Spectators display a Russian flag and a Putin T-shirt at the Australian Open first round match. Photo: Pete Shmigel
Tick-a-box tokenism that costs Ukrainian lives has been on display at the Australian Open tennis tournament.
Pete Shmigel is an Australian writer. With a background in politics, business, sustainability, the military and mental health, he has been published by the major newspapers in Australia. He helped initiate Lifeline Ukraine.
Australia is about as far away from the war on Ukraine as one can get, but this week it showed how the West in general is at risk of moving even further from Ukraine.
Namely, the Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slam events of tennis, being held on Jan. 8-29, and the traditional start of the international tennis season, botched its handling of the implications of Russia’s full-scale invasion for the tournament.
a) allowed Russian players to compete, whereas Wimbledon and other major sporting events have not;
b) held a slickly produced and televised PR event before the tournament to show how seemingly committed it is to “peace in Ukraine”;
c) said Russian players can’t compete under Russia’s flag – and then allowed Vatnik supporters to bring in Russian flags to a match where Ukraine’s Kateryna Kozlova-Baindl was playing, and;
d) after representations by Ukraine’s Ambassador and diaspora organisations, and a media storm, was forced to ban spectators from bringing Russian flags.
Nowhere along that ridiculous route did Tennis Australia – the body that runs the tournament – do anything to condemn the causes or reasons for the war. Nor did it require or ask Russian players to state their position on the war.
Nor, even after the Sochi 2014 Olympics and Russian athletes being widely banned for doping, does Tennis Australia show the slightest sign of recognising that sport is part of Putin’s hybrid war.
At the heart of the mismanagement of the situation by Tennis Australia are broader troubling tendencies in Western liberal democratic countries that are risks to Ukraine’s future prospects of victory, including the flow of military aid.
The first tendency can be called “situation normal”.
Under this tendency, many leaders of politics, business, and the media look at and frame Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine as somehow inevitable, “yet another war in a violent world”, and something to be addressed from the perspective of reducing risk to themselves (rather than to Ukrainians). While the war’s human impact is tragic in their minds, and Ukraine is the wronged party, the war is somehow “normal” in their broader worldview. This too shall pass.
Take a look at the statement issued by Tennis Australia on banning Russian & Belarusian spectator flags:
Flags from Russia and Belarus are banned onsite at the Australian Open. Our initial policy was that fans could bring them in but could not use them to cause disruption. Yesterday we had an incident where a flag was placed courtside. The ban is effective immediately. We will continue to work with the players and our fans to ensure the best possible environment to enjoy the tennis.
It’s purely reputational risk management without the slightest recognition of either the stakes involved or of the potential impact on the Ukrainian player who was targeted – and who is from Mykolayiv which hasn’t had water for months, and where both houses and hospitals have been deliberately bombed.
At this point in time, after dozens of war crimes and the killing of 40 plus people in an apartment building in Dnipro just this week, it’s actually inhumane not to see the horror and the harm that the Russian flag and the Russian regime represent.
Whether Tennis Australia or otherwise, such approaches represent an either stupid or malicious lack of recognition that the situation Ukraine is subjected to: is unprecedented in modern history; that genocide and colonisation are Russia’s goals; that the West’s very values are at stake, and; that very hard choices have to be made or many more people will needlessly die.
Instead, some of the Western elite – including the wealthy but very polished and polite interests that run and prosper from the Australian Open and similar events – prefer softer choices.
In the case of the Australian Open, that means going through the motions with spin and lame symbolic gestures. It’s as if you say “peace” in every utterance, it absolves you from taking a genuine stand on the war. It does not, and it certainly does not give Russian players in favour of “peace” some moral superiority.
As Marta Kostyuk, one of the rising young Ukrainian stars at the Open, said in wisdom beyond her years: “Because people say they ‘‘don’t want war’, it makes us (Ukraine) sound like we want war. Obviously, we don’t want the war, too.”
Indeed, at this point in time, Russian-based invocations of “peace” are sinister cover for continued destruction and violence.
Kostyuk went on to rightly call on the Women’s Tennis Association to suspend Russian and Belarusian players until those players publicly call out Russia and its actions.
The second tendency is related: “mediocre managerialism”.
Іn this mindset or mode, Ukraine is something to be “managed” – be it in terms of politics, business or the media. That means doing the minimum required to meet your stakeholders’ expectations. Some weapons here, some statements there, some visits, some bans on flags.
Again, the driver here is not the interests of Ukraine or the protection of Ukrainians or the survival of Western values, but doing the required minimum to say and show that you’re “doing something”. Tick-a-box tokenism that costs Ukrainian lives. A tendency that is very much in evidence in terms of Germany’s “lost Leopard tanks”.
In fact, this “managerialism” is the polar opposite of leadership.
In this situation, leadership requires: a) knowing the end point/goal to pursue; b) genuinely partnering and listening to the affected party – Ukraine; c) invoking the democratic values that the West is founded upon, and; d) recognising the sacrifice that victory requires.
Sadly, some in the West are so accustomed to “managing” rather than leading that they can’t wear the t-shirt that says “Be Brave Like Ukraine”. Boris Johnson led.
Who of the Western leaders leads like him? Or like Ukraine’s President, military commanders, train drivers, hospital nurses and energy workers?
Hannah Arendt spoke of the “banality of evil” in relation to Nazi Germany.
In Putin’s Russia, in light of instances like a tennis tournament on the other side of the planet, there are some strategists today who are happy that their war is being normalised.
They are even more pleased at another example of how some in the West lack the clarity of vision and moral courage to do what it takes: recognise the war’s abnormality and then truly support the Ukrainians in eviscerating their enemy for the West’s own good.