Why autocrats ought to be banned from all sports


This summer thirty years ago, I stopped playing tennis. It was a rather lovely day in a small town somewhere in Central Finland in the course of which I not only put my racket down. The very same day, I had discovered the joys of tennis.

Why did I decide to give up on the noble pastime? Of course, I might have been too old (in my twenties), impatient or clumsy to master the game. Yet the decisive factor appears to have been a personality trait the last tsar of Russia shared with me.

While I already knew Nicholas II as an avid sportsman, it was only this summer that I encountered the memoirs of Anna Vyrubova, a lady-in-waiting, tsarina’s confidante and His Imperial Majesty’s occasional opponent on the tennis court.

‘When playing with him,’ Anna Vyrubova writes, ‘I knew precisely which balls I should not return, because as a player he behaved like a spoiled child, giving up the game as soon as he had lost his chances of winning.’ (My translation from the Finnish edition of Memories of the Russian Court, 1923.)

The humble woman remained faithful to the imperial family until the very end, i.e. March 1917. After her less-than-humble emperor suddenly surrendered his throne (and stopped playing tennis), Russia totally lost its bearings, plunging into the depths of a veritable dictatorship.

As I see it, the last tsar’s sporting habits proved disastrous to Russia and, by extension, the whole world. As soon as the power game got tough, the ‘spoiled child’ chose to step down rather than fight back.

If only Nicholas had been a good sport as an emperor! In that case, I’m sure, tennis players representing the Russian Empire would have gained fame in the first half of the 20th century, and the chairman of the All-Russian Union of Lawn Tennis Club wouldn’t have died in a Bolshevik prison in 1919. Unless, of course, the spoiled autocrat would have thrown a colossal tantrum and declared himself as the Indisputable All-Russian Champion of Every Single Sport.

Lenin, incidentally, loved chess, the military sport par excellence, whereas Stalin seems to have had no taste for any sport (apart from human hunting). Russia’s first post-communist leader Boris Yeltsin, for his part, ‘knew everything about tennis’ and almost single-handedly revived the country’s lost tennis tradition in the 1990s.

Over to you, scholars of sport and supreme power!


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