Boycotts in sport must not promote human rights. But they harm individual athletes

Wimbledon organizers, whose main draw begins on June 27, are in a dilemma over their controversial decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players in protest at the invasion of Ukraine.

The banned players include current men’s No. 1 Daniil Medvedev, No. 8 Andrey Rublev and No. 6 women’s world Aryna Sabalenka.

Both the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) penalized Wimbledon for this ban by stripping the tournament of its ranking points.

With one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world being demoted to a high-profile exhibition event, a growing number of players have withdrawn from the tournament, including Naomi Osaka and Eugenie Bouchard (this shows how a boycotted event can be simultaneously boycotted by participants).

These types of boycotts are a regular occurrence in high-profile sport, as organizers and participants use its global reach to draw attention to human rights abuses.

But boycotts and counter-actions – including those at Wimbledon – are often more damaging to individual athletes who happen to be nationals of those countries than to the condemned regime or the event’s sponsors.

Read more: Is it right to ban Russian tennis players from Wimbledon?

Sport and Human Rights

Australian ex-golfer Greg Norman sparked global condemnation when he spoke out about the Saudi-backed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi that “we all made mistakes”.

It didn’t go unnoticed that Norman is also CEO of Saudi-backed LIV Golf Investments, which launched a PGA breakaway golf tour for the super-rich.

Norman’s denial of murder and the outraged global response to his comment demonstrate the power of sport to expose and ignore human rights abuses.

A close-up of Greg Norman in sunglasses as he gives a speech
Former Australian golfer Greg Norman has been widely condemned for his comments on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Neil Hall/EPA/AAP

Nations accused of violating these rights have found strategic, proactive approaches to counteract the punitive, reactive, and short-term approach of economic boycotts. And sport plays an important part in that, as exemplified by Qatar, who are using the FIFA World Cup as a validation of their credibility and ability to host a world-class event.

Such investments in “sportswear” — using sports as a thin veneer to present a sanitized, friendlier version of a political regime or organization — are big business. The global influence of sport can become a vehicle for soft diplomacy and the pursuit of legitimacy.

November’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar remains the subject of a decade-long debate over how FIFA could award the world’s greatest sporting event to a country with a dubious human rights record.

This has now only been made worse by evidence of the mass exploitation of the migrant workers who build the Cup’s stadiums.

Many migrant construction workers are queuing for the bus back to their accommodation camp
Migrant workers who worked under very harsh conditions to build the infrastructure for the World Cup in Qatar.

While arguably less extreme in nature, Australia is not absolved of human rights abuses in sport.

For example, why do Indigenous Australians remain underrepresented in most Australian sports at the elite and community levels? Why are Australian women missing as leaders in coaching? Why is there currently only one openly gay male professional football player in Australia and no openly gay male AFL player? Why have so many members of Australia’s gymnastics and swim teams reported abuse and toxic cultures that began in their childhood?

We should take to heart that even the practice of sport is a universal human right under the Olympic and European Sport Charters and other internationally ratified declarations and treaties.

However, most nations do not fully recognize this notion and fully implement it in policy and practice, as access to participation in sport is often clouded with complexity and hypocrisy.

Read more: The Olympic Games have always been a platform of protest. The ban on hand gestures and kneeling ignores her story

Did the Wimbledon boycott work?

Wimbledon organizers are trying to make it clear: trespassing on another nation’s territory is unacceptable.

But despite the tournament’s ability to draw world attention, has the exclusion of players from attacking nations proven to be an effective means of defending and protecting human rights?

The answer would be a clear “no”.

What the ban has achieved is a signal that Wimbledon organizers are taking a stand against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But taking a stand does not protect or defend.

In this case, it hurts those who cannot be blamed for the war (the suspended tennis players) and the unintended consequences (no ranking points) harm the broader community of professional tennis players.

Read more: French Open: Understanding why Russian and Belarusian tennis players compete despite Wimbledon ban

While sport can indeed be a valuable platform for promoting human rights, we must also recognize that it doesn’t take much for sport to become exclusive, divisive and controversial.

Crucially, the use of sport to promote human rights requires that human rights protections by Australia, Russia or Qatar be measured against the same standards, recognizing that much needs to be done to ensure that each country’s own sporting environment is inclusive and free from discrimination.

In this way we can truly recognize sport for the universal human right that it is and it can stay true to its core purpose of celebrating human potential and its achievements.

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