Member Insights – “Even before a ball was bounced this Wimbledon had created history”

While Wimbledon may help to decide the best male tennis player in a generation, international major sports events advisor, Michael Pirrie, says the tournament also heralds a turning point in global sporting efforts to punish Russia.

The sports news cycle now moves so swiftly the focus of the tennis world recently shifted within just a few days from questions about whether Rafael Nadal could win another French Open to questions of whether he would ever play again due to chronic injury.

In between cycles, Nadal answered the hot button question in tennis and sporting circles more widely.

Sport can be pure escapism, but the spaniard’s recent French Open win was more than a distraction in an unsettled world.

While ‘greatest ever’ accolades and debates feature in every sport, the question carried special significance in Paris beyond tennis clubs or coffee queue chatter.

The global interest in sport means the world reserves a special place for its best, and the three-way rivalry between Nadal, Federer and Djokovic has attracted attention across the sporting globe.

The French Open was historic in ways organisers of the All England Tennis Championships may hope Wimbledon could be in coming days with Nadal and Djokovic on course for a possible historic epic final.

Even before a ball was bounced or served, this Wimbledon has already created history for the tournament, for sport and for the wider world in a time of escalating war.

“The ban marks a new era in contemporary sport, shattering the artificial wall separating sport and politics”

Michael Pirrie

This centres around the ban on Russian and Belarusian players, the first of its kind, in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

The unprecedented ban was inevitable given the key role of the UK government in opposition to the war.

The ban marks a new era in contemporary sport, shattering the artificial wall separating sport and politics, long exploited by Russian officials seeking to evade sporting sanctions and penalties.

The response by the ATP and WTF to withhold player-ranking points from Wimbledon has failed to have any significant impact.

The resort to rankings has instead highlighted a failure by organisers of the tours to read the mood of the international community in the widening impact of Russia’s war, which is reshaping geopolitical alliances and sport.

Wimbledon has demonstrated the irrelevance of the ATP and WTF’s position, and that sport and politics will be forced to coexist in the current war.

Wimbledon’s successful first week involving players and spectators from across the globe also reinforces the tournament’s pre-eminent position in world sport even in uncertain times.  

It sends a powerful message that while there may be sympathy for banned Russian players, Wimbledon acted correctly to support the people of Ukraine facing almost unimaginable suffering and hardship. 

The player ban sends the message that sports can take decisive action against Putin and the Kremlin.

The message that Russia is committing crimes against humanity in Ukraine that will not be tolerated by society or by sport.

The landmark Wimbledon ban also highlights the roles sport can play in the international effort against the war.

The grounds on which Wimbledon imposed its player ban under guidance of the British Government remain relevant. 

“We remain unwilling to accept success or participation at Wimbledon being used to benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime, which, through its closely controlled state media, has an acknowledged history of using sporting success to support a triumphant narrative to the Russian people,” it said.

The decision to withhold rankings, by contrast, struggles under scrutiny.

“Sport can’t expect to be immune to the effects of war”

Michael Pirrie

“The stance we are taking is about protecting the equal opportunities that players should have to compete as individuals,” the WTF tried to argue.

Try justifying that to the families of the dead and those crippled by Russia’s continuing missile strikes – including, recently, on the central city of Kremenchuk, in what the Ukraine president described as “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history.”

Or to former Ukraine tennis players who felt abandoned by tennis tour organisers and players who opposed the Wimbledon bans.

These included Ukraine former tennis professional Sergei Stakhovsky, who recently tweeted: “To say I am disappointed would be an understatement …Never would expect that anyone can stand on the side of invaders and murderers …”

Sport can’t expect to be immune from the tragedy of war, and losing ranking points is not like losing lives or losing a homeland – these can’t be replaced unlike ranking points – and misses the point.

While a raft of business and finance sanctions have hit Russia’s economy and millions of lives, many Russian athletes have continued to prosper in the war.

The banned Russian and Belarusian tennis players will recover quickly after Wimbledon and resume life on the lucrative tennis circuit.   

The controversy over player bans and rankings threatened to overshadow the important role of sport in the Ukraine crisis.

This was highlighted by Ukraine’s improbable recent victory over Scotland during the World Cup qualification phase.

The embattled nation’s football team was cheered on thousands of kilometres away by front line troops in trenches and families hiding in bomb shelters.

“It is difficult when every player is thinking about their father, mother and relatives back in Ukraine,” said coach Oleksandr Petrakov.

President Zelenskyy is reported to have personally given his nation’s football team members leave from any military duties to attend a pre match camp in Slovenia.

The ranking penalties on Wimbledon represented the most significant threat so far to the solidarity in efforts by global sports organizations to include individual Russian sporting figures and athletes in sanctions to punish the invasion of Ukraine.

The continuing success of this Wimbledon without the support of the ATP and WTF is significant.

Wimbledon is the highest profile and most influential sporting event to impose player bans against Russia, signalling an end to recent decades of sporting events devoid of bans and boycotts. 

It reinforces the global effort against the war and paves the way for similar bans at major sporting events.

 World Athletics, track and field’s world governing body, has also excluded Russian and Belarusian athletes from its upcoming world championships in the United States, the biggest track and field event outside of the Olympic Games.

The ranking penalties risked further division and politicisation of tennis and international sport and diluting the impact of sanctions.

Wimbledon’s global profile may have presented Putin with a significant international public relations coup in the event of Russian on-court victories at one of the world’s most famous sports settings. 

Fears that lost ranking points would deter players and reduce Wimbledon to an exhibition style event have failed to eventuate, with few protests, solid public support and a large turnout of the worlds best players outside of Russia coming to Wimbledon.

These include Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, in the next instalment of the historic battle for tennis supremacy, which has transformed global interest and popularity of tennis. 

The presence of the fierce rivals at Wimbledon intensifies conjecture over the best male tennis player, which, for many may have been resolved, at least temporarily, on the rich red clay of Roland Garros centre court last month.

While Nadal was the first player to break the 21-grand slam barrier at the Australian Open in January, the win in Paris has placed the heavyweight tennis title firmly in the Spaniard’s grasp. 

The ‘best ever’ sobriquet had turned into a marathon five set tie breaker as ‘The Big Three’ chased success, history and each other at iconic grand slams around the world.

The French Open victory provided greater clarity in the race to the Everest of tennis, which had resembled a three-way photo finish climb.

When the swirling clouds of clay dust cleared, Nadal was the last of the three tennis titans still standing on Roland Garros, but only with the help of pain killing anaesthesia coursing through his body.

Nadal was the answer to the question that has absorbed much international sporting attention, now building again at Wimbledon in anticipation of a blockbuster centre court encounter. 

The ‘best ever’ title was of interest initially to the tennis fraternity of stars, followers and historians.

Global interest escalated as the trio’s tussles intensified and seemingly unassailable milestones were surpassed with each passing grand slam.

The rapid demand for fresh news cycle content however has left unanswered questions swirling around Nadal’s French Open victory and Wimbledon quest.

Nadal has performed at such high levels and for so long – winning his first slam as a teenager in 2005 – the Spaniard’s achievements have perhaps not been adequately appreciated.

Often referred to as the “king of clay,” Nadal is more like a modern day Spanish conquistador conquering new sporting territories. 

Nadal has 14 grand slam titles from the French Open alone, while the great American Pete Sampras only mustered the same number of grand slam titles in his entire career.

Nadal does not only have feet made for clay, he is a player for all seasons with multiple victories on all grand slam surfaces.

“Nadal’s unprecedented achievements have taken him into a new sporting orbit”

Michael Pirrie

Olympic gold medals have long been the pinnacle of sporting excellence, but Nadal’s recent French Open triumph may have transcended traditional measurements of sporting accomplishment.

While Nadal’s durability and humility have softened the media spotlight and scrutiny on the icon, his grand victories warrant renewed recognition of his contribution to sport.

Nadal’s unprecedented achievements have taken him into a new sporting orbit – a modern day Neil Armstrong-like astronaut of sport, venturing to new tennis horizons never traversed before.

Nadal – the first to 21 grand slams and first to 22 titles – may be the best athlete of this century so far.

If tennis grand slam tournaments can be seen as Olympic-styled world championships open to the best from around the globe, Nadal’s record 22 tournament wins and Olympic gold medals compare favourably with the medal counts of Olympic legends Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and others.

The focus on sporting results in news cycles provides little opportunity to explore other aspects of elite athletes like Nadal.

While this is further complicated by limited media access to sporting legends, Nadal has provided a revealing insight into his own success.

“I love the competition, not only in tennis,” he told media more than 10 years ago. “I love the competition in all aspects of life. When I compete I love to be there to fight for the win. Maybe, I like more fighting to win, than to win” he added perhaps most tellingly.

Nadal’s right to be viewed as the best in his sport is perhaps now almost irrefutable – irrespective of how he performs at Wimbledon.

His ‘best ever’ credentials are likely to pass extensive cross-examination in any court of appeal or public opinion.

