AUSTRALIA’S “cultural cringe” – if there was any basis for it in the first place – is now decades in the past: it’s a leading world power, with the tenth-highest per capita GDP, a mature parliamentary democracy, and figures of the first rank in scholarship, technology, the arts, business, cuisine or any other area of human endeavour you care to name.

But it is not a caricature to note that it remains a nation preternaturally devoted to the Great God of Sport. With good reason. For example, Sir Donald Bradman’s Test batting average of 99.94 is arguably the single greatest sporting achievement of any career in sport, full stop – or at least up there with David Boon’s consumption of 52 tinnies on the flight from Sydney to London before the 1989 Ashes.

Until this past week, that is, when there have been indications some Australians now have other priorities. Not because England avoided a whitewash by unexpectedly drawing the fourth Test, but with the furore around the arrival of the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic to contest the Australian Open, which he’s won on nine previous occasions.

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Mr Djokovic, currently the men’s world number one, flew into the country having obtained permission to do so, though he has no proof of vaccination against Covid, and was not required to quarantine for a fortnight (the standard entry requirements at the moment).

You may well ask why he got such leeway, since the argument that he has some immunity from previous infection doesn’t seem to figure in the Australian rules. As it turns out, quite a lot of Aussies, who have been subject to very stringent restrictions on travel, both internationally and between states, extensive tracing, curfews and a series of lockdowns, did just that.

But, leaving that aside for the moment, he does seem to have acquired permission, both from Tennis Australia and the state of Victoria (some reports suggest three other players at the tournament have similar exemptions), and initially also got the OK from Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, who said it was within the rules.

Until, as has happened to so many other political leaders, it seems to have dawned on Mr Morrison that ordinary people prevented from doing lots of things that are normally part of everyday life, on pain of criminal sanction, often don’t relish seeing celebrities swan about, apparently not subject to the same rules. At which point he changed his mind.

The unsatisfactory result of this was that, on arrival, Mr Djokovic was told he wasn’t getting in and (in the middle of the night, without access to documents or lawyers) that his visa was cancelled. Yesterday, the courts ruled that was unfair, and that he should be released from detention. The saga may well not be over, though, since ministers may (or may not, depending on which lawyers you believe) have the power to cancel his visa anyway.

A mess, in other words, where nobody seems to be clearly in the right, or at any rate to emerge covered in glory. It’s less obvious that you can draw one of the many conclusions that lots of people seem keen to draw, though.

Mr Djokovic, who seems for whatever reason not to get as warm a reception from tennis fans as, say, Roger Federer, is being lambasted as a selfish anti-vax idiot. And for all I know, perhaps he is. But not all vaccine hesitancy is the same; some people are happy to get it, and even encourage everyone else to get it, but draw the line at making it compulsory. That’s not an anti-vaccine stance.

And no one denies that – though only in a tiny minority – side-effects, some serious, do occur, and that there are people with sound medical reasons for declining. International sports figures, who have every aspect of their health and performance monitored daily, may even have a case for being treated differently. (I doubt it, but without Mr Djokovic’s medical history, which we have no right to demand he parade, we simply don’t know.)

The comparison between his case and that of migrants who’ve been detained by border officials in Australia – in some cases for years – is no doubt a reasonable political point to make, but it doesn’t have much to do with him. If it discredits anyone, it’s the Australian government, though it seems a stretch to claim that either Covid travel restrictions, or this particular case, are directly analogous to general immigration policy.

Certainly, there’s an argument about the Australian government applying rules inconsistently, but it would apply to almost every other nation on earth and loads of events, including Cop26, the G7, the Euros, the Olympics, college baseball, carnivals, concerts and all the rest of it. It’s fair enough to ask why the Open is going ahead at all as Australia registers 100,000 new cases a day, just as it’s reasonable to ask why restrictions should be tightened there, if 90 per cent of its population is immunised and effects are mild. Opinions on the importance and usefulness of those kinds of measures differ, as they do everywhere else.

What doesn’t seem at all reasonable – even assuming the authorities are prepared, on whatever basis, to make exceptions to the rules – is then arbitrarily to change them because they make politicians look bad, or to target particular individuals; no doubt one reason why the Australian courts ruled as they did.

If the rule is that you can’t go to Australia at all without a vaccine, many may think that’s excessive, but it’s a matter for the Australians to determine. If the rule is that some people can, what is that variant in the rules, to whom does it apply, and on what basis and justification? These are reasonable questions – the kind the citizens of every country in the world will want answered when it comes to transport, eating out, sport and a host of other things.

You may be disappointed if those rules are more stringent than you would like, or alarmed if you think them recklessly lax; you’re free to push for ones more to your liking. What is utterly pointless is not knowing, or – having apparently complied with them – suddenly being told you’re in the wrong. It’s not just sports stars, but the rest of us, who need to know what’s in or out.

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