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By Mike Panozzo
Mike became editor of Billiards Digest in 1980 and liked it so much that he bought the company. He has served on the Billiard Congress of America board of directors and as president of the Billiard & Bowling Institute of America.


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May: Let Them Play
May 2022

“There are no winners in war.”

It’s not a direct quote but is the essence of a speech given by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain more than 80 years ago, and that truism kept ringing through my head as I sat in Jayson Sword’s southern Indiana home conversing with politically displaced Russian players Fedor Gorst and Kristina Tkach in early April. (See accompanying story, page 38.)

Gorst, the former World 9-Ball Champion, and Tkach, the Euro Tour’s top-ranked player in 2021, along with rising star Margaret Fefilova of Belarus, are players without tournaments, casualties of what many argue is nothing more than “virtue signaling” by sports federations across the globe.

Their banishment from the sport’s biggest events, of course, is based on a decision made by the World Confederation of Billiard Sports (WCBS) — pool’s direct link to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the umbrella organization under which the pool’s governing body, the World Pool-Billiard Association (WPA), sits — in response to Russia’s recent invasion of the Ukraine.

The WCBS has stated that it is simply following the recommendation of the IOC that athletes from Russia and Belarus be banned from international competition as a form of punishment against the aggressors and a sign of unity in the world’s condemnation of the invasion.

I get it, but I don’t get it.

I understand that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting devastation inflicted on that country and its people is something that the world needs to recognize and address. But I struggle with how banning a handful of pool players trying to make a living in even the most remote way accomplishes anything.

The thought in many sports is that the banishment of Russia’s star athletes prevents the country from celebrating the successes of those athletes. Is banning Fedor Gorst from the World Pool Masters really viewed as a way of shaming Russia?

To an extent, I understand the move in sports in which the athletes and teams are state-supported — gymnastics, Olympic athletes, etc. But, seriously, Fedor Gorst and Kristina Tkach? They are individuals pursuing a profession — exclusively outside of Russia. They get no funding from the Russian government. Does the Russian government even know they exist?

For those who argue that safety is a concern, I would argue that bias and hatred already exist in international competition, but it rarely leads to direct conflict.

I’ve also read that Russian athletes should be forced to condemn the actions of their government. Sorry, but Gorst and Tkach have families in Russia, and anyone who thinks retribution against their families by the Russian government for inflammatory remarks couldn’t happen is naďve indeed.

If it makes the WPA feel better, have Russian and Belarusian athletes play under a neutral flag (whatever that means).

Many sports are banning Russian and Belarusian athletes. But in tennis, only Wimbeldon has issued a ban. The World Tennis Association has stated that “individual athletes should not be penalized due to the decisions made by the leadership of their country.”

Independent thought. What a novel approach.

My question is this: What is the exact purpose of the WPA banning Russian and Belarusian players? What are they hoping to achieve? And under what circumstance would they ease those restrictions?

In typical WPA form, there are no answers for those questions. They are waiting to be told what to do by the IOC.

And what are the boundaries that dictate when such action is warranted? Any human rights violations by one country against another or against its own people? Let’s start that debate.

Once pool decided to fall in step with others allowing sports to be politicized, it stepped onto a slippery slope.

I’ve always looked at sports as a bridge for people of all cultures, a common love of competition. Pool has always seemed to rise above cultural barriers. Aside from a pool association’s misguided ban of black star Cicero Murphy from a world tournament years ago, pool players have always accepted and respected anyone who shared a love of the game.

Just once I would like to see the sport stand up for itself and make its own decisions; decisions based on their impact on pool.

And if the decision is to ban players from certain countries for the political actions of those countries, fine. Just make sure you have a clearly stated reason, a clearly stated goal, and a clearly stated point at which those bans would be rescinded.

That way maybe I won’t feel so helpless and sad sitting across from a pair of early-20-somethings with blank expressions on their faces wondering why they can’t continue to earn a living playing a game they love against contemporaries from around the world for whom they have nothing but admiration and respect.

But until you get to that point, let them play.

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