LONDON – For roughly three decades, making sure athletes participated in the biggest events regardless of the world’s never-ending military and political battles has been a nearly sacrosanct tenet of international sports.
Wars broke out. Authoritarian nations with egregious records on human rights hosted major events. There were massive doping scandals. And through it all, boycotts and bans on participation 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, 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 drastic shift after years of resisting letting politics interfering with individual athletes’ participation in sports. They are also a departure from the decisions that various sports organizations made earlier this year to limit punishments 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 the Uyghurs has been deemed genocide by multiple governments, yet it was permitted to host the Olympics in February. Why were Russian and Belarusian athletes pariahs by March?
Experts in international sports say that the so-called right-to-play principle ran headlong into the most significant 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, the International Olympic Committee’s former director of 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 that sports should still sit it out.”
The leaders of tennis in Britain ultimately decided they could not. In April, acting at the behest of the British government, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which runs Wimbledon, and the Lawn Tennis Association, which oversees the other annual spring and summer tournaments in England, announced the ban, explaining they had no other choice.
“The UK government has set out directional guidance for sporting bodies and events in the UK, with the specific aim of limiting Russia’s influence,” said Ian Hewitt, the chairman of the All England Club. “We have taken that directional guidance into account, as we must as a high-profile event and leading British institution.”
He said the combination of the 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 broadly 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 withhold rankings points for any victories at the tournament.
On Saturday, Novak Djokovic, the defending champion at Wimbledon, called the barring of players unfair. “I just don’t see how they have contributed to anything 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 identification.
“This is not an easy situation,” Lew Sherr, the 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 is 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, the chief executive of the WTA, last fall suspended the tour’s business in China, including several high-profile tournaments, because of the country’s treatment of Peng Shuai.
Peng, a double 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 until 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 stood for. He has railed against the practice of politicians targeting athletes to make political points when other sectors continue to go about their business. “This is different,” he said, because the other parts of the economy are at the tip of the spear. “Sport has to step up and join these efforts to end this war and restore peace. We cannot and should not sit this one out. ”
Michael Lynch, the 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 natural as sports evolve away from the fiction that they are somehow separated from global 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 shooting of Jacob Blake, international sports will have to recognize that they are not walled off from the problems of the world, he said.
“This genius isn’t going back in that bottle,” Lynch said. “We will continue to see increased use of sports for cultural change, for 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 could depend on whether the political zeitgeist deems an athlete’s country to be compliant with the standards of a civilized world order.
Should Israeli athletes worry because of 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?
“This 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 bankrolled 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 are the next Summer Olympics, in Paris. Who will be there is anyone’s guess.
“I do think Ukraine has rightly galvanized the West and its allies, but I also believe that sport will emerge as a connector instead of a division tool,” said Terrence Burns, a sports consultant who in the 2000s advised Russia on its bids to 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.