Patriot games, set, match: Wimbledon walkover plan would be a disturbing precedent

Here’s a hypothetical. Who is the Australian individual sportsperson of recent memory who you would think of as most proudly patriotic, most wedded to ‘my country, right or wrong’?

Lleyton Hewitt? Adam Scott, who screamed ‘Come on, Aussie!’ as he sank that putt to win the 2013 Masters? Sally Pearson, even Ash Barty? Even in the individual sports, country can still be a most powerful driver.

But for relevance, let’s make it Our Lleyton.

Consider now if the Australian government had a policy that threatened the lives of whole populations of innocent civilians. For plausibility, let’s say its fossil fuel exports that were causally linked to natural disasters and the evacuation of island nations, fault for which could demonstrably be laid at Australia’s feet.

If opinion around the world turned hard against Australia, nothing would stop the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club from banning the uber-Aussie Lleyton from Wimbledon unless he signs a specific form of words repudiating his own country. Silence is not enough: he must take the overt step of rejecting Australia, a pariah country, if he wants to play.

As unjust and improbable as that sounds, it is this kind of deal that may stop the men’s world No.2 Daniil Medvedev from competing at Wimbledon this year. The UK Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said during the week that Medvedev and women’s world No.5, Belarus’s Aryna Sabalenka, may be forced to sign a document saying they “are not receiving money from [Vladimir] Putin, Russia or Belarus [and] that they will not be making supportive comments of Putin, Russia or Belarus.”

Russia’s Daniil Medvedev faces having to sign a statement repudiating his country before playing at Wimbledon.Credit:AP

Already they are banned from playing under their national flags. The All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club has gone further, commenting that it can impose its own rules, as a private club, without regard for discrimination laws or natural justice.

“If you are running the main tennis tour, you have the freedom to ban players, but you have to be able to show this course of action is reasonable,” an unnamed club source reportedly told the UK Daily Telegraph. “Russian players could argue that they are being prevented from making a living through no fault of their own. That is not so much of an issue for Wimbledon, however.”

It is some turnaround. For decades, sportspeople have been condemned when they have allowed their political beliefs to overlap with their performances. Back in 1980, the captain of Australia’s Olympic swimming team, Mark Morgan, personally boycotted the Moscow Olympics because he disagreed with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Most of the team went, under the banner of ‘politics and sport don’t mix’. Cathy Freeman was reprimanded for carrying the Aboriginal flag, a political symbol, after winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were ostracised for their black power salute on the Olympic podium in Mexico City in 1968. There is a long and lively and ultimately productive debate about the rights of sportspeople to use their privileges to express their heartfelt political views.

Flipping all of that on its head, Medvedev and Sabalenka face bans for not making political statements; for just wanting to be tennis players; for keeping politics separate from their sport. If it is to happen, it opens some disturbing precedents.

Belarus’s Aryna Sabalenka, the women’s world No.5, also faces a tough choice before Wimbledon.Credit:Getty Images

We don’t know Medvedev’s reasons for not making strident anti-Putin public statements. He might be scared for his family or otherwise intimidated. He might be brainwashed into thinking Ukraine needs to be cleansed of neo-Nazis. He might be dull or stupid. He might love his nation’s ruler. He might, like countless athletes before him, be a blind, proud and genuine patriot: Mother Russia, right or wrong.

None of these motivations would make Medvedev any different from most athletes around the world, who prefer to be left in their bubble to pursue improved performance. What does make Medvedev’s case different is that the Russian invasion has created a rare international unity of opinion (as long as you subtract the two biggest countries in the world, China and India, plus a lot of others who have not condemned Russia; their athletes are presently unencumbered by demands to sign any statements).

So powerful is the feeling against Putin, in the tennis-playing West at least, that the fear of Medvedev raising the Wimbledon trophy in June is so gut-wrenching that any steps are justifiable to prevent it from happening.

But wait, wasn’t this what happened to Novak Djokovic, deported from Australia in January because he became a political problem for the federal government? Australia’s immigration minister Alex Hawke, in his Federal Court of Appeal argument, said Djokovic had to be deported because he might foment anti-Covid vaccination sentiment. Wasn’t this another imposition of politics on a sportsperson who just wanted to be left alone to play tennis?

Novak Djokovic was deported from Australia because he might foment anti-Covid vaccination sentiment.Credit:Luis Ascui

The parallels can be taken too far, however. Djokovic, via his enablers at Tennis Australia, was asking for an exception to be made for him against public health rules that applied to others. He was thrown out because he might influence others. He saw himself as a freedom fighter for a cause which can affect the health of entire communities. So even if it was under the guise of a public health debate, Djokovic was actively leading a political movement with potentially serious consequences.

Can Medvedev be accused of any of that? His silence on Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine influences exactly nobody. He does not see himself as a leader; his every indication is that he wishes the whole conflict would disappear. In Australia it was the government that employed a convenient legal fiction to win its case, interpreting its own laws and the political consequences, throwing Djokovic out against the desires of the tennis tournament.

In Britain, by contrast, the government would presumably let Medvedev in – how could it not, without politically persecuting him? – whereas it is the private tennis club, running its own rules, that may prevent him playing, purely because of the prospect of a Russian winning Wimbledon and embarrassing everyone, even if he is playing under no national flag.

It shows how the Djokovic affair, interpreted in different ways around the world, is still going to set some awkward precedents. Will other sporting organisations require sportspeople to sign political statements? What future tyrannies of majority opinion can be held over individuals?

What if some future Lleyton Hewitt has to take accountability for his country’s life-destroying policies? Come on! Sportspeople who take political stances to stimulate debate or raise awareness are very often, in the fullness of time, admired. What of a sportsperson who wants to abstain from groupthink?

For spectators to boo Medvedev at Wimbledon, or for protestors to wave anti-Putin banners, would be a democratic way of getting a message across. But oh so unseemly at SW19. Far more convenient is the totalitarian response of a pre-written statement demanding his signature.

It may be academic anyway. Medvedev this week underwent surgery for a hernia that might rule him out of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Perhaps, where the mouth stays silent, a rebellious body does all the talking.

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