Daniil Medvedev, the top-ranked male tennis player in the world, is the No. 1 seed at the big Indian Wells tournament set to finish this weekend.
Should he still be playing while his country is invading Ukraine?
Russia’s Alex Ovechkin is one of the most gifted hockey players the world has seen. And oh, by the way, he’s a longtime supporter of President Vladimir V. Putin. Should Ovechkin still be scoring goals for the NHL’s Washington Capitals?
Should any Russian nationals be allowed on the sports world stage right now?
In an effort to condemn sports-loving Putin and further isolate his nation, the sports world reacted with remarkable swiftness as the war in Ukraine began. We’ve seen Russia barred from World Cup qualifiers in soccer and its basketball teams cut from international play. Tennis called off its Moscow tournament, and Formula 1 ended ties with the Russian Grand Prix.
Even the normally tentative International Olympic Committee got in the mix by recommending athletes from Russia and Belarus, which has supported the invasion, be barred from sports events, and the Paralympics after some wavering did just that.
But the bans are not complete.
Many Russian athletes continue to prosper right in front of us. Individual soccer players can still participate in European soccer leagues. Ovechkin leads a robust Russian contingent in professional hockey, and the country’s tennis players continue to make good livings on pro tours, although they cannot participate in tournaments with any national identification.
Should these players’ days as competitors outside Russia be numbered – at least until the war ends and Ukraine sovereignty is restored?
Bruce Kidd thinks so. Kidd represented Canada at the 1964 Summer Olympics as a distance runner, and has long been a human rights leader in sports.
During the era of South African apartheid, he helped lead the charge for Canadian restrictions on South African athletes, which began taking effect in the 1970s.
When I spoke to him last week, Kidd was adamant: Using hockey as an example that could spread globally, he believes Russian nationals in the NHL should be barred once the current season ends in June, their immigration visas suspended with the door open for asylum .
Such a move would not stop the war, of course. But similar to the effort he promoted during apartheid, ending Russian sports participation would buttress economic penalties, deprive Putin of the chance to revel in the athletic exploits of Russian players and send a message of support to Ukraine.
“The No. 1 argument is to say, ‘Mr. Putin, the sports community is so outraged by your repeated violations of human rights, your violation of the basic values of sports and fair play, that we are saying enough is enough, ”said Kidd, whose idea has been echoed in a similar form by the Ukrainian Embassy in Canada. “We are showing you and your population our abhorrence.”
Kidd, now the ombudsperson at the University of Toronto, knows detractors will tell him that such a move runs contrary to the principles of a free society. In normal times, he would agree. Not now.
All Russian athletes, he added, are highly visible representatives of the nation they come from, “whether they like it or not.”
I tend to agree with Kidd. But I’m also wary. Barring individual athletes is likely to add to the unfounded feeling of grievance shared by Putin and many in Russia. It may also fuel dangerous xenophobia against everyday people of Russian descent.
That eerie silence from most Russian athletes, the refusal to say anything critical after blood doping scandals and now the bombing and killing in Ukraine? No doubt some remain quiet because they support Putin and want to steer clear of controversy.
Some also stay quiet out of well-placed fears for their safety and that of family in Russia.
If we at least all sports stars from the aggressive nation in this war, what about those who have taken the risk of speaking out against it?
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Consider that Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov is one of the few current Russian hockey players to oppose Putin’s aggression. He posted a photo on Instagram with the words “NO WAR” and “Stop it!”
Dan Milstein, an agent who represents many Russian hockey players in the NHL, said Zadorov went public even though he knew he would probably never play for the Russian national team again and that his family could be endangered.
Milstein is Ukrainian. He immigrated to the United States in 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed. Yet he supports without reservation the Russian nationals who are his clients: professional players and a cast of teens playing in the talent-rich Canadian Hockey League, which this month canceled its annual series against Russia in response to the war.
When I spoke to Milstein recently, I could hear fear and anger in his voice.
“I am sick to my stomach for my home country, for the people there, the children,” he said. “But at the same time, I am extremely saddened by the way that some people in the world are treating innocent hockey players, not only the professionals but the teenagers. They’ve done nothing but work their tails off for numerous years, for a chance, for a dream, to play in the best league in the world. And now they are potentially denied the opportunity because they were born in Russia. ”
“Going after them,” he added, “is going after the wrong guys.”
There are no winners here. No easy answers in a situation that feels as dire as any the world has faced in decades.
Russian athletes are individuals, like us all, full of dreams and fear and courage.
But they are also symbols – potent representatives of a nation engaged as the aggressor in a heinous war. Why are we letting any of them play?