Nadal’s 22 singles titles in the brutal, unforgiving world of sudden-death grand slam tennis makes a compelling closing argument for the prosecution.

Eleven of Nadal’s titles have been achieved against arch rivals Federer and Djokovic at their peak.

While superlatives are often tossed around like confetti, Nadal has consistently defied critics and adversity, rising Lazarus-like from seemingly hopeless situations with miraculous comebacks.

These include his first grand slam victory this year at the Australia Open, regarded as one of the great sporting performances of recent times after recovering on crutches from a crippling foot injury and Covid.

Rallying from behind, with almost no margin for error, Nada prevailed in a five set, five-hour thriller after losing the first two sets and coming back from break down in the third to defeat world number 1 Daniil Medvedev.  

The sudden first round departure of Serena Williams, ending another tilt to be the best woman’s player in the sport, and surprise retirement of reigning women’s champion title Ash Barty earlier in the year to play golf, adds unexpected layers of history to Wimbledon 2022.

It also heightens focus on the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry with Federer indefinitely sidelined by injury.

Wimbledon provides Nadal with the opportunity to achieve an almost unbeatable record grand slam lead, and Djokovic, with 20 titles, the chance to play catch up.

The drama unfolding at Wimbledon, ironically, looks set to provide a temporary escape in coming days from the inescapable realities of war that had threatened the showpiece.     

Leaving $150m Behind: The Story Of Barty’s Bombshell Retirement Comes To Light

Olympic Games and major events adviser, Michael Pirrie, outlines the changing of the guard underway at the top of women’s tennis following Ash Barty’s shock resignation, and why her sudden departure has had such impact.

Ash Barty spent her first day in retirement away from elite tennis ironically courting questions about her departure from the sport that made her an international household name. The shockwaves from Barty’s unheralded withdrawal have prompted a rapid realignment of stars in the universe of women’s tennis. 

Following weekend wins at the Miami Open, Poland’s Iga Swiatek is set to replace Barty as number one in the world when new rankings are announced next month. Swiatek will become just the 28th woman to head the WTA rankings – and the first from Poland. 

“Barty’s decision to step away from fame and fortune continues to confound and confront the sporting world.”

The Pole’s ascension will be a much needed symbol of hope for her nation which has inspired the world with its unending kindness and generosity in welcoming and caring for more than two million refugees from Ukraine cities and neighbourhoods almost bombed out of existence by Russia. 

While Swiatek’s pending number one ranking is part of the natural order of succession, Barty’s decision to step away from fame and fortune continues to confound and confront the sporting world.

Barty had reached the summit of her sport, she looked around and found there was nothing left to conquer. Her withdrawal has created more news worldwide than the departure of most Fortune 500 chief executives or senior government ministers. 

She was upbeat and confident as she spoke to media for the first time since her bombshell announcement, while unshakeable in her belief that retirement was right for her, some responses generated more questions than answers.

The door to tennis may be firmly closed but not necessarily padlocked. The superstar was adamant there were ‘no regrets, no secrets and no conspiracies.’ “I am not hiding anything. I am an open book,” Barty told media in her home capital city of Brisbane.

Barty revealed her retirement in an Instagram video.

The mystery behind the sudden enigmatic resignation of the leading light in women’s tennis has also started to emerge. Barty and coach Craig Tyzzer provided insights into what prompted the retirement that rocked world sport. She indicated her Wimbledon win last year and recent Australian Open victory were pivotal in the decision making process.

Wimbledon, the scene of Barty’s greatest triumph, surprisingly, may have marked the beginning of the end. 

“After Wimbledon my perspective changed a lot,” Barty said, “and there was this beautiful challenge of trying to play the Australian Open and trying to win an Australian Open, which was always another goal of mine…” 

Barty is a modern day sporting phenomenon and her resignation had global impact. She has freakish visual perception and understanding of space, time and positioning on the tennis court and when to best deploy her delicate but devastating trademark shots.

These included a mesmerising sliced backhand conjured from the list of endangered tennis shots that Barty reinvented as her own. She also had great depth of vision into the game of life as well as tennis and refused to be become a slave to the expectations of others about her career goals. 

“Barty’s Australian Open win was the most important on home soil for Australia and indigenous communities since her Aboriginal compatriot Catherine Freeman.”

While there were few clues to Barty’s pending retirement, her long wave goodbye to crowds at the Australian Open in January was a missed sign.

Barty’s Australian Open win was the most important on home soil for Australia and indigenous communities since her Aboriginal compatriot Catherine Freeman surged down the home stretch at Homebush Stadium to win the 400 metres sprint at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. 

Like Freeman’s historic achievement, the impact of Barty’s knockout win was felt coast to coast across the vast island continent, uniting Australia and communities of all race, faith and backgrounds. 

Australia’s dream of a national player claiming the home grand slam title again had been realised after decades of disappointment. The crushing pressure from an expectant sporting nation that had overwhelmed previous potential local champions was lifted. Australia’s aspirations had been realised in the most spectacular fashion, with Barty not losing a set on her way to the title.

Barty was almost floating on the court as she turned and waved to every section of the Rod Laver Arena crowd. Fans waved back, unknowingly, for the last time as Barty took what were to be her final farewells following the euphoric victory.

“By walking away at the height of her powers Barty has also walked away from an estimated potential $150 million in projected career earnings and sponsorship.”

The Barty Party was over. There would be no encores. This was Game, Set and Match for the championships and for the champion too. Tributes have continued for Barty following her unprecedented announcement.

“I really admired her for how hard she worked and just how nice she was to everyone,” said Japanese superstar Naomi Osaka, herself a two time Australian Open winner. Barty, just 25, has emerged as one of the most influential and authentic sports stars of recent times.

She has also emerged as an unexpected disruptor and non-conformist in contemporary sport. By walking away at the height of her powers Barty has also walked away from an estimated potential $150 million in projected career earnings and sponsorship.

I doing so, Barty has disrupted the career and business marketing model for modern day sporting stars of success driving more and more success despite the toll involved. This was never about being number one in the world, according to Team Barty but being the best she could be.

That was better than almost anyone else in tennis in these uncertain times. Barty’s withdrawal is arguably the biggest shock in world tennis since Swede Bjorn Borg suddenly retired as one of the best players of his generation, aged just 26. 

Naomi Osaka was one of the prominent stars to compliment Barty.

Her retirement provides a new way of looking at sporting success. It also provides perspective and focus after legendary greatest of all time US gymnast Simone Biles retired from events at the Tokyo Olympics.

Commenting on Barty, Osaka said she thought it was “cool to, like, leave as you’re No 1; you feel like you have nothing left to prove.”

Barty saved her best to last. 

If Wimbledon was a personal dream, winning the Australian Open was like a parting gift for her nation, according to her coach. The unique circumstances of Barty’s tennis journey have made a deep impression on sport. And it may not yet be over. 

While Barty’s parting retirement may have dashed hopes that an extended injury free tennis career might have seen her compete at the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games, other possibilities may be in play. As a highly gifted golfer whose technique has been applauded by Tiger Woods and others, Barty still has time to prepare in another Olympic sport in 2032.

Michael Pirrie is an international communications and Olympic Games advisor and commentator who has worked on several major international sporting events and projects. These include the London 2012 Olympic Games as Executive Advisor to organising committee chair, Seb Coe.

Sport Sets Out Its Stall To Combat Russia

After a tumultuous week in which Russia continued it’s assault on Ukraine, Olympic Games advisor, Michael Pirrie, gives background to the unprecedented sporting sanctions led by the IOC and why the sanctions matter in the fight against Russia and its attack on Ukraine and humanity.

The world is different at the end of this week than it was at the start. Sanctions are spreading rapidly, impacting trade, technology, sport and other key areas of Russian society.

But the sporting sanctions against the country are an unprecedented and span much of the globe, across federations and league which would rarely have dreamed of being so involved politically. 

Bans are stretching across Europe, north America and even to Beijing, where the sporting world changed dramatically overnight after the sudden banning of Russian athletes from the Paralympic Winter Games.

The ban on the Russian and Belarusian Paralympic teams follows criticism by athletes and the international community over an earlier decision by the International Paralympic Committee to allow the two countries to compete as a neutral team. It also follows multiple boycott threats by athletes if the two countries were allowed to compete under any format, meaning there will be no representation or presence in the parade of nations at tonight’s Opening Ceremony.

A month after Russia’s outlaw president Vladimir Putin shared the VIP suite with China’s leader Xi Jinping at the opening of the Olympic Games, there will be no Russian government official in the same exclusive suite for dignitaries.  

The sanction is the latest in a barrage of penalties designed to isolate Russia as its invading armies attempt to isolate the Ukraine capital.  

“The ban on athletes from Russia at the Paralympic Games is historic and unprecedented. It is also a forerunner to a wide range of sporting issues that have been triggered by Russia’s invasion.”

