By JACOB ARNOLD
Organisers of the Australian Open have sparked controversy after their decision to ban the Russian and Belarusian flags from the tournament. Some are viewing the decision as unfair on both players and fans since it politicises sport. Many others have welcomed the move but are pushing for further action, calling for a ban of Russian and Belarusian players altogether. It seems organisers are in an impossible position, with current efforts to satisfy both sides simply pleasing no one at all.
Both Russian and Belarusian players, and fans, should feel lucky to be at the tournament in the first place; Wimbledon’s organisers banned them from the tournament altogether. The violent images coming out of Ukraine can only begin to reflect the destruction that Vladimir Putin’s hate-fuelled, unjustifiable invasion has had on Ukrainian families and society. With this in mind, bringing geopolitics into the realm of sport is simply unavoidable.
It would be wrong to consider this purely from one, Western, perspective. The war in Ukraine is clearly a conflict concocted by Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko themselves. It is not a conflict that was started by supportive tennis fans, nor the players who have trained their whole lives to play in these major tournaments. Therefore, the view that they should not be punished and denied support just because of the actions of their insane leaders is entirely valid. Simply waving the national flag doesn’t directly correlate with their support for the invasion of Ukraine, which is opposed by a growing majority in Russia especially as sanctions bite.
The idea of the need to punish Russia and Ukraine isn’t a Western perspective though. The world has rallied behind Ukraine, with Russia and Belarus becoming pariahs on the world stage. They have very few allies. Therefore, the step to ban the flags shouldn’t be controversial with the masses. Challenging a rogue Russia and a barmy Belarus is something that has so far been embraced by people from across the world. Whilst painful for the innocent Russians and Belarusians attending the Open, the reasoning behind the measures is justifiable, and it is a widely accepted view.
Despite this, some see these actions against the Russian and Belarusian sides as doing little to truly help Ukrainians. It simply brings the war into sport, which should most certainly be a space for much needed peace and inclusivity in a time of great challenge and uncertainty. What Ukraine really needs is material support from the West, but this is a job for politicians, not for the organisers of sporting events. However, this view is dangerous because international sporting events have always been political, whether we like it or not. They provide an opportunity to share a view to the world, and indeed to the Russian and Belarusian leadership, that extreme violations of international law will not be tolerated. This view has been reinforced by the Victorian State government, who have claimed the move sends ‘a very, very clear message that human rights are important, whether it's in sport, or more broadly in our community’.
Whilst many would think the step to ban the flags is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of the world, they would be wrong. The move raises wider questions about the significance of a flag, as well as on politics and equality in sport. Sport should be played on a level playing field, which is the theory behind the organisers’ decision to initially allow all fans to express their support with flags at the Open. However, there have been multiple reports of fans using flags as a symbol of violence and hatred towards Ukraine and its allies. In this sense, the decision to ban the flags of these two rogue states becomes even less controversial. Fans have been said to have actively ‘taunted’ players with them. Regardless of the geopolitical situation, this is not in line with the values of the game and could rightly constitute political action in itself.
The decision by the organisers of the Australian Open shouldn’t be a controversial one. The Russian leadership is guilty, invading Ukraine, disrupting the lives of innocent people, and bringing them trauma no person should face. Belarus is complicit, enabling Russia to act as it has. The only controversy should stem from inaction. Organisers could’ve and should’ve banned Russia and Belarus altogether. Whilst unfair on fans and players, actions have consequences. Both states must face maximum pressure within the international system until Ukraine is free, and those responsible for atrocity are held to account. Sometimes politicisation is necessary, and sport has reach. Normalising the actions of Russia and Belarus to the world by allowing them to play on as normal would be wrong and will only prolong the pain Ukrainians face.
Image: Flickr/ Massimiliano Raposio