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Crippled by the war

Ironically, even as the sporting community celebrated White Card Day on April 6 to propagate peace, the war in Ukraine and resultant sanctions continue to restrict the sky of opportunities that was open to many Russian athletes a couple of months ago

Crippled by the war

Call it creating awareness or making people aware about the power of sport, April 6 was celebrated as a "White Card" Day the world over. From India, none other than 2008 Beijing Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra took to Twitter and sent out a message: "Sport possesses the power to unite people and build a more inclusive society. Sport is a symbol of togetherness."

Modern day sport is extremely competitive. Athletes across almost every discipline are pushed to the limit, physically and mentally. Yet, at the end of it, once the competition or match is over, the competitors are indeed friends. There is no point in turning rivalry into hatred. At the same time, there is also no point in trying to keep pushing the limit, as the athlete is fully aware he or she is not a machine.

A sport like tennis puts extreme pressure on the players. Being a year-round sport and involving long-distance flight travel, tennis demands players to go through different time zones and exposes them to all kinds of extremities, which is indeed hard. It is not just about winning. It is also about how you feel mentally, day in and day out, to be at the peak.

For some athletes, there is joy in going through the adrenaline rush repeatedly, even if it means putting up with hardships. However, there are a few who take a huge decision in taking a break, for a short period, or completely.

The latest to do so was Australian tennis ace, Ash Barty, who, at 25, decided it was time to quit. Her retirement statement was very simple, leaving on a high. There have been various interpretations for her leaving but most of it has been assumption-based. Retirement in tennis is a very hard decision. Bjorn Borg, the master of the wooden racquet era, decided to pack up at 26, after conquering Wimbledon repeatedly.

It was hard not to think of the Swedish champion when Barty also bid adieu. For those who think sport is the be all and end all in life, Barty has sent a message there is much more to achieve. She has, apparently, taken up golf, where she will be under much less pressure. At least, in this sport, none will keep hyping her up as the favourite.

But there are also others like Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both 40, who still want to continue playing. Last week, Serena tweeted about how she has problems with sleep. Unless one has struggled with insomnia or faced a disturbed sleep rhythm, one cannot relate to what the mind and body undergoes. Serena leads an action-packed lifestyle, even when she is not playing. So, when you see all the glamour photos of Serena, also look at it from another perspective — how she faces real problems in life. It is not as easy as competing on the court. In her personal life, there is much more to deal with.

There are some who talk about mental health issues, like Naomi Osaka, and there are some who prefer to keep it under wraps. Our own champion, Abhinav Bindra, being on the International Olympic Committee's Athlete Commission, has reached out to many athletes who face mental health problems. For someone who was part of rifle shooting for almost two decades, he understands what it is to be training like a robot. Perhaps, when he retired after finishing fourth in the Rio Olympics in 2016, he was the most relieved man.

Back to the White Card Day, which was observed last week, it was hard not to think of all the elite athletes from Russia, who are facing the biggest nightmare of their lives. It is not their fault that their President, Vladimir Putin, is waging war with Ukraine. It is not their fault that Putin's actions are jeopardising their careers. It is not their fault their sporting dreams are crashing as a mindless man (Putin) continues to indulge in the worst crimes against humanity.

Pictures of what has transpired in Ukraine shakes each one of us. Death, destruction, doom — this is what Ukraine is facing. The common man or woman in Ukraine is the worst hit. Those lucky to escape have moved across the border. However, the men folk have had to stay back and fight war.

The response to Russia's action is well chronicled, but purely from a sporting point of view, what their own athletes are facing is crazy. Imagine, Russia, which hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2018, will not be part of the qualifiers for the 2022 Doha World Cup. As hosts, they spent USD 14.2 billion on hosting the blue riband event which was well received.

Today, Russian football is as good as finished, which will hurt an entire generation. Just like tennis, football is a sport where the professionals make huge money by playing. Nobody knows how long the madness will continue as the two nations — Russia and Ukraine — are engaged in war. The damage done to superstar athletes and the next generation is immense. With the women's Euro 2022 to be held in Britain later in summer, there is suspense again for the Russian team. The UEFA has put off the decision on allowing Russia to compete till May. But going by the mood in Britain, it is hard to visualise the Russian women's team being allowed inside.

This is not the only action which Britain is contemplating against Russian athletes. There is every indication that the All-England Lawn Tennis Club, which hosts Wimbledon, may not allow Daniil Medvedev, the World No.2, to compete in their premier grass court Grand Slam event. The turmoil which Medvedev would be going through is inexplicable. He was ranked No.1 for three weeks earlier this year but will find it very hard to maintain his status in the top.

To not compete in Wimbledon will be a big blow, where the real loss will not be in monetary terms but rankings. As of now, Medvedev is left with little choice. He certainly is not in a position where he can be critical of the actions of his country's President Putin.

Within Russia, international sport has come to a halt. Across all disciplines, there is no chance of hosting events, which is a lucrative business as well. Formula One wasted little time in taking away the Sochi Grand Prix from the 2022 calendar. This is a sport which has no dearth of takers despite the mega bucks involved in hosting a Grand Prix. It also jeopardises the career of F1 driver Nikita Mazepin, who competed for Team Haas last year. There are sanctions against him from the EU (European Union). The world wants peace but the price which professional athletes are paying is very big.

One can argue whether this is the right way to deal with the Russian athletes. However, for Europe at large, what Russia has been doing in Ukraine is a nightmare where every sanction possible is justified. The Olympic cycle is in full swing and the next Games are in Paris in 2024. There are various qualification tournaments around the world for the Paris Olympics. Again, the Russian athletes will be left stranded.

Former chess world champion Garry Kasparov has been one of Putin's biggest critics for years. Now a well-known activist, Kasparov has given various interviews in which he condemns the actions of the Russian President. Kasparov minces no words when he says Putin has to be tamed and taught a lesson. "Russia should be thrown back into the stone age," said Kasparov. Such condemnation comes from the chess ace as he has seen in his life the worst in Russia in yesteryears.

The war continues, with no clue as to what will be the end result. Even as Ukraine puts up strong resistance and there is huge sympathy from Europe, the fate of elite athletes hangs in balance. The price which Russia is paying has been viewed from the prism of economics. However, the loss from a sporting point of view cannot be calculated in monetary terms. It's doom for Russian athletes.

White flag please for Russian athletes?

Views expressed are personal

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