Russia vs The World: A Conflict of Sports & Politics

Russia conflict sports politics
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Russia vs The World: A Conflict of Sports & Politics

Beneath the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, lies the untold story of the struggles Russians face in such political turmoil. It seems that international Russian athletes are battling the world in addition to their own government in the sporting and political arena. Tennis’ top Russian stars for instance, find themselves in a tough situation, where they are either banned from competition due to their nationality, or risk being banned from their own country to save their careers.  

Read more: The Irony of the Elena Rybakina Wimbledon Victory

The End of Russian Dominance?  

Russia conflict sports politics
2021 Davis Cup winners: Russian Tennis Federation

Over the years, Russian tennis has been a ‘force to be reckoned with’, with a plethora of players occupying the top rankings. Names like Maria Sharapova, Marat Saffin, Dinara Safina, and Daniil Medvedev come to mind. Currently, with 4 men and 8 women in the top 100 rankings, Russia is arguably the strongest nation in the sport. Winning 3 medals at the recent Olympic Games in Tokyo and sweeping team competitions; and also winning the Billie Jean King Cup and the Davis Cup to boot. 

Russia conflict sports politics
2021 Billie Jean King Cup winners: Russian Tennis Federation

But sadly, such winning efforts were only rewarded with an expulsion, as the defending champions were removed from competition.  

As war raged in Ukraine, international sporting bodies decided to indefinitely suspend the country from play. So, as it stands, Russians are uncertain of their future in the sport, since the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) excluded Russian athletes from upcoming events.  

“In short, we’re outsiders…” said Daria Kasatkina, the top ranked female Russian tennis player.  

It’s one thing to get banned from group tournaments in an individual sport. But getting banned on an individual level just hits harder. And it’s even worse when that ban comes at a grand slam. 

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 Regimes and Propaganda 

In a YouTube video by Russian vlogger, Vitya Kravchenko (Витя кравченко), Russian tennis stars Andrey Rublev and Daria Kasatkina uncovered the damning reality for tennis in the country. The Russian aces opened up about their feelings towards bans on Russians at tournaments; the Kremlin-deemed taboo topic of war in Ukraine; and its impact on the impending future of not only Russian tennis but sports in the country as a whole.   

Andrey Rublev (right) won gold at the Tokyo Olympics in mixed doubles with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (left)

While Kravchenko and Rublev shared drinks at a Spanish café, a Wimbledon match graced the television screen. But Rublev didn’t seem too keen on the program. With a rueful smile, he reminded the viewer that he was supposed to be playing in the tournament but isn’t because of the ban. Frustrated at being banned, the tennis star said: “everything I earn, I invest in my career, and then I’m forbidden from doing my work. It is upsetting for sure.” 

The Olympic gold medallist explained that there were several attempts made to help diffuse conflict between the two nations. “We wanted to use the platform… to show that there is no war in tennis,” he said. But all suggestions were rejected with the same response. “The Russian government is going to use our results for propaganda.”  

Russians, despite playing as neutral athletes, are still being held back because of the general ire against their government. All international tournaments in Russia have been cancelled, as much of the Western world has chosen to impose sanctions on the country; in large part due to the recently unfolding events in Eastern Europe. Russians all around the world have felt the impact. And for tennis players, not only has that impact been felt on-court, but also off-court. 

Sports or Politics? 

Now back to Kravchenko’s vlog, where a shopping spree in Barcelona would turn on its head to some degree, the international depiction of all Russians as big bad bullies Ukrainians should despise. Unexpectedly, some fans had met their tennis role models, Rublev and Kasatkina which left them gleaming with joy.  

A teenage girl and her younger brother, both Ukrainian, ran to get photos with two of their favourite tennis players who just so happen to be Russian. Although, the Ukrainian supporters were very delighted to meet their heroes, they were quite reserved with their verbal admiration of their Eastern European counterparts.  

Read: Political Corruption has always fueled St Lucia Crime

The heart-warming moment also serves as an epiphany: That Russian tennis players should indeed be free of restrictions to competitions. 

While reflecting on the impact of the war, Roland Garros semi-finalist, Kasatkina, spoke on the even greater impact of sports.   

Daria Kasatkina won her 5th career singles title at San Jose to reach a career high #9 ranking

“Kids love what I do, what Andrey does and they just don’t care where we are from… I think it’s the sign that sports–I won’t say is outside of politics because we all know that sports are not outside of politics–but sports, really unite [people] because of all the great emotions. It’s when the world unites the most: world tournaments, Olympic Games…” 

The Olympics is truly the biggest celebration in sport, and the 2020 edition, unbeknownst to most, may have been the last Olympic Games for Russia, as it is unclear what the future holds for the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).   

The Waning Future of Russian Tennis 

As Russia continues to tussle with international sanctions, the future of tennis appears to be in jeopardy. Major sporting brands like Nike no longer operate in the country and others like Babolat are not imported. With so few resources available and tennis already being a pricy sport, it looks near-impossible to pursue tennis in Russia. On average, it costs $143,000 to play tennis at a professional level, per Pledge Sports.  

Local tournaments make competitions more accessible to native athletes. However, when those events are cancelled, it leaves Russian players with less opportunities. Juniors are likely to take the brunt of the impact as more hurdles are added to their developmental path. Tennis equipment is expensive, tennis facilities are expensive and travel is expensive. All those factors are multiplied with the current circumstances of the war. “It’s rough with juniors nowadays, they’d be left with no career that hasn’t even started yet,” Rublev remarked.  

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Russian Roulette 

The sad reality is that not only are fatalities recorded daily in the war, Ukrainian and Russian alike. But respective citizens are negatively affected as well; financially and socially among other ways. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Russians. Young kids resultingly have very little room to follow their dreams to become professional tennis players. This also means that kids and tennis aficionados may not get to enjoy watching their favourites take the court. Unless those players change nationalities. A move that would cause a stir.  

Rublev touched on how unreasonable the Wimbledon ban on Russian players was. “I should have changed my citizenship to get there. That would be acceptable for them.” However, switching nationalities may be detrimental to Russians as they are likely to be seen as traitors back at home. A fact the players are aware of. Rublev didn’t say whether he’d switch nationalities moving forward. But Kasatkina seemed more open to the idea if the worst happens and Russians are banned from all major tournaments. Both acknowledged it could be the only way to keep alive their careers. 

But as great as the prospect of continuing their careers might be for the pair of Russian aces, getting displaced by the Russian government is also a real possibility. The thought of which brought fear to Kasatkina and reduced her to tears. Kasatkina admitted that she’s thought about how her contrary position on the ongoing war, waged by her country, may cost her her home and livelihood in her hometown. 

For these players, it’s either suffer at the hands of the world for representing Russia or suffer at the hands of the Russian government for turning against them.   

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