Boycotts in Sport May Not Advance Human Rights. But They Do Harm Individual Athletes

Jerri-Lynn here. Wimbledon begins tomorrow, and its organizers haven’t missed their chance to be the latest to signal their virtue on the Ukraine conflict by imposing a ban on Russian athletes participating in this year’s tournament. They do so even though this gesture won’t have any impact on Russian policy, and only hurts the individual athletes. On the general issue of targeting individual Russians for actions undertaken by the Russian government, see this excellent Gilbert Doctorow post, The impact of Western sanctions on Russian musical life – which was linked to previously.

I’m aware that the following article is a bit woofy and suffers from some muddled thinking; nonetheless, I post it so readers can discuss some of the wider issues by such boycotts, in the sports realm and elsewhere.

By Hans Westerbeek, Professor of International Sport Business, Head of Sport Business Insights Group, Victoria University and Ramon Spaaij, Professor, Victoria University. Originally published at The Conversation.

Organisers of Wimbledon, the main draw of which begins on June 27, have found themselves in a quandary over their controversial decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players in protest over the invasion of Ukraine.

The banned players include current men’s world number 1 Daniil Medvedev, number 8 Andrey Rublev, and women’s world number 6 Aryna Sabalenka.

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

Because one of the world’s most prestigious tennis tournaments has been relegated to merely a high-profile exhibition event, a growing number of players have pulled out of the tournament, including Naomi Osaka and Eugenie Bouchard (this shows how a boycotter event can simultaneously be boycotted by participants).

These kinds of boycotts occur regularly in high-profile sport as event organisers and participants use its global reach to highlight human rights violations.

But boycott actions and counter-actions – including those at Wimbledon – often do more to harm individual athletes who happen to be nationals of these countries rather than to the condemned regime or the event sponsors.

Sport and Human Rights

Australian former golfer Greg Norman sparked world-wide condemnation with his statement that “we’ve all made mistakes” when discussing the Saudi-Arabian-backed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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

Norman’s dismissal of a murder and the horrified global reaction to his comment show the power of sport to highlight and simultaneously ignore human rights violations.

Nations accused of violating these rights have found strategic, proactive approaches to counter the punitive, reactive, and short-term approach of economic boycotts. And sport plays an important part in that, such as the example of Qatar using the FIFA World Cup as a confirmation of their credibility and ability to host a globally significant event.

Such investments in “sportswashing” – using sport as a thin veneer to present a sanitised, friendlier version of a political regime or an organisation – are big business. The global influence of sport can become a vehicle for soft diplomacy and pursuing legitimacy.

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

This has now only worsened with evidence of mass exploitation of the migrant workers constructing the Cup’s stadiums.

Although arguably less extreme in nature, Australia is not absolved of human rights deficiencies in sport.

Why, for example, do Indigenous Australians remain under-represented at the elite and community level in most Aussie sports? Why are Australian women missing as leaders in coaching? Why is there currently only one openly gay male professional soccer player in Australia and no openly gay male AFL players? Why have so many members of Australia’s gymnastics and swim teams reported abuse and toxic culturesthat started when they were children?

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

However, most nations do not fully recognise and implement this notion in policy and practice, with access to sport participation often marred with complexities and hypocrisy.

Has Wimbledon’s Boycott Worked?

Wimbledon organisers are clearly trying to make a point: invading the sovereign territory of another nation is unacceptable.

Yet even though the tournament can call the world’s attention to its stand, has banning players from invading nations proven to be an effective means to defend and protect human rights?

The answer would be a resounding “no”.

What the ban has achieved is to signal that the Wimbledon organisers take a position against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But taking a stand does not defend nor protect.

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

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

Crucially, leveraging sport to advance human rights requires that human rights safeguarding by Australia, Russia or Qatar is measured by the same yardstick, recognising that much work must be done to ensure each country’s own sporting environment is inclusive and free of discrimination.

In doing that, we can truly recognise sport as the universal human right that it is, and it can remain true to its core objective of celebrating human potential and achievement.




Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Petter

    Banning these athletes and artists and…is just so wrong, wrong, wrong.
    Shaking my head in despair.

  2. JohnA

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

    Not to mention a country with little if any records in football or other sports. A country where it is too hot to play in the usual off-season and will disrupt all the main European league seasons.

    More light may be shed on how FIFA came to award the 2022 event to Qatar in the upcoming trial of Blatter and Platini for financial irregularities. Or maybe not.

    1. QuicksilverMessenger

      It really is complete corruption. The WC during the football league seasons? Joke. We should be watching matches now. And we’ll see if anything comes of Septic Bladder and his henchmen Platini. Must everything always be about nothing but money?

  3. Lexx

    Dear Google… do professional tennis players live in their countries of origin?

    Who are the official sponsors of Wimbledon?

