For almost two weeks at the start of this year, the sports section of every major media outlet was dominated by the trials and tribulations of Novak Djokovic, world tennis number one, and commentators were suddenly called upon to comment on the minutiae of Australian immigration law. Enough time has now passed that we can review the Australian Open controversy, and safely say that it was just kind of embarrassing for everyone involved.
First, it is perhaps helpful to review exactly what happened, as details changed, and new pieces of information emerged as the story unfolded.
Djokovic was granted an exemption from mandatory travel vaccination by the state government of Victoria and Tennis Australia. The exact details of the exemption are fuzzy; we now know the tennis player is not vaccinated and contracted Covid in mid-December 2021, but the Australian government has confirmed multiple times that recent infection is not in itself sufficient grounds for an exemption to the vaccine travel mandate.
Either way, Djokovic was one of a handful of Australian Open attendees granted such an exemption, and he travelled on that pretence. But he was detained on arrival in Melbourne on January 5 due to unspecified issues with his immigration paperwork. On January 10, the Federal Circuit Court ordered his release, citing problems with how border officials treated Djokovic during his initial detainment and questioning.
Four days later, however, the Australian minister for immigration exercised his power to revoke the player’s visa on the grounds of “public interest”. Djokovic appealed the decision, but three Federal Court judges unanimously upheld it, and he left Australia on January 16.
So who was in the right? Frankly, probably no one.
It was irresponsible and selfish of Djokovic to travel while unvaccinated. Aeroplanes are highly dangerous environments for transmission of Covid and Australia has avoided a large death toll only by mitigating the risks posed by inbound travellers. We don’t know why the determining panel gave him an exemption, but we do know that he’s unvaccinated by choice and has cast doubt on the efficacy of vaccines and modern medicine in general numerous times in the past. His irresponsibility is somewhat mitigated in light of his infection in December, but he later admitted that he did not self-isolate during that infection so it’s hardly a point in his favour.
His supporters also went on a PR offensive during his detention, with his father declaring him the victim of “corona fascism”, and that Australia wanted to “attack Novak to bring Serbia to its knees”. The president of the Serbian parliament called him a victim of “despicable political harassment”. They both unfortunatly missed the obvious “kangaroo court” joke. All this despite the fact that it was not some grand conspiracy that had his visa cancelled initially, but paperwork issues which Djokovic himself admitted were the fault of his team.
But the Australian authorities didn’t cover themselves in glory either. The issue was just handled badly from the get go; the procedural problems that won Djokovic his initial hearing were genuine ones, and to allow the saga to drag on for more than a week before having the minister exercise his visa revocation power was bad for everyone involved. It also seems like there was miscommunication between Tennis Australia, the Victoria state government and the federal government about the particulars of Djokovic’s vaccine exemption.
On a broader level, the Australian border regime itself is indefensible. I don’t mean the vaccine requirement for incoming tourists and business travellers, which is eminently sensible, but the country’s appalling treatment of refugees. The system violates Australia’s responsibilities under international law and has been the subject of near-universal criticism.
Australia outsources detention of asylum seekers to the nearby nation of Nauru. Conditions faced by those held there have included water shortages, overcrowding, little to no education for children, almost no health facilities, and sexual abuse (which the Australian government was aware of and covered up). Detainees have been driven to hunger strikes, riots, self-harm, and numerous attempted suicides including both self-immolation and attempts by children.
Djokovic’s fellow detainees at the Park Hotel had mostly been transferred there from Nauru for medical treatment, which most have not received. Many of them have been held by the Australian government for more than nine years. Of the asylum seekers detained by Australia, more than three-quarters have already been found to have legitimate grounds for refugee status, and those that have not are still owed shelter and protection by the country under international law. It was also, frankly, unacceptable to put these medically-vulnerable people at risk by housing the unvaccinated tennis player alongside them.
With this in mind, it’s hard to take seriously tennis fans who made Djokovic out to be some kind of particular or unique victim during the week and a half he was held. Long-running protests against the refugee detention outside the Park Hotel were joined for a week by Serbian flag-toting Djokovic supporters, but they disappeared as soon as he was released. Many people, including refugees held at the hotel, said that they hoped Djokovic would speak out about their plight after his experience. He has not yet done so.
We shouldn’t hold our breath. Frankly, Djokovic just doesn’t seem like a very nice person. He’s given a fair amount of money to charitable causes, which is commendable, but also has a reputation for on-court tantrums involving thrown rackets, and for screaming at umpires and ball kids when upset. Furthermore, his repeated public statements doubting the efficacy of vaccines and promoting pseudoscientific “natural medicines” are profoundly irresponsible given his reach and influence. Many of the protestors who turned up in Melbourne to support him brought signs with anti-vaccination and conspiracy theorist slogans.
More seriously, he’s flirted numerous times with Serbian ultranationalism. He is close friends with Milorad Dodik, former president of Republika Srpska, the statelet within Bosnia and Herzegovina created during the Bosnian War by the genocide and mass deportation of Bosniaks and Croats. Dodik is a prolific denier of the war crimes committed during the attempt to create an “ethnically pure” homeland for Bosnian Serbs, and has recently ramped up his ethnonationalist and islamophobic rhetoric again, drawing international condemnation.
In 2020, Djokovic caused controversy and lost several sponsors after he posed for a picture with a liquor named and branded in honour of Draza Mihailovic, a Serb nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis. The sportsman was further criticised that year for accepting the Order of the Republika Srpska from Dodik, given the award has previously been used to honour numerous convicted war criminals including Ratko Mladić, Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić.
Just this past September, during a trip to Republika Srpska, Djokovic was pictured meeting with the commander of the Drina Wolves, a military unit that helped to perpetrate the Srebrenica massacre. This was the single-largest mass killing of the Bosnian genocide, which saw more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys murdered over the course of ten days. Djokovic has also repeatedly publicly opposed the idea of Kosovar independence from Serbia, despite the majority of that nation very much wanting to govern themselves.
These explicit and implicit endorsements of ultranationalism are difficult to separate from Djokovic’s position as a national hero in Serbia. It’s good for countries to have sportspeople to rally around, and Serbians should be proud of having among their number one of the greatest athletes in the history of tennis. But at a time when dangerous, bellicose rhetoric dehumanising Kosovars, Croats and Bosniaks is on the rise in Serbia and Republika Srpska anyway, the tennis star has a responsibility to decisively distance himself from these kinds of sentiments, not embrace them. It’s been less than 25 years since the Balkan Wars ended, and these are very much still post-conflict societies. Things get palpably worse when someone as fundamental to Serbian national identity as Djokovic is seen breaking bread with war criminals.
To make a long story short, both Novak Djokovic and the Australian government made a complete dog’s dinner of the vaccine controversy, and both deserve derision for that. But the furore is just a microcosm of the ways in which both actors are doing bigger, much worse things. We need to demand more from national governments and A-list sports stars, and we need to keep caring about these things long after they might affect the draw for the Australian Open.
Perhaps one sign seen outside the Park Hotel put it best: “Djokovic can fuck off, free the refugees”.