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Russian players banned at Wimbledon: Pawns in the political game or more at stake?

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WATCH: Wimbledon's ban on Russian, Belarusian athletes faces controversy – Jun 27, 2022

A ban on Russian and Belarusian tennis players at this year’s Wimbledon has become a contentious issue as the championships kicked off this week.

The All England Club has barred all Russian and Belarusian players from competing at the prestigious Grand Slam event because of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its fifth month.

Top-ranked men’s tennis player Daniil Medvedev, eighth-ranked Andrey Rublev, world number six Aryna Sabalenka, and former women’s number one Victoria Azarenka of Belarus are among those who have been sidelined by the ban.

Read more: Wimbledon bans Russian, Belarusian tennis players over Ukraine war

The move has been criticized by other players as well as both the men’s and women’s tennis governing bodies, which have stripped the event of ranking points.

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The ban “unfairly” targets individual players who are being treated as “pawns in this whole political game,” but there is much more at stake, some analysts say.

“It is highly symbolic and there are economic and political impacts for the country that’s the target of the boycotts,” said Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, a retired professor from the University of Toronto specializing in critiques of the Olympic industry and gender issues in sport.

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Daniel Rubenson, professor of politics at Toronto Metropolitan University, said Wimbledon’s stance can be meaningful if it gets traction from other sporting bodies — but it won’t end the war.

“This is not just kind of putting a Ukraine flag pin on your lapel. This is actually costly,” he told Global News.

“I think that it can have an effect … because countries and leaders use sports as propaganda and they use sports to try rally their country.”

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Wimbledon organizers have defended the ban, with the All England Club chairman saying the decision was influenced by guidance from the British government and there was “no viable alternative.”

Speaking to ESPN on Sunday, Ian Hewitt said the AEC did not want Russia to use Wimbledon as a “propaganda machine.”

“We hugely regret the impact on the individual players affected, but we also hugely regret the impact on so many innocent people which the tragic situation in Ukraine has caused,” he said.

Political sanctions in sport

International sport is no stranger to sanctions and boycotts over political differences.

The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

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South Africa, during the apartheid era, was subjected to a variety of sporting sanctions by major international governing bodies for its institutionalized racial segregation.

Rubenson said the banning of South African athletes played “a really big part” in changing world opinion against apartheid and putting pressure on the South African government.

“Sports have always been used politically and it’s going to continue to be,” he told Global News.

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International sports cannot divorce politics from sports and have failed when trying to be neutral, said Bruce Berglund, historian of Europe, Russia and world sport.

“In trying to maintain neutrality, it really played into (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s hands,” he said about past dealings by FIFA, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with Russia.

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“Organizations that put on these events have to be cognizant of international affairs.”

Russian and Belarussian tennis players are currently banned from international team competitions but they can compete as individual athletes under a neutral flag at tour events.

They were allowed to participate at the French Open in Paris that concluded earlier this month and will be able to play at the upcoming U.S. Open and warm-up tournaments in Canada.

Lenskyj said tennis has set a good example in challenging countries like Russia and other international federations might do well to follow its lead.

“They cannot be silent and they cannot be neutral,” she said.

— with files from Katherine Aylesworth and the Reuters

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