While the tumultuous Russian invasion attempts to block supplies of military weapons as well as access to food, water, electricity and heat in key Ukraine cities, the sanctions war is blocking supply in areas important to the Russian economy and society.

These include flight paths that Russian jets can travel on, banking systems that government agencies, businesses and residents can use, and international sporting tournaments its teams can participate in. The sanctions are starving Russia of technology, spending, travel, imports and sporting involvement. The country’s stock market remains closed and its sporting options are closing rapidly.

The ban on athletes from Russia at the Paralympic Games is historic and unprecedented. It is also a forerunner to a wide range of sporting issues that have been triggered by Russia’s invasion. Sport can play a key role on the growing list of hard and soft power sanctions against Russia as the Ukraine situation worsens by the day if not the hour. 

Few countries have as close a relationship between its Olympic committee and government as the Russian Olympic Committee and the Putin regime. While the sports penalties won’t stop the Russian troops and tanks, the sanctions will hurt because sport matters to Putin and Russia’s image on the world stage.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich has been forced to put Chelsea FC up for sale.

The attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent for the UK and his daughter Yulia, at their Salisbury home in England is believed by some intelligence agents to have been linked to the outspoken stand taken by UK sporting authorities and figures against Russia’s state sanctioned doping program under Putin.

The attack on the Skripals, following criticism of Russia’s covert doping system in the UK, prompted a major international investigation which highlighted the importance of sporting success to the Russian government and public. 

The initial decision to allow neutral Russia to compete at the Paralympic Games was a major embarrassment for the world governing body, showing it severely underestimated the depth of international anger at Russia’s bloody invasion of the Ukraine.

“The (IPC) must join the rest of the world in condemning this barbaric invasion by banning Russia from competing (at the Paralympic Games),” according to Nadine Dorries, the UK Secretary of State for Digital, Media and Sport.

A message during the Paralympic Winter Games opening ceremony on Friday seemed very topical.

The IOC did not make the same mistake earlier this week when it urged sports to prevent any athletes or teams from Russia or Belarus, which is supporting the invasion, from international competition.

The decision taken by IOC Executive Board, acting effectively like a war time council as the world faced the greatest land war in Europe since 1945, was also historic. Russia’s invasion could destabilise Europe indefinitely and how sport functions on the continent. 

This could include the availability and security of cities to host major sporting events, including nearby Hungary which has Olympic Games aspirations.

Although there was little in the Olympic Charter to prepare for such a crisis, the EB ban on Russia was widely supported by athletes and sports bodies worldwide in support of the Ukraine athletes and Olympic focus on peace.

“The decision to ban Russian athletes also redefined the relationship sport and politics, helping to dispel the belief that while sport may strive for political neutrality, it may not be possible.”

The decision to ban Russian athletes also redefined the relationship sport and politics, helping to dispel the belief that while sport may strive for political neutrality, it may not be possible. Instead, led by IOC President, Thomas Bach, the IOC placed a greater priority on the core mission of the Olympic Movement to promote peace.

The IOC’s recommendations have prompted an unprecedented series of sporting cancellations and boycotts involving Russian teams and event. The sanctions have received strong backing from sporting organisations and from leaders of Olympic nations, including the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Canada.

France, Italy, United States and Australia, where the future of the Olympic Movement rests in cities that will host the Games in the decade ahead, have also strongly endorsed sporting sanctions. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged international federations to boycott sporting contact and events in Russia.

“All international sporting events in Russia should have their authorisation withdrawn from all international sporting bodies,” said the Australian leader, who led the successful pitch to IOC members last year for the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games. These calls subsequently raised throughout the week.

The invasion in the heart of Europe, the cradle of the Olympic Movement, has horrified Bach and strengthened the resolve of world sporting leaders.

New western intelligence suggesting that China’s leader Xi asked Putin to delay the invasion until after the Beijing Winter Olympic Games has also concerned Olympic leaders, indicating the superpower leaders had advanced knowledge of the invasion plans prior to the Games.

Meanwhile, the deaths of three Ukrainian athletes involved in defending their homes and families against the Russian onslaught looks set to further escalate the crisis facing sport in the days ahead.

Michael Pirrie is an Olympic Games and major events advisor and commentator.

The Impact And Role Sport Must Play During The Current Crisis In Ukraine

Olympic Games advisor Michael Pirrie examines the geopolitics of sporting sanctions against Russia and links to the Beijing Games, and evaluates the important role that sport must play in the growing global unrest.


The shockwaves from Russia’s relentless invasion of Ukraine continue to radiate across the world, with sanctions in finance spreading to other sectors including sport.

These began at the epicentre in Ukraine as a group of international football stars and families sought to evacuate the heavily bombarded city where they had played in the Champion’s League just weeks before the invasion. The foreign players, contracted to Ukrainian clubs Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, were facing severe difficulties following the invasion.

For the second time in six months, sporting bodies and federations are working with international agencies and embassies to mount another rescue operation for stranded sports teams and athletes, following the takeover in Afghanistan by the Taliban after the exit of US and British troops. 

Meanwhile, the arrival of the Australian men’s test cricket team in Pakistan this weekend amid unprecedented security reflects the growing instability surrounding world sport. 

Measures including overhead helicopters and heavily armoured convoys are accompanying the Australian team’s first visit in 24 years, after a fatal terrorist attack on a Sri Lanka cricket team bus saw Pakistan exiled from hosting fixtures.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, former cricketing great Imran Khan, was one of the first international leaders to visit Russian leader Vladimir Putin as the Ukraine invasion got underway. The visit further reinforced concerns that a growing number of foreign leaders are seeking international respect and recognition by hosting high profile sporting events in high risk nations. 

These tensions were heightened at the recent Beijing Winter Olympic Games as the hard-line Chinese government attempted to impress the world amid criticism of its human rights record.

Sporting bodies are scrambling to respond to the Russian invasion in ways that reflect the gravity of the situation as well as sport’s position of influence in international society. Pressure is growing by the day as devastating images of the Russian invasion galvanise the international community. This has prompted an international outcry by sporting leaders as well as a global coalition of human rights groups, peace and pro-democracy organizations, governments and non-government bodies.

“It is now up to world governing bodies and federations develop more formal positions with member nations, leagues and stakeholders.”

The scale of human suffering that Russia has inflicted is looming as an unprecedented test of sport’s capacity to respond meaningfully to the Ukraine crisis. While a growing number of EU countries have shut down air space to Russian jets, sporting bodies are shutting down venues and events and boycotting Russia.

It is now up to world governing bodies and federations develop more formal positions with member nations, leagues and stakeholders, it will be important their plans also reflect the values of athletes and wider international society in which sport exists. 

The initial approach has been to abandon and relocate events and competitions currently scheduled in Russia. The Ski Federation of Norway, which topped the medal table in Beijing recently, has warned Russia against hosting skiing events.

“Sport is not detached from this and cannot remain passive to what is happening now,” the federation said in a statement. “The Norwegian Ski Federation’s message to Russia and Russian athletes is crystal we do not want your participation.”

In other developments, the International Judo Federation has cancelled Putin’s honorary president and ambassador positions, while FINA has cancelled upcoming events in Russia and the football association of the Czech Republic has followed Sweden and Poland in refusing to play Russia in a Fifa world cup playoff, amongst a mounting list of sporting boycotts of Russia.

This followed a swift response by the IOC, requesting international federations to move events scheduled for Russia or Belarus out of the countries, which has subsequently been upgraded to a recommendation that no Russian or Belarussian athletes take part in sporting events.

The Russian invasion, which was preceded by weeks of military build up on the border with Ukraine, was overshadowed – and delayed – by the Beijing Games. It could also change perceptions of the Games as a prelude to war. This is thought to have been a concession to Putin’s Chinese counterpart Xi, for whom the success of the Games was a high re-election priority.

The Russian leader is believed to have observed Russian military exercises bordering Ukraine while also watching his beloved Russian ice hockey team fight for gold in Beijing before ultimately going down to Finland in a shock defeat.

Putin’s delayed invasion gave his Russian Olympic Committee team time to return home along with thousands of athletes across Europe. The Russian invasion could have the most dramatic impact on Europe since it was devastated by the second world war.

While the 1948 London Olympic Games took the world from war to sport, the Beijing Games by contrast could have served as a prelude to war.

“While this placed extraordinary strain on the Games atmosphere, the core Olympic mission survived pandemic and political pressures.”

Just as the star of London’s post war Games was the brilliant Dutch housewife Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won 4 gold medals, female athletes dominated the storylines that will linger from Beijing: 

  • Chinese-American high flying teenage sensation Eileen Gu who inspired the  world’s biggest country and host nation. 
  • ‘Little girl lost,’ 15-yeard old Russian skating prodigy Kamila Valieva, who has spent more time on the ice rink than waiting for the school bus. Caught up in an international doping scandal at the Olympic Games, only 3 editions of which she has been alive for.
  • Fallen but unconquered US world skiing champion Mikaela Shiffrin inspiring in defeat.
  • The mysteriously lost, found and gone again Chinese Olympic tennis star Peng Shuai. 

