April 21, 2022 - 11:56am

The news that the All England Club has barred Russian and Belarussian players from competing at this year’s Wimbledon tennis championships comes as no great surprise. Not because the decision was in any way wise or ethical; but simply because it is the latest in a series of decrees by bodies and institutions apparently so determined to parade their virtue on the Ukraine crisis that they are even prepared to go to the lengths of making innocent Russian and Belarussian citizens pay for the crimes of their nation’s rulers.

The absurdity of some of these sanctions has been such that one could be forgiven for assuming the stories were made up. There was the decision of the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra to remove the works of Tchaikovsky from one of its concerts; the university in Milan which cancelled a course on Dostoevsky (the decision was later reversed); authorities in Canada who pulled vodka and other Russian products from the shelves of local shops; the opera which banned a Russian soprano because she wouldn’t submit to its demand that she issue a statement condemning Putin; the orchestra which scrapped a performance by a Russian piano prodigy. The list goes on. Even a primary school in Warrington got in on the act, terminating lessons on Russian culture.

It is hard to see any rationale for these displays of prejudice other than a desire by those responsible for them to be seen, in a conflict which has increasingly come to be viewed as a battle of all-good versus all-evil, as on the side of the angels. But when was it ever acceptable to so directly punish ordinary citizens for the actions of their government? And why, if it’s acceptable to make Russians and Belarusians suffer in this way, do we not apply the principle to the passport holders of other countries whose ruling regimes commit serious violations in the way of international law and human rights?

Some may contend that it is right to ban individual sports competitors or teams where they are explicitly representing the nation at the centre of the storm. That is certainly an arguable point (and would be the defence to the decision to ban Russia from the World Cup). But that doesn’t apply at Wimbledon. Were he to be allowed to take part, current world number two Daniil Medvedev would not be competing for Russia; he would be an individual competitor who happened to be Russian. That seems to me to constitute a significant difference.

Will the All England Club get away with the ban? Well, leading figures from the sport have already spoken out against it, as have its international ruling bodies. Meanwhile, appearing on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, arbitration and sports lawyer Duncan Bagshaw argued that the decision potentially constitutes a breach of the Equality Act, which makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of race (which, for the purposes of the Act, includes nationality).

Whether or not the ban proves in the end to be unlawful, we will have to wait and see. That it is morally wrong is surely beyond question.

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker