but not under the name or flag of Russia or Belarus.

Russia is the reigning champion in both the Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup, but the International Tennis Federation announced that the country would be replaced in the 2022 finals of each by the highest-ranked losing semi-finalist in 2021. For the Billie Jean King Cup, that is Australia; for the Davis Cup, it’s Serbia.

Wimbledon’s deadline for player entries is 16 May. The tournament is scheduled to begin main-draw play on 27 June.

Russian tennis players, if allowed to play, will be under enormous scrutiny both on and off the court. Would a win for Medvedev be a victory for Putin? Would the absence of Medvedev contribute to the anti-war effort?

In the middle of all this are athletes who, like ordinary Russians, may become – perhaps unfairly – the target of sanctions.

Medvedev’s stance

Medvedev, ranked second in the world, has removed the Russian flag from all social media profiles and says that he wishes for world peace to reign.

Many think that Medvedev’s stance is very diplomatic in the face of a terse opposition being set up by the British Government.

“Watching the news from home, waking up here in Mexico [Mexico Open], was not easy. By being a tennis player, I want to promote peace all over the world. We play in so many different countries; I’ve been in so many countries as a junior and as a pro. It’s just not easy to hear all this news. … I’m all for peace,” Medvedev had said earlier.

Make no mistake: the Wimbledon tournament – hosted by a NATO country – is more than an exhibition of tennis. It’s also a demonstration of what Britain regards as appropriate, which is unlikely to be diplomacy and accommodation.

Huddleston seems only comfortable with Russian athletes who either oppose the war or publicly denounce it by withdrawing support. In a sense, it would mean that they are distancing themselves from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Miami Open on Thursday, Medvedev was reluctant to be drawn on the subject, saying he was taking the season “tournament by tournament.”

“Don’t have any response to Wimbledon,” Medvedev said. “I will need to see what happens next.”

“I try to take it tournament by tournament. I mean, there are always different rules, regulations in order to play or not to play.”

“Right now I’m here in Miami. I can play and I’m happy to play tennis, the sport I love. I want to promote the sport all over the world. We’ll have tough moments and good moments.”

Human rights vs. support for war

Some critics have opined that Russian athletes are getting caught in the crosshairs of the Russian military’s activities in Ukraine.

Some Russian sports stars have also taken a stance – but the views are varying. Several made public appearance sporting the letter Z (a symbol of support in favour of Russia). Chess champion Sergey Karjakin took to Twitter to praise his country’s “special military operation”. Others, meanwhile, voiced their disapproval of the war, a perilous stance given this type of dissent is now deemed a crime – with some 15,000 Russian people already arrested.

Ever neutral sports has been forced to respond to the growing global angst that has made itself felt in a profound way. The result? It has been compelled to come out behind its customary veil of “neutrality” in political matters. As such, sports organisations around the world have taken positions on the participation of both Russian and Belarusian teams and athletes.

However, some sports bodies, such as tennis and biathlon, are allowing Russian and Belarusian individuals to compete under the proviso they do as “neutrals”.

Sports caught in the throes of political/war-time rift?

Countries opposed to Russian invasion of Ukraine have slapped economic sanctions on Russia as the principal deterrent. Unfortunately, these measures hurt and harm ordinary Russians.

Some critics argue that the West’s sanctions are hypocritical considering American and allied military interventions in places like Iraq, or Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

From that perspective, global sanctions ought to have been implemented against the United States or Israel, with flow-on implications for sport. Discussions about Ukraine have, therefore, not only focused squarely on Russian imperialism and Putin’s fascism, but also the turpitude of the Washington-led “rules-based order”.

Whether the All England Club bans Russian players or accepts them as neutrals, it will have arrived at a decision in concert with the UK’s sports minister, at a time when Britain is supplying arms to Ukraine.

With inputs from agencies

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