The politics that surrounded the Beijing Games also challenged sport’s neutrality. China’s Communist Party had a central focus on total pandemic and political control, which chipped away at traditional Olympic freedoms and values.

Diplomatic boycotts forced governments and international audiences to take sides over China’s controversial human rights record. While this placed extraordinary strain on the Games atmosphere, the core Olympic mission survived pandemic and political pressures.

Like the ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ soundtrack that filled the Beijing National Indoor Stadium for figure skating routines, in this instance it was the athletes who crossed the bridge. 


The athletes revealed deeper meaning and purpose to worldwide audiences, beyond the super politics. Competitors from across the planet gave performances that provided inspiration for audiences looking for signs of unity in world unrest.  

Peggy Noonan, speechwriter to late US President Ronald Reagan, once observed that “the bravest things we do in our lives are really know only to ourselves.” 

If so, the Olympic Games displayed, magnified and brought that bravery to world attention.


No-one showed more valour than young Georgian luger Saba Kumaritashvili, who exemplified the Olympic spirit like few before him. He delivered on an unprecedented promise to compete at the Winter Games on behalf of his cousin, Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was fatally injured at training on the eve of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Saba carried Nodar’s Olympic hopes with him to Beijing, delivering the Olympic dream his cousin started but never finished 12 years earlier. In doing so, Saba transformed enormous tragedy into a triumph. This was possibly the most dramatic and unexpected story of China’s Games. 

“Hurtling down the Yanqing National Sliding Centre on his sled in one of the fastest and most dangerous sports, Saba fulfilled Nodar’s ambition to represent his family and nation at the Olympic Games.”

Athletes aren’t meant to die at the Olympics. Instead of Nodar, Saba became the first member of the family to compete at the Olympics. Nodar’s dreams had become Saba’s destiny.

Hurtling down the Yanqing National Sliding Centre on his sled in one of the fastest and most dangerous sports, Saba fulfilled Nodar’s ambition to represent his family and nation at the Olympic Games.

“I think every sportsman’s goal and dream is to be competing at the Olympic Games…,” Saba said. “Thinking about my cousin is painful but gives me strength,” Saba told reporters after completing one of his runs.

“Every generation of our family had at least one luge sportsman, and now my father and are continuing this tradition and following in Nodar’s footsteps.”


US snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis was an Olympic time traveller who displayed uncommon courage, turning a haunting error from her Olympic past into a gold medal 16 years later in Beijing.

This was a remarkable journey of redemption and perseverance that exemplified the Olympic spirit.

After a last minute swerve robbed her of first place on the podium at Turino in 2006, Jacobellis finally secured Olympic gold at her fifth Games attempt.


The athletes are the Games and the common humanity of athletes from different nations and cultures helps to connect the world. This is why highlighting injustices and human rights were so prominent at the Beijing Games.

It is also why the Olympic dynamic has been evolving since Simone Biles made mental health a priority at the Tokyo Games. The growing focus on character and personal circumstances of athletes crossed Olympic seasons in Beijing.

“The transition from super hero to human embodied by Biles and Shiffrin is changing perceptions of Olympic success and role models.”

Athletes such as US ski champion Mikael Shiffrin are inspiring through their humanity without winning gold medals.   Shiffrin, 26, demonstrated extraordinary grace under pressure, expected to win several medals, she walked away with none and was unbowed. 

The transition from super hero to human embodied by Biles and Shiffrin is changing perceptions of Olympic success and role models. Shiffrin’s resilience in the face of heart-breaking, unexplainable defeat, was relatable and inspirational. She pointed to the lingering impact of her father’s sudden death two years ago. 

“Right now I would really like to call him,” Shiffrin said without disguising the raw emotional grief she still harbours. “He would probably tell me to get over it. But he’s not here to say that…” the former defending Olympic champion said disarmingly. 


While successful Olympic committees typically plan Games through the eyes of athletes, Beijing was also planned through the eyes of its supreme leader Xi Jinping and his Covid zero elimination strategy.

Beijing’s uncompromising virus elimination blueprint involving extensive testing and quarantine was too extreme for some athletes who were overwhelmed by the isolation conditions and limited time to train and prepare for competition. 

This prompted rapid improvements in facilities and food for athletes in quarantine and on the slopes – essential to covering gaps in planning that threatened the critical first impressions of the Games, especially in the international media.


The IOC president Thomas Bach was right when he stated in the Opening Ceremony that athletes give peace a chance – or at least a profile, even in China’s politically charged environment and Russia’s war on Ukraine. Athletes have used international sporting platforms since the invasion to place a spotlight on the atrocities and other urgent situations confronting the world.

“No war please,” rising Russian tennis star Andrey Rublev scrawled across a broadcast camera after his weekend win at the Dubai Tennis Championships. “You realise how important it is to have peace in the world and to respect each other no matter what and to be united,” he said later.

Rublev’s plea for peace echoed that of the Ukrainian winter olympian who risked the wrath of officials and placed his Olympic future and career in jeopardy by boldly holding up a “No War In Ukraine” message to the world in Beijing after his event, just as war was coming to his European homeland.

In today’s fragile world, where the IOC president said “division, conflict, and mistrust are on the rise”, the pipeline of host cities chosen on Bach’s watch – Paris, Milan-Cortina, Los Angeles and Brisbane – will be more important than could have been imagined as stable environments for the Games in the turbulence facing world affairs in decade ahead may be necessary.

As Putin holds the world to ransom, raising the nuclear alert system, the world’s leading governing bodies including IOC and FIFA will come under growing pressure to push the nuclear button in sport and ban Russia entirely from the Olympic Games and Fifa World Cup.    

Michael Pirrie is an international major events and Olympic Games communications advisor and commentator who was Executive Advisor to Seb Coe and the London Olympic Committee. 

Player Power Saves Australian Open

Special Analysis: The Australian Open Tennis Grand Slam finished in a blaze of sporting glory this weekend that transformed the event from an international incident to a major sporting achievement. Michael Pirrie looks at what led to the dramatic turnaround and what it means for future events, including the upcoming Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

The dramatic start to a new year of sport continued over the weekend with history-making performances at the Australian Open finals that saved the tournament and demonstrated the positive impacts of player power in turbulent times.

After a crisis start, the troubled tournament found its way back to sporting reality with gripping centre court performances that barely seemed real themselves, cutting through the pandemic grief and gloom surrounding the Novak Djokovic drama which had dominated the pre-tournament press.

“Melbourne’s yearly showpiece on the world stage needed to be rescued by the players, most notably Nadal and Barty, who provided the sense of history and occasion organisers had been seeking.”


Fan favourites Rafael Nadal and Ashleigh Barty produced improbable fairytale endings conjured straight from the Disney playbook, bringing down the curtain on one of the most dramatic sporting events since Covid began.

This was a tournament cloaked in bitter and joyful irony.

Attempts by tournament organisers to stage a landmark tennis tournament for the modern era by bringing world men’s number one Novak Djokovic to contest a record 21st grand slam title, which he was heavily favoured to win by bookmakers, in vaccine mandated Melbourne became an international incident.

This was also a tournament of fate and destiny.

Nadal has finally edged ahead of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic on 21 Grand Slam titles.

Melbourne’s yearly showpiece on the world stage needed to be rescued by the players, most notably Nadal and Barty, who provided the sense of history and occasion organisers had been seeking. They pulled the tournament back from the brink after the visa deportation scandal challenged the organisation of the event during the fortnight of action.

These include ongoing inquiries about the timing and legitimacy of the positive Covid test results relied on for Djokovic’s questionable medical exemption.

In one of the most Shakespearean of modern day sporting dramas, Nadal delivered a masterpiece of sporting theatre never experienced before. His victory was a lifetime of grand slams in the making, almost unprecedented in the scale of physical, mental and emotional challenges he had to endure to secure the slam record coveted by Djokovic.

It was of great irony that the almost forgotten Spaniard, who had not passed the quarter-finals in Melbourne since 2018, was to overcome the odds and take the crown and elusive 21st major title many had been The win was instantly the stuff of sporting legend and folklore, thrilling worldwide audiences.

The tournament confirmed the fundamental truth that underpins almost all major sporting events – that it is all about the athletes. Athletes, players and teams ARE the continental tournaments, world championships and Olympic Games they compete in.

Countdowns to the Australian Open and Beijing Olympic Games also point to key national health, security, diplomatic and political imperatives that will shape much in the world of international sport in 2022. International sporting events will need to be designed around the evolving recovery phase of the pandemic in different world regions; concerns over new virus variants; and reliance on vaccines and mandates.

Fallout from the Djokovic case points to the increasing influence, intolerance and fear of the anti-vaccination movement across international society as well as in Australia. This was also highlighted most recently by a growing list of international celebrities, including rock legend Neil Young, speaking out about misleading Covid podcasts.