    How do professional tennis players get paid?

  4. Terry Flynn

    I don’t support one side or the other. However I am old enough to remember when the UK banned official competition in cricket with then-apartheid South Africa. Proponents of the ban (argued to include the Queen and which is being brought back to attention via TV like in the Crown) argued that hitting white South Africans “where it hurt – their major international sport” would promote change. Opponents (like Prime Minister Thatcher) argued this was nonsense.

    No idea if it made a difference. However people should maybe go check recent history to get up to speed on to what extent any such rules “achieved goals” or not.

    1. disillusionized

      There is a substantial difference between boycotting a national team and some rando who happen to be Russian.
      Don’t think anyone complained about the Russian men’s national football team got boycotted.

      1. Terry Flynn

        Yeah you make my point exactly. The campaign was against whomever was “the thing” (team in case of SA, individual here).

        And yeah nobody complained about Russian football team because when did they be remotely competitive or the “biggest thing in Russia”?

        Thanks for standing up for me.

    2. Skk

      Well, I recall it in 1968. It really starts with England’s, technically MCC cricket team, tour of South Africa and the selection by England of Basil D’Oliveira, of South African mixed race background:

      South African cricket officials in 1968 realised that the inclusion of D’Oliveira in the England squad would lead to the cancellation of the tour, and probable exclusion of South Africa from Test cricket. This exerted pressure on the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) hierarchy leading to the decision not to pick him, which was felt by opponents of apartheid to be a way of keeping cricket links with South Africa open. There was dissent in the press to this course of events and when Warwickshire’s Tom Cartwright was ruled out because of injury, D’Oliveira was called up into the squad.[1] South African prime minister B. J. Vorster had already made it clear that D’Oliveira’s inclusion was not acceptable, and despite many negotiations the tour was cancelled; South Africa was excluded from Test cricket for 22 years. This was seen as a watershed in the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa.[14] The D’Oliveira Affair had a massive impact in turning international opinion against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

      So, in a senses, South Africa boycotted HIM, leading to the rest.

      1. JohnA

        South Africa historically only ever played international cricket matches against England, Australia and New Zealand, all pretty much white only teams pre mass immigration. Never against West Indies or India. So SA effectively boycotted black and Asian nations in any case.

  5. lyman alpha blob

    I’m not sure why the percentage of gay athletes in Australia is relevant to this article, but since the author asked, I will attempt an answer since these kind of questions increasingly bother me due to the inference that we must have homogeneity across society and all IdPol groups must be represented everywhere in proportion to their percentage in the overall population.

    Anecdotal to be sure, but in my experience, there are not as many gay men who are huge sports fans as there are straight men. Simple as that. There are also not as many straight men who are big into the arts as there are gay men, in my experience at least. Isn’t that OK? Or should we be wringing our hands that there aren’t enough straight men into community theater?

    Doesn’t the fact that openly gay people are allowed to compete freely in sports these days mean something? And not only allowed, but often celebrated even if they turn out not to be that great at the sport in question. Given all the talk in society about being one’s authentic self, can’t we allow all people the opportunity to do whatever they please without bemoaning the fact that not everyone from every group likes the same things in equal proportion?

    1. Basil Pesto

      the issue is a bit less superficial than one of merely meeting quotas. The number of openly gay athletes in sports such as football (soccer) historically, is implausibly low. This is because historically they have feared disfavour, reprisal, bullying etc. to the point where openness on such questions ran the risk of putting their careers at risk. and not unreasonably: the culture at football clubs can be pretty stupid at times. Fans are more accepting of things like this but it’s not too long ago that the kind of base racism (and homophobia I’m sure) that we see from Ukrainian football ultras was not all that uncommon in England. To take another example, strides have been made in more open acceptance of depression and psychiatric issues among footballers than would have been thinkable even just 15 months ago, when players would have been ridiculed for being unmanly etc. and perhaps put their careers at risk. I think the point being made by such advocates is not about quotas but that it would be a sign of a somewhat healthy society or at least work environment if there were more openly gay athletes who felt comfortable in coming out. ymmv on that question. And of course it’s also the right of anyone to not have to publicly disclose their sexuality for whatever reason.

      But his equivocating Qatar with Australia in the article is wooly-headed bullshit typical of those who can only understand human rights as a slogan rather than a body of law. Human rights can only be trammelled by the State which confers rights in the first place (see: pretty much all modern HR jurisprudence). Australian Gov has no part to play whatsoever in the number of openly gay footy players in the AFL and whatnot (compared with, say, the KSA government) and therefore this is not a human rights issue. Qatar’s stadiums were built on the back (and lives) of modern immigrant slave labour, which is very much a human rights issue. Just absolute nonsense from the author. If the Australian government – which controls AIS, for god’s sake – is proactively doing anything to sabotage the careers of female coaches or indigenous athletes, then I’m all ears. It would actually be a major story here.

