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Brian O’Connor: Wimbledon hands Putin propaganda victory

Doubling down on individual rights and freedoms is best policy in the face of fascists

The French Open begins in Roland Garros next Sunday with players from Russia and Belarus competing. Those same players are banned from Wimbledon next month, a dubious decision that will be no less suspect even if some regrettable Ivan Kuliak moment occurs in Paris.

Kuliak is the Russian gymnast whose patriotic fervour led him to tape the letter “Z” to the front of his outfit before standing on the podium at an event in March next to a winner who just happened to be Ukrainian.

The letter "Z" was synonymous with Russian aggression in Ukraine even at that early stage of the invasion so no one could mistake the gesture as anything other than a defiant show of support for Vladimir Putin.

There is abundant evidence over the decades of how sporting and cultural boycotts can have a significant impact in the long term

Since then Kuliak has retreated to well-deserved obscurity. But it isn’t hard to imagine the Wimbledon blazers looking at such behaviour and dreading the prospect of any potential embarrassment come the summer.

It is the centenary of the world's most famous tennis tournament taking place at its current location. The Duchess of Cambridge is a patron. Even the remotest chance of someone going rogue in Centre Court was clearly too awful for the All-England Tennis Club to contemplate.

That those instincts coincided with encouragement from Boris Johnson’s government only hastened last month’s decision to ban players from Russia and Belarus competing in England. There was apparently no alternative. Every other avenue was examined and dismissed.

The AEC cited the importance of not allowing sport to be used to promote the Russian regime and broader concerns for public and player safety. It also said the championship’s profile demanded it play its part in limiting Russia’s global influence as the horror of the conflict in Ukraine continues.

If nothing else, it at least has the merit of decisiveness. But by most any other measure it looks wrongheaded. The Wimbledon authorities might have been propelled by a need to do something. But doing anything for the sake of doing something is usually a wonky move.

That doesn’t mean they can’t make a case.

The prospect of the US Open champion Daniil Medvedev landing the men’s singles at Wimbledon, complete with images of being handed the trophy by English royalty, does indeed have the potential to be used as a propaganda tool by the Kremlin.

Even by the shameless standards of politicians everywhere hitching their wagons to sporting success, Putin is unsurpassed in being ready to run his squalid regime through the wash of second-hand athletic glory.

It hardly needs to be pointed out either the absurdity of any tired old argument about keeping politics out of sport while the instinct to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine through decisive action is not only understandable but laudable.

Following through on that instinct though is a balancing act that an outright ban tips over far too far the wrong way.

The British government originally considered allowing players from Russian and Belarus to compete in England if signing a declaration that they are against the war, a step that could lead to obvious problems for players families as well as striking an uneasy and sinister tone.

The urge to express solidarity with Ukraine prompted concerns about players from that unfortunate country forced to face across the net opposition from a country that has killed thousands of their compatriots. Except just such a scenario can occur in the rest of the professional tour.

Rublev will be in Paris but not in Wimbledon, a situation he has described as illogical

There is abundant evidence over the decades of how sporting and cultural boycotts can have a significant impact on public opinion in the long term. Failure to penalise players now results in, the argument goes, a normalisation that can be exploited by a ruthless and essentially fascist regime.

Boil it down, however, and Wimbledon’s decision has handed Putin and his cronies a propaganda victory already. Doubling down on individual rights and freedoms is best policy in the face of fascists. Failure to do so reflects only weakness.

There may be some top Russian and Belarusian players that support the war in Ukraine and are prepared to wrap themselves in the flag at any price. But if so they’ve been notably quiet on the topic up to now.

The top-10 player Andrey Rublev made the most public statement, writing “No War Please” on a camera screen just days after the invasion began, an unremarkable gesture in most circumstances but not lacking for pluck in the current climate.

Rublev will be in Paris but not in Wimbledon, a situation he has described as illogical and one that has individual athletes caught up in a geo-political conflict over which they have no control.

It is a fundamentally different scenario to banning Russia in team sports. They blatantly represent a Russia that went rogue years ago but is now roundly recognised as having contravened all the normal rules and regulations of international law.

As a result, a lengthy list of prominent and wealthy individuals inextricably linked to Putin and his rule have quite rightly been penalised. They are reaping the dividends of what they have sown.

But equating individual tennis players to that, and lumping them under a blanket ban, is a ham-fisted false equivalence.

Most of the rest of tennis seems to recognise that. The French Open director Amélie Mauresmo has outlined what is, in the circumstances, a reasonable policy that individual athletes are welcome but not teams, although always with the option of sanction if any player publicly supports Putin.

No one can guarantee something like that cannot happen in Paris next week but it won’t be the end of the world if it does.

On the other hand Wimbledon opting to ban players from Russia and Belarus ensures there won’t be some very public centre court “scene” in July.

But in preventing that they have double-faulted on something much more important, the freedom of an individual to behave like a jackass without the underlying principals we live by having to be compromised.