Similar concerns have also been shared by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, among others, while some unvaccinated patients are believed to have been removed from organ transplant waiting lists. The Australian Open set a new precedent for this sporting year that was almost lost amid Djokovic’s unvaccinated status.

This was the first major international sporting event comprehensively vaccinated against Covid, with almost 100 per cent of the playing group, officials, media and crowds vaccinated. Like the Tokyo Olympic Games and Paralympic Games athletes, the AO players provided context and perspective. This was about brave hearts and brave performances.

“Nadal’s win over Medvedev, who defeated Djokovic at the US Open last year, removed the ghost of the Serbian superstar and vaccine sceptic from the tournament.”

“After all the things we went through the last couple of years, with lots of people suffering a lot and not being able to go out for a lot of days here in Australia, it is just an amazing feeling to see the Rod Laver Arena full, “ Nadal said, delirious with joyful exhaustion.

The arena indeed was full of fans cheering wildly for Nadal, who was seen as the underdog, always favoured by Australian sports supporters. Support persisted despite complaints by opponent Daniil Medvedev, who challenged the piercing crowd noise, umpire and others court side as well as Nadal in the opening sets.  

“Its not easy, but I think the Australian crowd is a crowd that understands a lot, an awful lot (about) the sport in general so I love to play in front of them,” Nadal said defending his loyal fan base.

Crowds also understood that after weeks of public commitments by government and event organisers to a ‘No Jab, No Play’ rule, Djokovic’s participation was untenable. This was a monumental lesson to  organisers that host cities and communities will hold committees accountable for public health pledges that cannot be sustained or do not align with public expectations.

Nadal’s fan base grew exponentially after this epic victory and took sport into new territory. Securing 21 grand slams was like winning 21 Olympic gold medals, it was a new benchmark in human achievement, the equivalent of scaling a new Everest sporting summit or breaking the four-minute mile again for the first time.  

His come from behind victory combined with the triumph of Australia’s Ashleigh Barty in the women’s final broadened sport’s appeal amid the adversity of the pandemic. The duo, two of the planet’s outstanding tennis players, lifted the mood, atmosphere and energy levels in the world’s most locked down city.

Riveting tennis storylines and performances emerged post Djokovic that united a host city and nation on constant covid alert. These included the heroic comeback of British great Andy Murray after crippling pain and surgery. Credit must also go to France’s Alize Cornet, who made her first Grand Slam quarterfinal after trying and persevering 63 times, “It’s never too late to try again,” was her message, close to tears in a courtside interview.

Ashleigh Barty created history and hope as the first Australian to win the home slam after a drought stretching back more than four long decades of Australian summers. Their performances and personalities completed the transformation of the tournament, while also saving the tournament organisers, heavily criticised for the Djokovic visa debacle.

Barty’s win may have been the most important by an Australian on home soil since Cathy Freeman’s epic 400 metres gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Like Freeman, who was in the tennis crowd, Barty was able to hold the weight of a sports obsessed nation on her shoulders long enough to win the tournament.

Nadal’s win over Medvedev, who defeated Djokovic at the US Open last year, removed the ghost of the Serbian superstar and vaccine sceptic from the tournament. Many believe that five sets of tennis may be sport’s ultimate test. The Spaniard was almost down and out after a heart breaking second set tie break loss, but hauled himself back off the court canvass to begin the contest all over again, this time with almost no margin for error.

While Nadal had belief and believed, this win was almost unbelievable. This was a heavyweight tennis tile fight of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman dimensions with Nadal, like Ali, winning only when it counted.

The Australian Open was heavily criticised for banning Where is Peng Shuai?’ shirts during the tournament, piling further pressure on event organisers.

It was also a modern day Lazarus sporting parable with Nadal confined to crutches just weeks ago and further weakened by Covid infection before claiming his miraculous win. He scrambled around the stadium relentlessly like a warrior reminiscent of Russell Crowe’s ‘Gladiator’, who sat court side the night before watching Barty do battle.

Just when you might have thought you had seen it all in sport, this came along, challenging the laws and possibilities of sport.

The protest staged at the Australian Open for China’s uncontactable former Olympic and Australian Open competitor was the sombre backdrop to the Beijing Games. 

The player driven turnaround at the Melbourne grand slam strongly indicates that the performances of the world’s best winter athletes will likely define China’s Games in the wake of strict Covid lockdowns, diplomatic storms and human rights protests. 

Michael Pirrie is an Olympic Games advisor and international communications consultant and commentator who has advised on numerous major sporting events and bids, including the London 2012 Olympic Games, Invictus Games, and Budapest 2017 Olympic Bid among others. 

Lessons From Sport’s Most Dramatic New Year Starts As Djokovic Exits Stage Left

Special Analysis: International Olympic and major events advisor, Michael Pirrie, goes behind the scenes of the Novel Djokovic deportation drama and explores the key stages, moments and mistakes that led to the controversy and the lessons and legacies for world sport.

As Novak Djokovic departed Melbourne, the city that has staged and celebrated so many of his epic wins, the Serbian superstar thanked his family, friends, team, fans and fellow Serbians for their support which he said had been a source of great strength.

While the ‘thank you’ list featured those the tennis champion might routinely include in a post grand slam victory speech, Djokovic was leaving this time without any trophies or trappings of victory. He checked into Melbourne’s international departure lounge for the long flight back to Belgrade, leaving behind a city difficult to recognisable from his many previous visits.

Melbourne was close to the edge as Djokovic waited to board his return flight.


Here in Melbourne, hospitals are stretched from record Covid admissions; supermarket shelves are emptying; businesses are closed due to staff infections; and intensive care units were filled with unvaccinated Covid patients, many on ventilators, with almost no capacity for other emergencies.

“His exit leaves behind a trail of intrigue, reputational damage and many unanswered questions swirling around him and tournament organisers.”

Our city streets have, in recent months, been filled with anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown protests that spread Covid infection and disturbed the local community. Those protests involved violent confrontations with police, triggering unrest and division of the kind alluded to by the Australian Government in its successful bid to have Djokovic’s original deportation enforced.  

The landmark court ruling on Serbia’s tennis superstar created much needed certainty for the schedule of the Australian Open, the first major international sporting event of the year, but not an end to one the most extraordinary dramas in modern sport’s recent history.

His exit leaves behind a trail of intrigue, reputational damage and many unanswered questions swirling around him and tournament organisers.

Sport collided with society in a global health emergency, and a nation’s border protection system was challenged by a superstar athlete and vaccine opponent in an escalating phase of the pandemic.


The global attention given to the case could be a turning point in how the pandemic is addressed in sport and in society more widely in the months ahead. This could change how the major events business is conducted to meet new challenges as further variants emerge.


The battle by Djokovic, nicknamed the Djoker, to use his sporting superpowers to storm his favourite Melbourne Park tennis courts on the aptly named Batman Avenue and claim a record 21st grand slam, developed into a Marvel movie script.  

Djokovic reprised his vaccine villain character, and was the Riddler too, puzzling many worldwide in his opposition to vaccination, Covid’s kryptonite, which has slashed deaths and illness globally.

The unprecedented backlash against the Serb and the tournament’s organisers could undermine public trust in sporting events that don’t comply with local vaccine requirements and public expectations, particularly locally in a country like Australia, where we have been faced with strict Covid rules to help the safety of the general public.

The visa controversy points to new directions emerging in the rapidly changing environment of international sport. These include growing social and national opposition towards sports stars and other high profile figures holding out against vaccination and the common good. This was reflected in the outcry over the Djokovic situation in Australia and beyond.

Public anger towards special consideration given to the tennis star also reflects undercurrents in wider international society as the world attempts to find a pathway out of the pandemic through vaccines.

These undercurrents include a backlash against double standards in sport and wider society in the new Covid centred world. This could be seen outside of sport this week in the public fury against British Government staff and ministers who partied in breach of Covid safety restrictions while cities and communities across the UK adhered to the regulations in goodwill.    

The Djokovic drama crossed sporting, social, political and cultural divides in Australia’s diverse population, drawn from almost every nation on the planet.


Polling consistently opposed the presence of the world’s number one unvaccinated sports star. One poll conducted by a leading media group, reported an extraordinary 83 per cent of almost 60,000 surveyed residents supported deportation.

International travel, the cornerstone of world sport, remains one of the most efficient methods of spreading the virus, and athletes, teams and officials will face far greater travel scrutiny and restrictions post Djokovic. 

Sporting superstars accustomed to border doors opening quickly on arrival and customs officials pointing to limousine and driver waiting lounges may be disappointed.


Sports at all levels must be seen to be helping not hindering the Covid fight. Vaccination requirements in sport have focussed primarily on domestic sporting competitions including the NBA, NFL, NBL and other national codes. Focus on inoculation is now a major worldwide issue for sport and society too.