  6. The Rev Kev

    Back during previous Olympic Games when they banned Russian athletes from competing for their country and made them compete as part of Team No Name, I could see the abuses that were playing out, especially when the justification was some pretty dodgy charges on the part of some really dodgy people and organizations. But I do find it funny that Wimbledon has been reduced to a series of demonstration games because they tried to do the same. And I don’t blame those tennis players for withdrawing. Why risk getting an injury here which would put you out of contention for tennis matches where the points actually count? I am old-fashioned enough to believe that either everybody competes or you forget the whole thing and yes, that includes North Korea. The alternative can be pretty bad. So in 2028 the Olympics returns to L.A. for the third time. So what happens if the US refuses to issue visas to countries that they do not like which coincidentally stand a good chance of winning? What sort of Olympics would that be then? And speaking as an Aussie, I found the following passage inserted into this article weird-

    ‘Why, for example, do Indigenous Australians remain under-represented at the elite and community level in most Aussie sports? Why are Australian women missing as leaders in coaching? Why is there currently only one openly gay male professional soccer player in Australia and no openly gay male AFL players? Why have so many members of Australia’s gymnastics and swim teams reported abuse and toxic cultures that started when they were children?’

    Where to start? OK, in America you have plenty of black sports people and I have heard that some of them even play basketball. But black Americans form what, about 15-20% of the population? Here in Oz, Aborigines are about 3.3% of the population which is a really small base to come from. And that includes people that only identify as Aboriginal. Hasn’t stopped them shinning in a lot of sports, especially footy-

    The number of women in coaching I agree is an issue as sports is still a bit of a boys club here. But openly declared gays in sport? Who cares? People only want to know if they are any good. Nobody ask them their religion for example as again, nobody cares. And abuse and toxic cultures in gymnastics and swimming? This seems to happen a lot with adults and young kids in these sports. There has been massive scandals like this in the US too recently. Fortunately there is a solution. It is called prison. As soon as you find this going on, you haul their a** off to prison and put them in with general pop.

  7. Matthew

    Millions of Russians that don’t support the regime are under sanctions that reduce their standards of living and, prevent travel and just generally make life harder. If a few high profile people that have the wealth and freedom to be internationally prestigious are also burdened it may or may not have an effect but it’s a small thing in context. The LTA would have done well to offer a percentage of the prize money to Ukrainian refugees as part of their effort. It would have been much better received.

    1. witters

      “The LTA would have done well to offer a percentage of the prize money to Ukrainian refugees as part of their effort. It would have been much better received.”

      Not by me.

  8. Dave in Austin

    Symbolic politics is the wave of the present. Let’s argue about something that doesn’t matter so we can pretend we are “doing something” and call it news. Then let’s pretend that the pro-and-con discussion (do we ban individuals? Do we ban teams? Should we be awarding points if you ban?) represents even more news.

    It’s as if the old theological question of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” had been followed by a Papal Encyclical on the subject, leaflets on the encyclical, bans on circulating the leaflets and articles from leading scientists on the likely mass of an angel and the difference between the Metric and British pin… all while ignoring the Black Death.

  9. skk

    Certainly, I supported boycotting South Africa as a team from playing international cricket all those many years ago, primarily cos South Africans cared about cricket and were good at it. But individual players playing county cricket? Didn’t bug me, after all, Sussex got Tony Greig for a few seasons.

    1. Petter

      The Pink Pistols – gay pro gun group. Motto is – pick on someone your own caliber. I know, I know, wrong thread and probably not even relevant except your comment about gay bill riders triggered Flash! Cowboys, six shooters, Randolph Scott.
      Ready? Open the gates.
      Link: Why There Will be No Gatekeeping Within the Pink Pistols.

  10. David in Santa Cruz

    The whole idea of a bunch of swells gorging on champagne and strawberries while watching a country club lawn game played for cash prizes greater than the personal net worth of most of us reading this blog leaves me cold.

    To engage annually in such a gross spectacle of conspicuous consumption in a time when hundreds of thousands were and are being killed or maimed in places like Yemen, the Donbass, Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria, Mali, etc. is simply disgusting.

    All professional sport is immoral. Most of these games are corrupt, “fixed,” and exist for no other reason than to support wagering by the greater fools among us.

  11. SImpleJohn

    Please friends, stop calling “invading territory” “unacceptable” until you simultaneously call sanctions unacceptable.
    Just because sanctions were not recognized as being as brutish as America wants them to be when the U.N. charter was written, this does not grant them or us any more virtue than nuclear weapons or their users.
    I recoil at so many posts these days where the poster wants us all to see the West as virtuous and the rest as not.
    Adjectives kill. Please stop being promiscuous with adjectives that you could not defend rigorously.

Comments are closed.