Sport and Diplomacy: On the Occasion of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

June 15, 2018 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , OTHER , Russia , Sport

Reuters photo



Tatiana Zonova



Sport diplomacy is now an integral part of the wider “soft power” paradigm utilized by countries to promote their own appeal. At the same time, just like any other kind of diplomacy, sport diplomacy is expected to act as a means of preventing armed conflict. That has been the noble goal of sports throughout history. The Olympic Games were originally a symbol of peace. However, revived by Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century, the Olympic tradition has ceased to serve as a break from bloody conflict for the games’ duration. Now, it is not from wars but from games that the world take breaks during global cataclysms.



Opposite Trends


As the popularity and international importance of the Olympic movement grows, two opposite trends have emerged. On the one hand, sports competitions help to expand international contacts and friendly ties. One such example is the Cold War, when, despite international tensions, sports competitions helped emphasize the need to maintain peace and cooperation among peoples. As the famous United States diplomat Jim Cain once said, “Sports can be a powerful medium to reach out and build relationships … across cultural and ethnic divides, with a positive message of shared values: values such as mutual respect, tolerance, compassion, discipline, equality of opportunity and the rule of law. In many ways, sports can be a more effective foreign policy resource than the carrot or the stick.”. Sports celebrities often act as “peace ambassadors,” as they speak to a wide audience about the need to fight poverty, eliminate pandemics and take an active stand on environmental issues.


On the other hand, the Games have increasingly become an arena for competition – not so much between individual athletes as between national teams [1]. Stadiums are often home to nationalist sentiments and occasionally to aggression.


Governments are not above using the Olympics as leverage for political pressure on a given country. What better example of that than the run-up to the Winter Olympics is Seoul in January of this year? The build-up of tension by the media and statements made by politicians created a perception of the “most militarized games ever.” At the very least, around 50,000 armed soldiers, numerous tanks and long-range artillery were deployed around PyeongChang, while the U.S. Embassy was surrounded by a tight police cordon. The Pentagon warned of a possible strike against thousands of North Korean artillery pieces and missiles deployed along the 38th parallel dividing North and South Korea. Fortunately, the Olympics saw the first ever unified Korean team competing under a unified banner, evidence of the intention of both nations to follow a path of reconciliation and cooperation. Additionally, the Games in PyeongChang have helped stimulate renewed talks on the demilitarization of the Korean Peninsula.



Commercialization of Sports


Sports commercialization is on the rise. As of 2017, the global sports market was valued at more than $90 billion, an amount that exceeds annual GDPs of many developing nations in Asia and Africa. In the process of commercialization, a redistribution of powers among governing bodies has occurred, expanding the influence of multinationals and the corporate media. Of course, corporations can promote large-scale sporting events in poor countries, many of which have claimed that China would not have been able to host major championships were it not for the support of its state-owned corporations.


Russia’s Gazprom has set a good example with its “Football for Friendship” social programme aimed at involving children in sports. A total of more than 2.5 million children from all over the world have taken part in competitions in Moscow. It is noteworthy that Italian youngsters travelled to Moscow to take part in the event, even though the national team did not qualify for the FIFA World Cup this year.


An even more recent example of multinational corporations exerting financial pressure on international sports organizations is the scandal surrounding Qatar’s winning bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. There have been over 1,500 fatalities in connection with construction in preparation for the championship. This led to a number of major companies such as Sony, Visa, and Coca Cola threatening to pull sponsorship for the tournament if FIFA did not take steps to combat workplace safety violations and corruption. Their stance has helped launch criminal probes into some ranking FIFA officials accused of taking bribes from the Qatari authorities.


Corporate interference can have unwanted outcomes as well. For example, in the course of preparations for the Olympics in Australia, a number of corporations conducted activities that were harmful to the environment. However, despite protests and the hasty adoption of a law to tackle the issue, the injured parties were prevented from seeking a court settlement [2].


Huge sums are involved in sports broadcasting rights in global and national media. It has been calculated that sales of TV rights accounted for up to 74 per cent of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) revenues in 2016, with the biggest chunks coming from the U.S. network NBC. The media footprint of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is worth noting here: the Olympic Broadcasting Services produced more than 1,300 hours of live international coverage, including 456 hours of news; the Games were broadcast to 159 countries; a huge flow of the Sochi Olympics data travelled online, with the number of internet queries about the Olympics doubling the population of the Earth (reaching 13 billion); and Olympic web traffic totalled more than 1 petabyte.



Boycott or Dialogue?


Those who are in favour of boycotting large-scale sporting competitions, including some IOC members, claim that such action attracts attention to violations of human rights or international law in a number of problem countries. They cite the IOC apology after WWII for its actions in the 1930s that enabled an Olympic Games to be held in Germany under Hitler. In 1980, in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 65 nations, including the United States, West Germany, Canada, Japan, Turkey, Romania, and China, made a show of boycotting the Moscow Olympics. Many teams that came were forced to abandon their national flags at the opening and closing ceremonies and compete under the IOC flag. In 1984, the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact members retaliated with a similar boycott of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics while holding a competition of their own called the Friendship Games, or Friendship-84. In 2018, a group of MEPs signed a letter calling on EU member countries to boycott the FIFA World Cup in Russia.


Opponents of boycott tactics believe it is unacceptable to mix sports and politics and express doubts as to the effectiveness of such actions. They stress that introducing ideology and politics into sports (understood not only as boycotts, but also such things as attempts to capitalize on doping scandals) robs athletes of the chance to compete against their peers, achieve the victories they have so coveted, and earn global recognition. The dispute between the hardliners and their opponents continues.



Sport at the Service of Diplomacy


Governments are eager to use sport diplomacy to better achieve their foreign policy goals. Take for instance the very effective “ping-pong diplomacy” that helped the United States and China establish diplomatic relations in the early 1970s. Without a doubt, the 2008 Olympics helped China create an image of itself as an powerful global economic player. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were a resounding success. That said, host countries of international competitions are still unable to recoup the costs of organizing these events. In exchange, the countries boost their international image and receive an influx of tourism and increased foreign investment, while facilities built to host competitions are then used to develop national sports.


In any case, international sports competitions offer a platform for fruitful political meetings and contacts. The 2014 Winter Olympics turned Sochi into a venue for official meetings of President Putin with the leaders of The Netherlands, Turkey, Japan, and China. Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, more than ten heads of state or government have confirmed that they will attend the opening ceremony in Moscow. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel stated recently that she did not rule out a visit to Russia for the occasion. All of this once more confirms the importance of sport diplomacy as a tool for dialogue.





This article was originally published by the RIAC and is reproduced with their kind permission





Tatiana Zonova

Doctor of Political Science, Professor of the Diplomacy Department of the MGIMO University.




1 – In: R. Redeker. Sport as an Opiate of International Relations: The Myth and Illusion of Sport as a Tool of Foreign Diplomacy, Sport in Society, 11 (4), 2008.


2 – Hall C. M. “Urban Entrepreneurship, Corporate Interests and Sports Mega-Events: The Thin Policies of Competitiveness Within the Hard Outcomes of Neoliberalism” / The Sociological Review, 54 (Supplement s2), 2005, p. 68.

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