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Wimbledon’s ban on Russian players is unfair, personal — and exactly right

Russia's Daniil Medvedev, who advanced to the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2021, will not play in 2022. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)
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Wimbledon did exactly right. The ban that will prevent Russians and Belarusians from competing at the All England Club may seem unfair, given that players such as Daniil Medvedev have not personally contributed to the war in Ukraine. Yet it’s a necessary message: Even the most innocent Russians will be price-payers for the rapacious actions of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Young Ukrainians are being bombed, shot and orphaned, and they have not participated in the war or done anything to deserve their penalty, either. Nevertheless, they are part of the conflict. Why should Russian tennis players get a bye?

Wimbledon’s sanctioning of athletes for Russia’s bloody state incursion is unpopular with tennis authorities because it takes aim at individuals such as Medvedev, a lithe and peaceable player ranked No. 2 in the world. Medvedev is of course blameless. So why should he be held responsible? This is a question that political philosophers teethe over constantly: “Are the citizens of a state liable for what it does in their name?” Princeton professor and author Anna Stilz has asked. One way to start to answer it, she suggests, it is to flip the question around: What happens if we treat state crimes as totally detached from individual citizens? Terrible things.

Novak Djokovic calls Wimbledon ban of Russians, Belarusians ‘crazy’

Putin cultivates enormous domestic prestige from the success of Russian athletes, who he treats as elites and uses heavily in his triumphalist narrative to the Russian people. It was no accident that he held his March pro-war rally at Moscow Stadium flanked by half a dozen athletes. As chess grandmaster and dissident Garry Kasparov has said of Putin’s sports propaganda efforts, “They are an important part of his campaign of gaining influence.” That he views Russian champions as explicit expressions of his belligerent ambitions was apparent in the irascible statements of spokesman Dmitry Peskov in response to Wimbledon’s ban, which will affect 20-some players.

“Making athletes hostages of some kind of political prejudices, intrigues, hostile actions towards our country, is unacceptable,” Peskov said. “Considering that Russia is after all a very strong tennis country, our tennis players are in the top lines of the world ranking, the competition itself will suffer from their removal.”

Hostages? Suffering? This is the supercilious and remorseless language of the Russian national spokesman about a tennis tournament at a moment when mass graves of bullet-riddled Ukrainian civilians are being uncovered in the tank-shredded mud around Kyiv. There is a bill that will come due for those graves, catastrophic consequences for all Russians. Sports ostracism is an effective way to penetrate Putin’s total control of the war narrative in Russia — and send notice of that unavoidable bill.

As the All England Club said in a statement, it’s merely doing its part “to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible.” Club chairman Ian Hewitt added that Wimbledon refuses to allow itself “to be used to promote the Russian regime.” Hewitt rightly recognized that Wimbledon’s move would provoke a greater outcry than those of other sports entities that have barred Russian and Belarusian athletes, including track and field and figure skating, precisely because the move seems so personal and such an expression of global recoil.

The ATP leaped to the defense of its players, calling the ban “unfair” given that in tennis “the players compete as individuals.” It’s a common refrain, and it leads back to that difficult question: Do citizens bear responsibility for the acts of a nation, even when they bear no moral blame?

Wimbledon bans Russian and Belarusian players over invasion of Ukraine

International courts often have decided they do when a state wages aggressive war. As Stilz has pointed out, reparations are often levied on taxpayers — as Russians should know, because East German citizens in 1945 were forced to pay reparations to Soviets. War, unlike tennis, is not an individual enterprise. It’s a national one. Russia — not just Putin — is destroying Ukraine, so the response can’t be limited to Putin while exempting the citizenry.

“If we end up unable to distribute state responsibility to its members,” Stilz wrote in a 2011 essay titled “Collective Responsibility and the State,” then we’re in danger of establishing “perverse” incentives. States become “responsibility-laundering machines” in which citizens can just “dissociate themselves” from any sense of liability for atrocities. Maintaining some sense of personal liability for states is what gives people the “incentive” to exercise their political will and limit the harm of a state through dissent and civil disobedience.

Russian-born pianist Igor Levit echoed this sentiment on Instagram. “Being a musician does not free you from being a citizen, from taking responsibility,” he wrote. “Remaining vague when one man, especially the man who is the leader of your home country, starts a war against another country and by doing so also causes greatest suffering to your home country and your people is unacceptable.”

Being a tennis player does not free you from being a citizen, either, and Russian national responsibility is inescapable, whether you are personally silent or an outspoken dissident. The ATP’s criticism of Wimbledon’s policy as “unfair” is language as grossly misapplied as Peskov’s. Unfair is not sitting out a tennis tournament in England. Unfair is a bullet in the head on the lip of a trench just for being a Ukrainian mayor. If ATP officials have an issue over fairness, it’s not with Wimbledon. They should take it up with Putin.

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