Nigel Huddleston is Under-Secretary of State for Sport, Tourism, Heritage and Civil Society, hardly the biggest job in government. Yet he seems a little inebriated on what little authority he has – at least if his latest remarks to the Department for the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee are anything to go by.
Huddleston has taken on board the mood of the moment. He appreciates that sport must make a stand against Vlad the Invader and the invasion of Ukraine, and which sensible person would disagree?
But boycotting Russia from major competitions and clamping down on dodgy oligarch football owners isn’t sufficient, apparently. Huddleston wants more. He suggested to the DCMS committee that it is not enough for Russian and Belarusian tennis players to be ‘neutral’ in this time of war, not if they want to grace the lawns of the All England Club in Wimbledon this summer.
He added: ‘We are looking at this issue of what we do with individuals and we are thinking about the implications of it, because I don’t think people would accept individuals very clearly flying the Russian flag, in particular if there is any support for Putin and his regime.’
That might include the now world number one player Daniil Medvedev, who has removed the Russian flag from his Instagram feed and is competing as a non-nation affiliated athlete in the BNP Paribas in Indian Wells in California this week.
Nige would like him to be more explicit: ‘Absolutely nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed or enabled,’ he said. ‘But I think it needs to go beyond that, I think we need to have some assurance that they are not supporters of Vladimir Putin and we are considering what requirements we may need to get assurances along those lines.’
Steerpike hopes for Huddleston that he didn’t really know what he is saying, because forcing players to state their opposition to a political leader or foreign enemy is not really what free societies are meant to be about. It is something that one might expect an authoritarian dictator – a Putin, say – to demand, though Steerpike can in fact see no evidence that Putin is ordering Russia’s athletes to denounce the West. But in Britain a junior member of a democratically elected government feels now empowered to make such demands.
There’s no doubt that sport can be a useful arena for the expression of international outrage and applying soft-power pressure on malevolent actors on the world stage. The last two weeks have proven that. But Huddlestone seems to have gone a little beyond his brief, here. Perhaps we now need some kind ‘assurance’ from him that he didn’t really mean it.