The Tokyo Olympic Games and Paralympic Games success in laboratory-like conditions last July highlighted the importance of vaccination in world sport. High vaccination levels amongst Games athletes helped to block virus cross over into metropolitan Tokyo, and is one of the defining lessons for international sport in the pandemic so far.

“The debate involving Djokovic questioned Australia’s powers to defend itself against possible public disorder.”

The debris from the Djokovic incident has already had a global impact, with governments and some international federations announcing plans to tighten vaccination rules for major events, including the French Open.

As world health experts warning that only a global vaccination effort will end the plague, the Djokovic case also raises a raft of important issues for sport and society.


These involve the responsibilities of sporting bodies, sponsors, and athletes to society and to host cities, governments, communities and major events on which their careers and sports depend. Djokovic’s status and influence were highlighted in the visa controversy and his deportation could signal an end to sport’s star supremacy in the new Covid society.

The debate involving Djokovic questioned Australia’s powers to defend itself against possible public disorder, risks to public health and possible influence of the anti-vax sports star on tennis fans if he won the grand slam.

Meanwhile, all patients in intensive care with Covid in one of Australia’s anti-vax heartlands were reported earlier this week to be unvaccinated, including a local anti vaccine campaigner who has spent three weeks on a ventilator. The hospital in Lismore, in north-eastern New South Wales, has now opened a third ward Covid ward with 50 patients reported to have been admitted.

“It is as we feared,” according to a doctor from the hospital’s medical staff council. “We are seeing an almost exclusively unvaccinated population in the hospital and exclusively unvaccinated in the intensive care ward at this point.”

Djokovic’s deportation opponents argued conversely, that his removal could also foster anti-vaccination sentiment and might undermine the Australian government’s campaigns.

Court documents also suggested that Djokovic’s deportation posed a risk to the viability of the tennis grand slam and Australia’s global reputation, despite the nation’s history of successfully staging many of the world’s foremost sporting festivals.


The deportation case is now under the microscope of governments, sporting federations and major events committees worldwide to prevent similar missteps and events failures. It is a cautionary tale for sporting federations, governing bodies, and host cities.

This episode has damaged Serbian-Australian relations, with the Eastern European country fighting back after being unhappy at the decision.

The event provided important lessons in key function areas of technical manuals used to deliver major international events.

These include government relations, scenario planning, crisis communications, public affairs, community engagement, player relations and especially event concept and vision planning. Fall out from the affair points to a breakdown in interpretation and implementation of policies and decision-making in key tournament areas relating to Djokovic and his refusal to get vaccinated.


Much of the crisis can be traced back to design of the 2022 tournament and visa and accreditation policies and procedures relating to the final draft players list, especially Djokovic.

This includes the key role he occupied in the pre-tournament blueprint and the commercial, broadcast, and digital engagement goals of organisers and partners.

Ultimately this was all about a failure of ‘the vision thing’, a phrase made famous by George H. W. Bush ahead of the 1988 US presidential election, when urged to spend more time thinking about his plans for his prospective presidency.

The vision for the Australian Open 2022 was shaped by Djokovic’s role in one of the most compelling storylines of modern sport. Three of the greatest tennis players of all time were locked together, tied for the most Grand Slam wins at 20 and Melbourne was to be the showpiece event for one of them to become the first to ever reach 21.

“The lack of transparency in communications concerning decisions and processes… has affected the whole tournament and, unfortunately, overshadowed it.”

One of the players couldn’t make the first Grand Slam tournament of the year in Australia because of injury. The second player contracts the virus but recovers in time to play, and the third – the reigning Australian Open champ who has won the event more than anyone else – but refused to get vaccinated against the disease.

The Djokovic uproar was due to a failure to test the tournament vision and to communicate and prepare the stage for the vision.

The fragile AO vision, so heavily focussed on Djokovic’s quest for sporting fame, began to unravel the moment the Serb was detained. Organisers had not made the case adequately for Djokovic before his arrival.


News that one of the fittest and most resilient athletes on the planet, had reached Melbourne unvaccinated with a special medical exemption in his back pocket, shocked the host city and nation.

The confusing circumstances surrounding the presence of the world’s number one player and subsequent detention soon became an international storm. A pre-tournament focus on Djokovic, the antihero outsider of modern sport, was always a high stakes strategy. 

The lack of transparency in communications concerning decisions and processes involved in Djokovic’s visa and medical exemption drama was the key issue that has affected the whole tournament and, unfortunately, overshadowed it.

While organisers blamed confusing and conflicting government guidelines, there was nothing confusing about advice from the Federal Health Department that the category on which Djokovic’s exemption was under investigation no longer existed.


Australia’s national tennis body argued the viability of the tournament depended players who may not be fully vaccinated, like Djokovic, but this lacked impact.

Golf tournaments have continued without Tiger Woods; world athletics without Usain Bolt and swimming without Michael Phelps. Without Roger Federer there was no Plan B for the tournament, and this saga demonstrated no figure is bigger than the sport no matter how dominant.

Golf has continued to thrive without an often injured Tiger Woods in recent years and tennis must learn to do the same. Both in the short term without Djokovic for the Australian Open, but in the long term too as Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray approach the end of their careers.

While Djokovic was portrayed as a victim by some he was not alone. The tournament’s players, media, fans, sponsors and officials, who were all vaccinated, and proud Serbians back home, were denied the chance to see Djokovic compete for sporting history on behalf of their homeland were also victims.

However, we must hope this will be an isolated incident and not the start of many more instances of our favourite sporting superstars falling victim to Covid regulations. Sport’s greatness comes from seeing these elite players take part, and without them it is a lesser product.

Michael Pirrie is an international advisor and commentator on major events, including the Olympic Games, Invictus Games, Commonwealth Games and others. 

Djokovic’s ‘Public Interest’ Vaccine Deportation Decision Heralds End Of Sports Gods Era

ON THE SPOT: International major events advisor and commentator Michael Pirrie analyses the fall out and reasons behind the Australian Government’s bold decision to cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second and possibly final time.

While Australian wickets were falling this afternoon in the last Ashes test cricket match of the series, Novak Djokovic’s tennis grand slam record bid was also smouldering among the ashes of the Federal Government’s decision to cancel the visa of world’s number one tennis player for a second time this week.

Djokovic’s legacy was also on fire amid the Australia-wide and international drama that has accompanied the tennis champion’s refusal to vaccinate, in defiance of local public health requirement for visitors to Australia, and many other nations.

Like the Hawkeye technology used to decide line ball court decisions, the Federal Court hearing that cancelled Djokovic’s original deportation order did not pass the scrutiny of Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s eyes.

Nor did the Federal Court ruling that set Djokovic free from detention on Monday seem to pass the so-called “pub test” in Australia.

The Minister’s decision was greeted with strong and vocal support across the nation. While Djokovic believes he arrived with a valid visa, a series of unforced errors in recent days by Djokovic strengthened the case for deportation. These included mistakes in travel papers and uncertainties surrounding the processing and timing of his Covid 19 positive test results, on which the medical exemption was granted.

Djokovic celebrating winning the 2018 Wimbledon final.

The Australian community was increasingly sceptical of the use of medical exemption to enable the world’s highest profile anti vaccination figure in pursue his quest to secure sporting greatness at the Australian Open, which he has won on nine previous occasions.

Some residents called talk back radio to announce they had celebrated the Minister’s decision with champagne. The vaccine showdown in Australia has become a microcosm of many of the disputes and conflicts that still remain unresolved in many different parts of the world in sport and in society stemming from the pandemic.  

The Minister’s decision captured instant global headlines and has been at the centre of world news and sport in recent days, eclipsing the controversies surrounding the fate of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai and diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

This decision leaves his campaign to win a record 21st grand slam on the Melbourne Park Australian Open tennis courts in tatters, an arena where Djokovic has achieved some of his greatest victories and had been practicing ahead of the eagerly awaited decision.

Djokovic’s unvaccinated status has generated public outrage and growing concern amongst current and former tennis legends, including Martina Navratilova, critical of the the star’s disregard of vaccination for the common good and fellow colleagues.

The Minister reimposed the deportation order in “the public interest,” as the Covid crisis worsened across Australia in recent days.

This has resulted in record case numbers, deaths, empty supermarket shelves, food, worker and rapid antigen shortages, and transformation of hotels into temporary hospital wards to relieve pressure on intensive care wards filled with unvaccinated patients despite a high vaccine roll out programme.

Djokovic was tonight attempting to serve out the anti vaccination storm, still hoping to let his racquet speak for him on court at the Australian Open next week. His top flight legal team is expected to fight the Minister’s powers back in the Federal court with a directions hearing on Saturday. He has been spared detention while the final stages in this landmark battle between sovereignty and a global sport star is played out over the weekend.

We are now at the point where Djokovic is creating a massive distraction for the tennis world, overshadowing the remarkable run to this weekend’s Sydney Tennis Classic final by Andy Murray as the Scot looks to win his first tournament since 2019.

