If someone is going to compare you to Spartacus, you had better damn well earn it through your words and deeds. Novak Djokovic, the sour, selfish tennis demigod, isn’t even in the conversation. That didn’t stop the father of the tennis great from saying that his son was “the world’s new Spartacus” and “the symbol and the leader of the free world.” Why? Because he was standing up to “corona fascism” by refusing to be vaccinated or tamed by any mandates or restrictions. Yet Djokovic’s desire to remain a vaccine denier collided with Australia’s own policy of denying entry to anyone who has not gotten the vaccine.
Djokovic went to Australia, medical exemption in hand, hoping to breeze through any restrictions, play in the Australian Open, and win his record-setting 21st major championship. Instead, authorities put him up for several days in what has been referred to in the press as a “notorious hostel” used for housing migrants. On Monday, a very irritated judge ruled that Djokovic should be released immediately and overruled the government’s cancellation of his visa. At the time of this writing, Djokovic is free to play in the Australian Open, and the day he was released from detention was already training for that eventuality. The Australian immigration minister, however, still has the power to unilaterally cancel the visa and send Djokovic home. He is feeling pressure to show that there isn’t one rule for millionaire tennis titans and another for asylum seekers desperate for safer shores.
There are no good guys in this story. Djokovic is no Spartacus. Spartacus, whether as written about in Howard Fast’s novel or as played by Kirk Douglas in the Kubrick classic, cared about the collective. Djokovic seems to care militantly only about himself. There are photos of him the day after he allegedly tested positive in December, posing for photos with small children, everyone unmasked, at a charity event. Either his positive Covid-19 test, which he used to justify his vaccination exemption, is a sham or he was knowingly infecting young children. Whatever the truth, this is all too typical to Djokovic’s very blithe and public approach to the virus, which has included hosting large unmasked parties and events.
His detention did stoke a hefty stew of Serbian nationalism in Australia, leading to people with Serbian flags blocking traffic and getting tear-gassed by police near the hotel where Djokovic was being detained. Tennis commentators say that Djokovic, unlike the smooth Roger Federer or the dynamic Rafa Nadal, thrives on being in a state of antagonism against those around him. If he ends up playing in the Australian Open, there should be enough antagonistic energy to fly a rocket. It will be fascinating to see how the crowds greet him and how he responds.
For the Australian government and much of the public, “standing up to Djokovic” is seen as an opportunity. They want to send the message, especially as Omicron rages, that there will be no tolerance for anyone who wants to come into the country without a vaccination card or the kind of ironclad medical exemption that Djokovic did not provide.
But the detention of Djokovic also highlights how racist and unforgiving Australia’s immigration laws tend to be. There are people in the hostel where Djokovic was detained who have been there for years in squalid conditions. Asylum seekers are regularly turned away. In a settler colonialist country with a history of racist and exclusionary policies, these kinds of nationalist acts, even against something as nefarious as Covid-19, can always find support. But it also highlights that there is no nationalist solution to Covid-19.
Putting up walls and sticking soldiers with guns on the border makes for a good photo op, but it’s garbage as health policy. That there are wealthy nations with vaccine access and broad swaths of the Global South without it is a legacy of the old imperialism and a reflection of the present reality of a brutally unequal world. Until the nations that hold a monopoly on vaccines share their intellectual and scientific data with everyone, we are going to be mired in disease.
There is no wall high enough to stop a virus. But Djokovic isn’t here to point out the racism and injustice of detaining asylum seekers indefinitely. And he is certainly not using his money and influence to try to end medical imperialism and vaccinate the world. Instead, he has shown himself to be nothing but petulant and profoundly selfish. This is one of those stories that highlights just how awful the terms of the political debate on Covid-19 and vaccinations are and the crying need to reframe these debates. Neither side in this battle has an internationalist or humanistic perspective. Neither this “Spartacus” with the wicked two-handed backhand nor the Australian state is rising to this moment.