Wimbledon's ban of Russian, Belarusian players latest sad example of politicization of everything

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On Monday, the Boston Marathon hosted 28,000 runners. Russians and Belarusians were not allowed to race.

On Wednesday, the All England Club announced players from Russia and Belarus are banned from playing in this year’s Wimbledon. This includes men’s world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev of Russia and women's world No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

These decisions are made under the guise of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — that, in the words of the All England Club, “unjustified and unprecedented military aggression” will not be tolerated. But if organizers were being honest, they’d acknowledge it’s really about virtue signaling. And not just any virtue signaling, but the virtue signaling of the day.

Because if they did care about “unjustified and unprecedented military aggression,” no Chinese players would be allowed at the All England Club in June, which (as of now) they will be. And no Chinese runners would have been allowed to compete in Monday’s marathon, which they were. In fact, one primary sponsor of the marathon was Wanda Sports Group … based in Beijing.

What this is really about is optics, the organizational equivalent of putting the Ukrainian flag on your Twitter profile. To think otherwise would be to ignore what these organizations have and are ignoring.

What’s happening in Ukraine is sad, tragic and unjust. But on the scale of bad things, it isn't more "unjustified" than what's happening to the Uyghurs in China.

But again, no one is banning Chinese athletes.

Banning Russia from World Cup competition is one thing, because the team is playing under the Russian flag. Banning individuals because of their country of birth is nothing more than guilt by uncontrollable association.

The policy drew scorn from multiple top voices in tennis, including Novak Djokovic who said, "The players, the tennis players, the athletes have nothing to do with [the war]. When politics interferes with sport, the result is not good."

The politicization of everything has led to the likes of world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev not being allowed to play in Wimbledon simply because of where he was born. (Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
The politicization of everything has led to the likes of world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev not being allowed to play in Wimbledon simply because of where he was born. (Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Following the All England Club’s ban, a group of Ukrainian tennis players demanded on Wednesday their Russian counterparts declare where they stand on the invasion of Ukraine.

“In times of crisis, silence means agreeing with what is happening,” read a statement from the Ukrainian group. “We have noticed that some Russian and Belarusian players at some point vaguely mentioned the war, but never clearly stating that Russia and Belarus started it on the territory of Ukraine.”

That sounds all well and good, except that many, if not all, of these Russian athletes likely have family in Russia whom they might fear could be, shall we say, taken care of if they were to speak out against the motherland. So no, silence doesn’t always mean agreement.

This has become an all-too-common tactic, demanding allegiance or else. It’s led to the politicization of everything, including marathons and tennis tournaments. To manage public perception — and by extension thwart any potential backlash — the likes of the Boston Athletic Association and the All England Club signal their virtue by joining the trending movement of the moment.

“Given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of Government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible,” read the All England Club’s statement.

Really? Where were you when Russia invaded Ukraine back in 2014? Or after Russia started conducting airstrikes in Syria back in 2015?

Nope, this is all about playing to the news cycle, and once it moves on — and it will; it always does — so will their “responsibility ... to limit Russia's global influence" ... even though the Ukrainian people will still be in need of support, just like the Uyghurs are now, just like the Bosnians were in the '90s, a few years after the cameras left there, just as countless others have been only to be back-burnered when a "more important" issue of the day captures the media's attention.

Don’t kid yourself. This is a public relations move. Nothing more.

This column originally appeared in Yahoo Sports' daily newsletter, Read & React. Click here to subscribe.

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