LONDON — For nearly three decades, ensuring athletes compete in the biggest events, regardless of the world’s endless military and political battles, has been an almost sacrosanct principle of international sport.
Wars broke out. Authoritarian nations with blatant human rights records staged major events. There have been massive doping scandals. And through it all, boycotts and bans on participation have all but disappeared from the sporting landscape.
This principle – holding truly global competitions and not holding athletes responsible for the ills of the world – began to crumble after Russia invaded Ukraine. It will be on hiatus from Monday, when Wimbledon opens without world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev and the rest of the tennis players from Russia and Belarus, who were barred from participating.
World Athletics, the world governing body for track and field, has also banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in its championships next month in Eugene, Oregon, the biggest track and field event outside the Olympics.
The bans represent a step change after years of resistance to letting politics interfere with individual athletes’ participation in sports. They also deviate from decisions various sports organizations made earlier this year to limit sanctions to banning Russian and Belarusian teams or any flags or other symbols of the countries from competitions.
What changed? China’s authoritarian government has stifled free speech and other human rights, and its treatment of Uyghurs has been deemed genocide by several governments, but it was allowed to host the Olympics in February. Why were Russian and Belarusian athletes outcasts in March?
International sports experts say the so-called right to play principle has rushed headlong into the largest set of economic sanctions imposed on a country since the end of the Cold War. It changed the calculus of sports executives, said Michael Payne, former director of marketing and broadcast rights for the International Olympic Committee.
“For years people would point fingers at sports and athletes and demand boycotts, and sports could say, ‘Wait, why are you singling us out but getting on with the rest of your craft? “Said Payne. “But if you have full economic and political sanctions against a country, then I’m not sure the sport should abstain yet.”
Tennis leaders in Britain finally decided they couldn’t. In April, acting on the request of the British government, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which operates Wimbledon, and the Lawn Tennis Association, which oversees England’s other annual spring and summer tournaments, announced the ban, explaining that they had no other choice.
“The UK government has set guidelines for sporting bodies and events in the UK, with the specific aim of limiting Russian influence,” said Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club. “We have taken these directional guidelines into account, as we must as a top-tier event and a leading UK institution.”
He said the combination of the scale and gravity of Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state, the condemnation by more than 140 nations through the United Nations and the “specific guidance and directives to resolve the problems” made it a “very, very exceptional situation”.
The move is widely popular in Britain, according to opinion polls, but has been strongly pushed back by the men’s and women’s tennis tours. They condemned it as discriminatory and decided to withhold ranking points for any tournament wins.
On Saturday, reigning Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic called the exclusion of players unfair. “I just don’t see how they contributed to anything that’s actually going on,” he said.
A player of Russian descent, Natela Dzalamidze, changed her nationality to Georgian to be able to play doubles at Wimbledon. Last week, the United States Tennis Association announced that it would allow players from Russia and Belarus to participate in its events, including the US Open, this summer, but without national identification.
“It’s not an easy situation,” USTA chief executive Lew Sherr told The New York Times this month. “It’s a horrific situation for those in Ukraine, an unprovoked and unjust and absolutely horrific invasion, so anything we talk about pales in comparison to what’s going on there.”
But, Sherr added, the organization received no direct pressure or guidance from government officials.
Tennis has been juggling a lot between politics and sport lately. Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, suspended tour activities in China, including several high-profile tournaments, last fall due to the country’s treatment of Peng Shuai.
Peng, a doubles champion at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014, has accused a former senior government official of sexually assaulting her. She then disappeared from public view for weeks. She later disavowed his statements. Simon said the WTA would not return to China until it could speak independently with Peng and a thorough investigation had taken place.
Explaining the decision to exclude Russian and Belarusian athletes from his world championships, Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, acknowledged in March that the decision went against much of what he had defended. He spoke out against the practice of politicians targeting athletes to make political points while other sectors continue to go about their business. “It’s different,” he said, as other parts of the economy are at the tip of the spear. “Sport must step up and join these efforts to end this war and restore peace. We cannot and must not let this one pass.
Michael Lynch, the former director of sports marketing for Visa, a major sponsor of the Olympics and World Cup, said the response to Russia’s aggression is natural as sports evolve far from the fiction that they are somehow separated from world events.
Just as the NBA and other sports leagues were forced to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd and the assassination of Jacob Blake, international sports will have to recognize that they are not isolated from the problems of the world, he said.
“This genie will not go back into this bottle,” Lynch said. “We will continue to see increased use of sport for cultural change, for values change, for policy change. It will only happen more and more.
The sport’s sanctions against Russia could be the beginning of the end of a largely unbridled global competition. Who can play and who cannot depend on whether the political zeitgeist considers an athlete’s country to be up to the standards of a civilized world order.
Should Israeli athletes be worried about their country’s much-criticized occupation of the West Bank? What about American athletes the next time their country kills civilians with a drone strike?
“It’s a slippery slope,” David Wallechinsky, a prominent 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 best golfers came under fire for joining a new golf tour funded by the Saudi government, a repressive government responsible for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist. In just over two years, the next Summer Olympics are looming in Paris. Who will be there is anyone’s guess.
“I think Ukraine has rightly galvanized the West and its allies, but I also believe that sport will emerge as a connector rather than a divisive tool,” said Terrence Burns, a sports consultant who , in the 2000s, advised Russia on its bids to secure the rights to host the Olympics and the World Cup in another era. ” But this will take time. And meanwhile, athletes, for better or worse, will pay the price. »
Christopher Clarey contributed report.