Toxic political meddling spoils Wimbledon 2023

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine. Picture: Tannen Maury/EPA

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine. Picture: Tannen Maury/EPA

Published Jul 18, 2023


This year’s iconic Wimbledon tennis competition has been thoroughly spoiled by the blatant politicisation of sport through self-serving geopolitics, resulting in the Ukrainian star Elina Svitolina refusing to shake the hand of her vanquished opponent, Victoria Azarenka due to her Belarusian nationality.

It was a sorry sight to behold. I believe it was made more painful by the fact that it wasn’t Svitolina’s innocent choice to be so unsport(wo)manlike, but rather the result of a nefariously persistent campaign by the Nato-aligned Western powers to mark tennis players from Belarus and Russia as outcasts.

Svitolina has dished out exciting sound bites to the Western press, saying things like “Russian and Belarusian players should not have been allowed to participate”, and praising the “kind-hearted” British tennis authorities for covering all the costs on behalf of the Ukrainian players.

To her full credit, Azarenka kept calm in the wake of the Svitolina-led hostility against her. And as the victor refused to shake the hand of the vanquished, the crowd joined in, turning on Azarenka with inexplicably loud boos that saw the Belarusian star leave the court in total disbelief, shaking her head and making a spontaneous gesture that she later told probing reporters: “The gesture meant nothing, unless you want to make something out of it.”

Last year’s event of the globally popular Wimbledon controversially disallowed innocent participants from Belarus and Russia over the ongoing war in Ukraine. Russia calls it a “special military operation”. The US-led Nato calls it Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war continues to rage two years on. And then, the saddest of things happens: The West, united largely by their historic Russophobia, has changed tactics from geopolitical boardrooms to sporting fields, literally forcing their national sport heroes and heroines to become active participants in a new political strategy concealed in tennis.

The debate to exclude Russian and Belarusian sportsmen and women from the International Olympic Committee fell flat when reason and logic triumphed over the politicised agenda to isolate individuals who otherwise have absolutely nothing to do with the ongoing war in Ukraine.

A last-ditch compromise was reached when it was decided that participants from Russia and Belarus would be allowed provided they did not hoist the national flags of their respective countries. In other words, participate strictly as “neutrals” – sportsmen and women with no country to call home.

The All England Club, or British tennis authorities, had initially argued, in their misguided decision last year to bar Russian and Belarusian players from participation, that it would be tricky for members of the royal family to shake hands with a Russian or Belarusian champion in the event of any of them winning the prestigious annual tournament.

The official Wimbledon’s explanation was unmistakably mired in sheer unadulterated geopolitics, saying their diabolical decision had been taken in order to “limit Russia’s global influence” and to avoid a situation that could “benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime”.

The controversial decision thankfully did land the All England Club in hot water with the men’s and women’s professional tours that took exception to the politicisation of tennis by Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam tournament to exclude players from Russia and Belarus over a war in which they played no direct or indirect role in causing.

I believe money aside, the symbolism of the imposed fine went a long way in restoring the credibility of the World Tennis Association.

This year, in a desperate move to minimise, nay, completely cut out the risk of heavier punishment, the All England Club caved in to their surreptitious political meddling in sport by opting instead to allow the participation of individuals from the two countries as athletes with no fixed abode.

Announcing the lifting of the ban in March, Wimbledon’s chair, Ian Hewitt, described the move as an “incredibly difficult decision”. They forced the participants from Russia and Belarus to sign “declaration of neutrality” forms as a precondition to their participation.

But then, who cares? If David Beckham were to be forced to participate in any sport as a neutral, the entire world would still know that he is English, wouldn’t they?

Wimbledon, sensing that participating as “neutrals” still did not completely erase the identity of the Russian and Belarussian athletes, the powers-that-be decided to cascade their hostility to the innocent participating players themselves, ordering them to be unsport(wo)manly toward the Russian and Belarusian players.

This hostility has been taking place in the full view of the global television and social media audience. The norm or usual decorum of a handshake at the beginning or end of a competitive encounter was thrown out of the window in a move that continues to trigger debate about political meddling in sport.

The misguided onslaught on innocent athletes on the basis of their nationality is well orchestrated in the Nato countries and is multifaceted and often disguised as professional work.

Take, for instance, the harassment of the Russian and Belarusian tennis players by the toxic Western reporters who subject the athletes to a barrage of personal interrogation disguised as frank interviews over the war, instead of focusing on their tennis.

An exasperated Aryna Sabalenka, the Belarusian women’s world No 2, ended up boycotting press conferences at the French Open, citing mental health. She told pro-Nato reporters: “If you have any kind of political questions, you can ask the WTA or the tournament.”

At the start of Wimbledon on July 1, where Sabalenka continues to march towards the finals, the Belarusian star publicly declared that “she will not discuss the war in Ukraine during the tournament”.

Yet the truth is, the Russian and Belarusian stars have increased the spectator value of Wimbledon 2023 by offering top-notch competition. They include Russian stars Andrey Rublev, the seventh seed, and Daniil Medvedev, the men’s No 3, as well as the exciting teenage debutant, 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva, who stunned the crowds by reaching the fourth round.

This whole Wimbledon saga leaves too much to be desired, and I’ll tell you why.

Traditionally, sport is a unifier of nations. It brings communities together in a spirit of conviviality. Through sporting interactions, lifetime friendships are formed, and strong bonds that transcend race, politics or religion are often sealed with a handshake, or a simple kiss on the cheek.

Regardless of socio-economic or geopolitical differences, sport has thus far been regarded as a singular effective magnet to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together. It is a vehicle for effective social cohesion all over the globe.

There can be no better vehicle to foster people-to-people diplomacy than sport. And when geopolitics gets permitted to take over the administration of sport – covertly or overtly – methinks we have entered dangerous territory that foolishly repositions sport as a new trigger of geopolitical conflict.

Throughout history, the worst political enemies shook hands in the sporting field because that’s what sport is all about – positive competition. Even at the height of the Cold War, participants from the East and West observed the culture and tradition.

We dare not walk into sporting fields with war mentality aimed at removing opponents from the face of the Earth over political differences. What the Western countries have started, I believe, will come back to haunt them.

It creates an environment where geopolitical differences – from bilateral to multilateral – could be unleashed in the sporting field using athletes as cannon fodder.

This makes a mockery of the truism that athletics is a career for the individual, and politics is a game of open campaign for public office by society’s most untrustworthy lot to lead states for up to four or five years before the next round of voting for the new self-serving batch to ascend the throne, or retain “the devil you know”.

Imagine the following scenario where, due to the role of the Europeans in colonialism, slavery and apartheid, among other evils, the nations of the global south felt duty-bound to refuse to shake the hands of perceived blood-suckers who stripped their lands of mineral wealth.

This would happen despite the fact that slavery, colonialism and apartheid had ended long before many of today’s athletes were born. Such confrontation is not the forte of sport. Neither is Wimbledon the proper venue to fight the Ukrainian war.

The self-righteous nature of Western democracies to perceive being different as barbaric, backward and unacceptable says more about the West than their belittled and often despised geopolitical opponents across the global south.

My wish, just so that sport can show meddling politicians the middle finger, is for a Russian or Belarusian champion to emerge at Wimbledon 2023. You’ve got my support. Good luck.