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Tensions surrounding war in Ukraine impact sports world : NPR

If you wanted to forget the Ukraine war by watching a little tennis, forget it. The war affects everything, including professional sports.



AILSA CHANG, HOSTS:

The war in Ukraine affects almost every aspect of life in Europe, including sports. NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley broadcasts this report from the French Open.

STEPHANE GUROV: (speaks French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Stephane Gurov, CEO of a sports management company, cheers on one of his clients, number 67 in the women’s world, Varvara Gracheva, who is Russian. Gurov also represents Ukrainian players. He says it’s difficult as the war has created tensions in the dressing rooms.

GUROV: As a Players Management Company, we don’t deal with politics, you know. Our duty is to stand behind your players and support them wherever they come from.

BEARDSLEY: He says that tennis, like football, was particularly affected by the war because both followed international events extensively.

GUROV: (speaks French).

BEARDSLEY: Russian and Belarusian athletes were allowed to play at Roland Garros under strict neutrality – no flags, no anthems. But Wimbledon, which starts later this month, has banned her.

JEAN-RENE LISNARD: (speaks French).

BEARDSLEY: Gracheva’s coach Jean-Rene Lisnard says she’s only 21 and left Russia for France five years ago.

LISNARD: She tries to do her job the best she can, you know? It’s just a shame for these players to be associated with that, you know? If we penalized every American or French player or any country every time there was a war, some players would never play (laughter), right?

DAYANA YASTREMSKA: Hey. Hi. Many Thanks. I am sorry. I just finished training and came into the room.

BEARDSLEY: This is world No. 80, Ukraine’s Dayana Yastremska, who has now left Paris and is taking part in a grass tournament in the Netherlands to prepare for Wimbledon. The 22-year-old had to flee her home in Odessa. She says it was difficult playing at the French Open.

YASTREMSKA: You try to focus on tennis, but that’s only possible when you’re on the court. Afterwards you focus on the news all the time and you always try to fall asleep with some thoughts about peace and you wake up with a very bad reality.

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YASTREMSKA: (Non-English spoken).

UNKNOWN INTERPRETER: (speaks French).

BEARDSLEY: In an interview broadcast on French TV at the start of the French Open, Yastremska urged Russian players to denounce the war. Since the invasion, only one Russian player has responded, writing no to war over a camera lens at a tournament in Dubai in February. Researcher Luca Aubain (ph) has written a book on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of sport as a geopolitical weapon.

LUCA AUBAIN: (through interpreter) It’s very difficult for a Russian athlete to be against the war because sport in Russia is patriotism. If you are against the war, you are a bad Russian. you are a traitor

BEARDSLEY: French Open fans are divided.

IMAD MEKHTOUM: (speaks French).

BEARDSLEY: “Wimbledon is wrong because these players are not on their national team. They play as individuals,” says Imad Mekhtoum (ph). “So punishing them is unfair.” But German fan Jürgen Platz (ph) says Wimbledon got it right.

JÜRGEN PLATZ: It’s OK what the English are doing. I would do the same with these Russians, shut them out while the war is on.

BEARDSLEY: Ukrainian player Dayana Yastremska says that while Russian players might find it difficult to publicly denounce the war over Putin, they could at least acknowledge that Ukrainians are suffering privately.

JASTREMSKA: I think they could do some kind of meeting between all the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian players, at least something, you know. But they do nothing.

BEARDSLEY: Yastremska says it is unbearable to see the war at home and to have to pretend everything is fine in front of Russian players abroad. She too believes Wimbledon made the right move. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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