Wimbledon may force Russian players to denounce Putin

(AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The worlds of professional sports and international politics are colliding in unexpected ways as the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on. We’ve already seen athletes being dragged into the fray in China, but now the action is shifting to the professional tennis courts of Wimbledon. The event is scheduled to kick off on June 27 in London, but if the tournament organizers have their way, Russian tennis star Daniil Medvedev will be banned from the competition unless he publicly denounces Vladimir Putin. The same would apply to any other players from Russia and Belarus. Medvedev is ranked among the world’s top male players in the sport and was scheduled to play as a “neutral” contestant without displaying any representations of his country since Russia has already been banned from participation in most professional sporting events. But is Wimbledon going too far with their demands? (Telegraph)

Daniil Medvedev and other Russian and Belarusian tennis players face being banned from Wimbledon unless they publicly denounce the Ukraine invasion, the Government has confirmed.

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston revealed “discussions” were taking place with the All England Club over preventing “supporters of Vladimir Putin” entering the sport’s biggest tournament.

He did so as it emerged Russia had lost the first round of its legal fight against its exile from world sport.

This strikes me as a bridge too far and a case of excessive virtue-signaling by the All England Club. Yes, we all know Vladimir Putin is an evil despot engaging in an unprovoked war against one of its neighbors. And we’re all aware of the atrocities taking place. But it seems to me that there’s a significant difference between being a “supporter of Vladimir Putin” and being someone who is just trying to keep himself and his family out of the Gulag.

It’s easy enough for most of us to stand up and publicly denounce Putin. The KGB is unlikely to show up at our homes and drag us away in the night. But what happens to Medvedev and the rest of the Russian or Belarusian players if they do that? They still have to go back home eventually. The tournament could be giving one of its highest-ranked players a choice between skipping what is arguably the biggest tournament in his sport or signing his own death sentence.

For a current example of what we’re talking about here, look no further than what happened to tennis star Peng Shuai in her dealings with the equally repressive Chinese government. All she did was speak out against sexual assault in her sport and she conveniently “disappeared” for a while until she returned to give an obviously scripted speech about how it was all a big misunderstanding and nobody in China had ever done anything wrong.

I did a bit of searching and I can’t find an example of Medvedev going out to publicly support Putin or the invasion. Like many who don’t live inside the world of Russian politics, he mostly seems to be trying to keep his head down. (And keep it attached to his body.) Even if he had come out in public as supporting Putin, would that be because he honestly feels an affinity for the despot or because he was warned that he needed to toe the line?

I’m sure the All England Club thinks they will be striking a blow for freedom or something if they make this demand of the Russian and Belarusian players, but they should try walking a mile in their shoes first. We already know that many rank-and-file Russian citizens oppose the invasion of Ukraine and we’ve seen what happens to them if they publicly demonstrate against it. It’s easy to act brave and virtuous when you’re at a safe distance and you don’t have to worry about the Russian secret police knocking on your door in the middle of the night. Perhaps not so for these athletes.