The multi millionaire sports star will continue to reside at the luxury mansion, complete with tennis court, that he and his team have been occupying in the inner eastern neighbourhood of Toorak, Melbourne’s most exclusive suburb of old money, the equivalent of London’s Mayfair or New York’s Upper West Side.

Team Djokovic is hoping for an injunction to enable him to remain in Australia long enough to compete in the tournament. He is fighting to overturn the deportation order, which carries carrying a possible three year ban from Australia, and would therefore shrink his grand slam opportunities of Djokovic.

If eliminated from the Australian Open, Djokovic could face visa difficulties at the next grand slam in Paris, with French President Macron increasingly concerned by the impact of the anti vaccination movement on vaccine uptake levels. Wimbledon and US Open are also hosted in cities and nations struggling against anti vaccination groups, for whom Djokovic has become a hero among celebrities.

The vaccine showdown in Australia has become a microcosm of many of the disputes and conflicts that still remain unresolved in many different parts of the world in sport and in society stemming from the pandemic. The landmark case and ruling of the Minister is the first of its kind and has sent shockwaves the world sport and major event organisers, sponsors and government agencies.

“The Australian Government said it based its decision on the grounds of health and good order of society.”

While Djokovic is regarded as a freedom fighter in his home country of Serbia where news of the new deportation order was greeted with extreme condemnation and criticism, the Australian Government said it based its decision on the grounds of health and good order of society.

The case was also having a negative impact on the order and state of sport in Australia and beyond, and is likely to result in much greater scrutiny of athletes travelling to events in cities and nations hosting major international events in the coming months.

It will also prompt a major review of the structure, skills and inter government relations within major event organising committees as lessons from the controversy are reviewed in the coming months.

Michael Pirrie is an international advisor and commentator on major events including the Olympic Games, Invictus Games, and other international projects.

News Analysis – Final Decision Still To Be Made As Djokovic Prepares For the End Game

Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open future still up in the air with final decision still to be made. Michael Pirrie evaluates at the latest developments.

After a stunning comeback earlier this week in the Australia federal court, Novak Djokovic is tonight facing deportation a second time after another day of high drama and developments in the unprecedented case.

This includes reports that the Australian Government was prepared to ride out the international storm that could accompany deportation of the world tennis number one and most infamous anti vaccination player. 

Ironically, the documents that Djokovic and his high powered legal team submitted to secure his release from detention earlier this week have now set the stage for deportation. This follows revelations that Djokovic’s visa and travel declarations appeared to contain wrong and misleading information.

The errors in information submitted in Djokovic’s travel and visa documents to the Federal Court carry serious penalties, including deportation from Australia, the country that has helped to pioneer and develop modern tennis and make Djokovic a global household name.

The controversy over Djokovic’s presence in Australia to play in the country’s biggest international sporting event while unvaccinated has become an issue of worldwide interest, creating headlines across the globe.

“Novak Djokovic, Great at Tennis and Bad at Science, Awaits His Fate” according to Opinion in the New York Times, while the Washington Post Opinion piece described the explosive visa case as one of “another sports superstar with an exaggerated sense of entitlement” over Djokovic’s refusal to get vaccinated.

The case involving the high profile Australian sporting event, public health concerns, national security and Djokovic’s grand slam record attempt has divided the host nation and international community. Much is riding on the highly anticipated decision by the Australian Federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, which could come tomorrow.

The Minister, who earlier this year said that athletes needed to be double vaccinated to enter the country, has wide powers under the Migration Act that could be used to overturn the recent Federal Court ruling that set Djokovic free from detention.

The Australian Open is Djokovic’s most successful event, having won the tournament 9 times. Djokovic’s success in Melbourne has placed him on a trajectory to challenge for a record 21st grand slam title and he is likely to vigorously fight a second deportation order.  

The 34-year old Serbian superstar knows he must seize the first grand slam opportunity of the new year in Melbourne to claim the grand slam record, with the next generation of tennis stars rapidly closing in on him. These include Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and Daniil Medvedev, who defeated Djokovic in the 2021 US Open and will be competing in Melbourne.

Possible grounds for a new deportation order are believed to include disruption to society and good character of the visa applicant.

After a strong performance in Melbourne’s law precinct on Monday, Djokovic’s game has started to unravel over the past two days as his sworn visa and travel papers have come under close scrutiny, revealing errors that have placed him on the back foot. These include details about his movements before arriving in Australia and uncertainties surrounding the timing and results of his Covid-19 tests, central to his claim for a special medical exemption to play in Melbourne unvaccinated.

Breaking his silence today, Djokovic apologised in social media for conducting an interview with a leading international sports news magazine while knowing he may have been Covid positive and should have been isolating, in breach of Serbia’s restrictions. 

“The continuing vaccine stand off involving Djokovic, Tennis Australia, Federal and Victoria State officials and a deeply sceptical and frustrated public is starting to impact sport more widely, according to some leading players.”

He claimed that any misinformation in his travel statements were due to human error by his management team and not deliberate.

Djokovic is reported to have been met with silence and indifference from other players when he entered the locker room to prepare for training.

The continuing vaccine stand off involving Djokovic, Tennis Australia, Federal and Victoria State officials and a deeply sceptical and frustrated public is starting to impact sport more widely, according to some leading players.

The row was “really not good for tennis,” said British tennis star, Andy Murray who is currently competing in the Sydney Tennis Classic in the lead up to the event.

Meanwhile, the handling of the tournament, which saw organisers provide advice on how unvaccinated players could apply for exemptions, is reported to be attracting the interest of world sports governing bodies, including the IOC.

“The ongoing uncertainty over Djokovic’s fate is also impacting on the operations and schedule for the leading sporting event with concerns that the draw may need to be rescheduled.”

This follows comments by a leading Tennis Australia executive that the Covid safety protocols in the Playbooks for the Tokyo Olympic Games were not as rigorous as precautions for the Australian Tennis Open last year. The tennis official said that based on the Australian Open experience, he couldn’t see the Tokyo Games working.

The Olympic Games, which involved nearly 10 times the number of athletes as the tennis slam, and was highly successful with the IOC Playbooks credited with minimising infections in Tokyo despite the enormous scale of the Games. Extensive efforts led by the IOC to get athletes vaccinated was seen as key to the success of the Games.

The ongoing uncertainty over Djokovic’s fate is also impacting on the operations and schedule for the leading sporting event with concerns that the draw may need to be rescheduled if the number one seed faces deportation in the final days before the evet starts.

Meanwhile, Czech star Renata Voracova, who left Australia after her visa was also cancelled, is reported to be seeking compensation from Tennis Australia over the matter.

Michael Pirrie is an international major events and Olympic Games communications advisor and commentator, who has worked in senior positions for several international organising and bid committees. 

Djokovic Cleared To Play In Australian Open, Could This Lead To The Relaxation Of Future Covid Mandates?

The Novak Djokovic court ruling earlier today has sent shockwaves through world sporting circles and governments trying to combat the covid pandemic. Michael Pirrie takes a behind the scenes look at the case and analyses its implications for sport and major events.

The ‘Djokovic Does Detention Down Under’ visa drama continued to attract global attention ahead of today’s much anticipated court case, challenging Australia’s visa system for unvaccinated tennis players.

While unvaccinated Czech doubles player Renata Veracova decided to head home after her travel papers were investigated over the weekend, Djokovic decided to stay and fight deportation after his travel documents were cancelled earlier.

In a stunning turn around, the decision by Australian border control to cancel Djokovic’s visa was overturned, with the judge ordering him to be released from detention along with his passport in hand.

The judge ruled the visa cancellation out of court, describing it as unreasonable said Djokovic had done all that could expected of him to provide adequate documentation to enter Australia before leaving for Melbourne.

“Could this be seen as a set back for domestic and world sports governing bodies and leagues pushing for players and teams to fully vaccinate?”

It is a case which has generated global interest because it combines two of the world’s biggest concerns and obsessions during this current time – Covid and sport.  

The interest has dominated world sport and tennis in recent days, overshadowing the release of the new King Richard movie about Serena and Venus Williams as King Novak held court in Melbourne. 

The hearing had to be temporarily adjourned at one stage after the streaming technology collapsed due to the unprecedented national and international demand for access to the platform

The win was also hailed as a victory for the anti-vaccination movement in Australia and worldwide as well as for Djokovic, the movement’s highest profile poster celebrity. However, could this be seen as a set back for domestic and world sports governing bodies and leagues pushing for players and teams to fully vaccinate to keep their seasons, competitions and clubs operating as Omicron sweeps the globe? 

The decision to allow Djokovic to play unvaccinated in the Australian Open, the southern hemisphere’s largest and most prestigious annual sporting event, could undermine public health messages in the pandemic and encourage other leading players to fight vaccination. Could major sport events organisers and leagues be forced to develop two-tier systems for vaccinated and unvaccinated players in team, competition and events settings in these current times?

