Open season on Russian players misses the point

It’s Groundhog Day again for tennis and the question of whether Russian and Belarusian players should be prohibited from competing while the war in Ukraine is continuing.

This week, the Ukrainian ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, called for Russian tennis players to be banned from the upcoming Australian Open. This sentiment is understandable. Those players, however, will appear and play under a neutral flag at Melbourne Park this month.

Further, Australia’s former federal sports minister Richard Colbeck has come off the long run to declare that he doesn’t “reckon” any Russian players should be playing in Melbourne, so as to “send a message”.

Those same players didn’t play at Wimbledon in 2022 due to the All England Club’s fears that Vladimir Putin might use a victory by a Russian player as a platform for propaganda. That strategy didn’t work though, given the ladies champion, Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina, was born in Russia and played under that country’s flag until 2018.

In the end, did the All England Club’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players change anything at all? Of course not.

In 2022, those same players, and teams representing Russia and Belarus, were banned from the Davis Cup, the Billie Jean Cup and this nascent United Cup. In the end, did the decisions to ban them from these tournaments achieve any identifiable or measurable purpose? Of course not.

Russia’s Daniil Medvedev signs autographs at the Adelaide International this week.Credit:AP

And the distinction must be drawn right there, that sometimes it might be appropriate to exclude Russian teams, just as FIFA banned Russia from qualifying for the recent World Cup. But such decisions are to be distinguished from banning individual athletes who happen to be Russian; the two situations ought not be conflated.

Because this isn’t whatsoever a discussion of any triviality. Three of the current top 20 men’s tennis players are Russian. Of the top 100 players in women’s professional tennis, 12 hail from either Russia or Belarus.

There aren’t trifling deliberations either when considering that what we actually are discussing is meddling in the careers of professional athletes with all the usual limited lifespan and uncertainty issues thrown in.

Through rules implemented across tennis in 2022, all Russian and Belarusian players competed under the white flag of neutrality and are not expressly designated as Russian or Belarusian representatives. Yet of course, they are Russian and Belarusian, and it’s a contrivance to say otherwise.

Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina, who was born in Russia, won last year’s women’s singles title at Wimbledon.Credit:AP

The sensible argument for banning Russian athletes runs along lines that the Russian sports system is indivisible from the Russian State, which has a demonstrated history of using sport as a vehicle for displaying muscled superiority and asserting dominance.

So, the theorem follows, removing Russian athletes serves a significant purpose in delivering “a message”.

Another argument in early 2022, but not so much now, is that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be excluded from competition because such a ban places those athletes on a par with Ukrainian athletes affected by the ongoing war as they don’t have any proper opportunity to train and compete because their country has been under attack.

It must be accepted that, in a way, all of the foregoing talk about bans is understandable considering the wartime backdrop against which these measures might be implemented. But the invasion of Ukraine by Russia’s armed forces is more Putin’s war than it is Russia’s. To what extent can it be acceptable that Daniil Medvedev or Daria Kasatkina are rendered collateral damage of Putin’s warmongering?

Remember that Putin was permitted free passage to attend the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. There he was front and centre days out from invading Ukraine. Isn’t it hypocritical to seek to exclude his country’s athletes now a year down the track?

The straightforward position would be to say that all Russian athletes and officials should be definitely banned from all sports anywhere outside of Russia until otherwise notified. That would be the punitive approach and to many this no doubt is the proportionate response. But such an approach is anything but proportionate and that’s exactly the problem.

Why ban athletes and use them as a symbol of punishing Putin? We don’t ban Russian tourists from these shores, nor have we placed absolute embargoes on all trade with Russia. Those decisions would send a message; hurting some tennis players won’t.

Furthermore, of the numerous ongoing armed conflicts raging around the world with little attention paid, steps haven’t been taken to ban athletes from those countries en masse from international competition. So what makes Russian athletes distinguishable?

Johan Kriek won the first of his Australian Open tennis titles while a South African citizen (he became a US citizen by the time he successfully defended the title) at a time when anti-apartheid sanctions had been imposed widely on South African sporting teams as opposed to specific athletes. He wasn’t cancelled as an individual athlete, whereas teams representing his country were. There’s the difference.

Frankly, it’s convenient and a seemingly quick win to suggest that Russian and Belarusian tennis players should be banned. It’s an obvious but lazy idea because there’s comparatively a lot of tennis players who originate from those two countries and many of them are very good at their sport.

The fact of the matter is that throughout 2022 many Russian tennis players spoke out against Russia’s war as vociferously as they reasonably could given the potential risks to the safety of their families back home. On that basis alone, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that Russian and Belarusian tennis players should now be used as pawns to make a point that doesn’t have any prospect of resonating anyway.

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