When leading EPL Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, was asked if he would sign an unvaccinated player he said: “From an organisational point of view it gets really messy. The player would have to change in a different dressing room, to eat in a different dinning room, to sit in a different bus, drive in a different car.”  

The ruling in favour of one of the highest profile vaccine sceptics and sporting figures in the world was also a disappointment to political and community leaders in Europe and the United States, increasingly concerned at the growing influence and impact of anti-vaccination squads and protest groups.

Djokovic’s legal challenge forced the vaccine and visa controversy in Australia to a tie-break, familiar territory for the world number one who rarely plays a losing game. While the win, in a court of law, might be a world away from the tennis court, it could be the most telling of his career.

The Serbian superstar is especially fond of the Melbourne Park centre court surface where he has won a record nine grand slams that have provided the foundations for his tilt at sporting history. The court ruling now frees Djokovic to contest the Australian Open next week following the most dramatic lead up in modern tennis to a grand slam event.

The court order also provides Djokovic with a ‘get-out of jail-free’ card with the high costs of the multi-millionaire tennis player’s top shelf legal team to be met by taxpayers. The law firm ironically has a “no jab, no entry” office policy.

While Djokovic has fought his way back from match point down, his epic battle may not yet  be over. The Australia government still holds the option to cancel the visa a second time and Djokovic could again challenge such a move.  

“It is an incredibly unique case which has placed Djokovic and the impact of the anti-vaccination movement in sport into the international spotlight like never before.”

A former senior Immigration Department official said this evening that more practical solutions should be pursued. “It would be better for all the parties concerned to sit down and work out a plan to manage the risks to public health while allowing Djokovic to play in the Australian Open,” the official said. 

The weekend brought the issues surround the Djokovic case into shaper focus ahead of the hearing with hospitals close to his hotel of detention stretched to capacity treating new covid patients in wards and in the intensive care unit where the vast majority of seriously ill patients are unvaccinated.

It is an incredibly unique case which has placed Djokovic and the impact of the anti-vaccination movement in sport into the international spotlight like never before and plunged the start of the new year for sport into chaos.

The emergence of new photos of the tennis star alongside children and at other another public event in his honour without a mask the day after he tested positive for Covid took concerns about permission for Djokovic to play in one of the world’s leading sporting events without vaccination to new levels. 

As well as raising concerns about the responsibility of sports and players for the common good in a global health emergency, the case has highlighted how the pandemic is reshaping priorities in how and where major international events are staged. While the judge hearing the Djokovic case asked what more he could have done in the circumstances, the nearly universal view was that the trauma of the case could have been avoided if he had just been vaccinated.

The Djokovic case has highlighted the new battle ground in the Covid era of sport, centering on national sovereignty and safety of citizens and major events and who determines the safety conditions of international events – the world governing bodies and international federations, player groups and unions, sponsors, broadcasters or governments, local public health experts or host communities.

The availability of vaccines is seen as a fundamental measure in helping to stem concerns and infection cross over to local communities and residents from major international events and visiting teams and athletes expected to be vaccinated.

This case has highlighted the growing lack of tolerance for unvaccinated players from a large percentage of the public, but has also been an unpleasant episode for sport, with the focus largely taken away from the tournament.

You can certainly expect that much of the coverage over the two weeks will now focus on the Serbian star, rather than his, and all of the other competitors, tennis at the event.

While Djokovic won today’s court case he continues to lose the public vote with widespread opposition to the court decision and his participation in the tennis event. 

Polls have indicated that up to 85 percent of those surveyed not wanting Djokovic to attend the Australian Open with some claiming they would tear up their tickets to event.

“There were also concerns that the ‘player-first’ culture of the Australian Open event had been focussed too heavily on one player and on exemptions that would enable Djokovic to make sporting history at the Melbourne event.”

There were also concerns that the ‘player-first’ culture of the Australian Open event had been focussed too heavily on one player and on exemptions that would enable Djokovic to make sporting history at the Melbourne event. 

While Djokovic may have beaten his visa ban, his next challenge will be overcoming Spain’s Rafael Nadal, who is also competing to become the first man to reach 21 slams.

Nadal, who is fully vaccinated along with the number one women’s seed Australian Ash Barty, has won over fans around Australia and the world with his compassion and perspective on Covid.

The world has been suffering enough to not follow the rules,” he said recently. “The only thing I can say is I believe in what the people who know about medicine says, and if those people say that we need to get vaccinated, we need to get the vaccines.”

Michael Pirrie is an international major events adviser and commentator who was executive adviser to Olympic champion Seb Coe, former Chair of the London 2012 Olympic Games Committee.

The Current Djokovic Controversy Heralds New Era Of Player Responsibility

The ongoing Novak Djokovic controversy surrounding his entry into and supposed deportation from Australia ahead of the upcoming Australian Open showcases the new expectations of player responsibility in modern times, says Michael Pirrie.

While Omicron is already cancelling or postponing new year staples such as the Grammys, the Australian Open tennis grand slam, the first sporting major of 2022, is still on schedule despite the overnight detention ahead of possible deportation of Novak Djokovic, the star draw and world number one.

Djokovic’s dilemma stems from his refusal to get vaccinated and follows a day of almost unprecedented drama in sport.

The quarantining of the tennis star in an inner city Melbourne hotel comes after his visa was turned down by Australian border control officials.

“Djokovic’s last minute dash from Dubai to secure his place in tennis history has collided with Australia’s deep egalitarian streak.”

While Djokovic believed he had a valid medical exemption to enter the country it is believed his visa was declined due to a lack of sufficient evidence to support the application.

Djokovic’s last minute dash from Dubai to secure his place in tennis history has collided with Australia’s deep egalitarian streak, where even sporting royalty comes a distant second to the interests and safety of citizens and wider community.

The player’s plans to compete on a medical exemption were the tipping point. While governments and public health authorities across Australia have persuaded and pushed high vaccination rates, Djokovic has become a cause celebre for the anti vaccination movement.

His opposition to vaccination has frustrated many who see vaccines as an essential measure that save lives. Unvaccinated people are more likely to get COVID and up to 10 times more likely to spread it, according to medical authorities.

“While President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic accused Australian authorities of harassing his country’s biggest sports star, Djokovic’s father said people would gather in the streets to defend his son.”

The rejection of the Serbian superstar’s visa generated global attention.

While President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic accused Australian authorities of harassing his country’s biggest sports star, Djokovic’s father said people would gather in the streets to defend his son.

Australia’s rugby passionate fan Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, spoke warmly of his country’s relations with Serbia and defended Australia’s right to protect its boarders and citizens against the virus and unvaccinated travellers.

“Any individual seeking to enter Australia must comply with our border requirements,” Mr Morrison said.

The Australian Prime Minister said if Djokovic could not provide the necessary information for a medical exemption he would not be permitted to say in the country.

“..he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home. There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever,” said Mr Morrison.

Prime Minister Morrison played a key role in the final presentations to the IOC in Tokyo last year to help secure the Olympic and Paralympic Games for the city of Brisbane.

Djokovic’s decision to fight the visa denial underlines the importance of the Australian Open in his quest to win a record 21 grand slam titles.

The Australian Open is Djokovic’s favourite slam surface having won the tournament nine times, and provides him with the best opportunity to beat arch rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to 21 titles.

The Djokovic drama moved rapidly throughout the day as the main court in question became not a tennis one, but the court of appeal, after the court of public and player opinion shifted against his controversial views on vaccinations.

Rafael Nadal has voiced his disagreement with Djokovic’s stance

A division also emerged between Djokovic and his hard line opposition to vaccinations and other players in Australia for the grand slam event.

Spain’s Rafael Nadal, also seeking a record 21st title in Melbourne, said vaccines were appropriate in pandemic conditions because ”the world has been suffering enough to not follow the rules.”    

“The only thing I can say is I believe in what the people who know about medicine says, and if those people say that we need to get vaccinated , we need to get the vaccines,” Nadal said,

While most players in Australia for the event have complied with vaccine requirements, some were sceptical about Djokovic’s exemption.

“I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” said British former doubles world number one Jamie Murray.   

“Whether this will become a greater issue for players going forward will rely on whether other nations opt to implement similar rules in the future.”

The Djokovic controversy marks a flashpoint for major sport in the evolving pandemic as governments contemplate new strategies to combat anti-vaccine movements that experts believe threaten public safety.

While the Australian Open is the first event of its kind to require vaccinations, other governments are understood to be considering similar mandates in order to reduce the risk of major events from becoming infection super spreaders. Djokovic has been permitted to remain in Australia until his appeal is completed on Monday.

New York’s mandate of requiring vaccination for indoor arenas has meant unvaccinated NBA superstar Kyrie Irving has not played for his franchise at home all season, but has this week appeared for the first time in away fixtures.

Whether this will become a greater issue for players going forward will rely on whether other nations opt to implement similar rules in the future. As we have seen with the pandemic, nothing is predictable.

Michael Pirrie is an Olympic adviser and international events communications consultant and commentator.