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Analysis: How sport has been used as a means of power

Sport should be understood as a political tool which can help to secure political, social, and psychological benefits

Diana Galeeva

Published: Updated:

Sport is often defined as be an activity involving physical effort and skill in which teams or individuals compete against each other for entertainment. One of the most well-known sports competitions in the world is the Olympic Games. The ancient Olympic Games, which had been held from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, were revived in 1894 in an attempt to improve the health and fitness of young people. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, responsible for this revival, believed in particular that the weak physical condition of soldiers was one of the main reasons for the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. He sought a way to change the situation by increasing the physical culture of the French. He also wanted to overcome national egoism and contribute to the struggle for peace and international understanding. The youth of the world needed to wrestle in sports competitions, rather than in war battles. He considered the rebirth of the Olympic Games as the best means to achieve these goals.

olympics AP
olympics AP

However, the Olympic Games, other sports competitions, and sport in general, have become political instruments for many states, discarding rather than preserving the noble aims of the Olympic rebirth. For example, during the 2016 Olympics, more than 100 Russian athletes were banned from competing, while the entire Russian team was banned from the Paralympics by the International Paralympic Committee. On the 7th of December 2016, the doping scandal with Russian athletes again reached media headlines, as the International Olympic Committee imposed sanctions against Russia until further notice. On the 9th of December 2016, the second McLain report publicly revealed evidence of state-sponsored doping. These can be seen in the context of the manipulation of Russian foreign affairs through political and economic sanctions approved by, among others, the United States, the European Union (EU), following the Ukraine Crisis of 2014. The International Olympic Committee’s sanctions of 2016 are a continuation of this; they too are politically-driven, and have not had the consequences that the above mentioned states intended.

Sergiu Toma (UAE) of United Arab Emirates celebrates. (Reuters)
Sergiu Toma (UAE) of United Arab Emirates celebrates. (Reuters)

While in Russia, the denial of participation was seen as a punitive measure and bitterly fought, in the Middle East, particularly in the UAE, some suggested additional restrictions on those who might represent their country in the Olympics. The limited understanding of the importance of sport in domestic and worldwide politics made the participation of ‘foreigners’ in some national Gulf teams during the 2016 Olympics a controversial topic. In contrast to public views, the UAE government, for example, successfully understood the importance of sport in politics and has in recent years used sport to gain worldwide recognition. Emirati government created an opportunity to develop sport as a lifestyle among the national population, developing infrastructure and opening sports academies. The UAE is also one of the most successful states at creating outdoor activities in order to increase its international image.

The UAE and the Russian examples are markedly different in the consideration of the role of sport. However, together they demonstrate how sport can be used as a power tool – through soft power, state-branding and sport sanctions. These two case studies demonstrate that sport can be used for power projection by all states, regardless of the size of their territory, population, or economic capability, their location, or other factors. States which understand the important role of sport in world politics, and successfully use it as a power means, can influence other states.

 In this Aug. 11, 2012 file photo Russia coach Alexey Melnikov congratulates Olga Kaniskina, right, and Russia men's gold medalist Sergey Kirdyapkin congratulates Anisya Kirdyapkina, left, after the women's 20-kilometers race walk at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. (AP)
In this Aug. 11, 2012 file photo Russia coach Alexey Melnikov congratulates Olga Kaniskina, right, and Russia men's gold medalist Sergey Kirdyapkin congratulates Anisya Kirdyapkina, left, after the women's 20-kilometers race walk at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. (AP)

This article argues that sport should be considered as a means of power; and that a state using this tool can influence other states through state-branding, soft power and sport sanctions. Sport should be understood as a political tool which can help to secure political, social, and psychological benefits (increasing tourism and infrastructural development, cultivating national pride, uniting a nation, and improving public health) domestically, and to increase international influence (promoting a state’s image and prestige outside its borders; manipulating other states’ foreign policies). In arguing this, firstly, the article discusses the connections between sport and politics through a theoretical approach; secondly, it explains why sport should be equal for all nations and citizens during the Olympics, and how successfully the UAE government has used sport to gain worldwide recognition; and finally, it examines the Russian doping scandal.

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PART 1: Sport as a power tool

PART 2: The UAE and sport

Part 3: Sport sanctions against Russia

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Diana Galeeva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. Her PhD research focuses on theories of power, IR theory, small states, Political Islam and GCC politics. She was an intern at the President of Tatarstan’s office - Department of corporation and Religious organizations (2012), Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Tatarstan, legal department (2011), and the Ministry of justice (2010).

Diana received her M.A. in International Relations from Exeter University in the UK, and earned a degree in Governmental Law from Kazan Federal University (KFU). She speaks English, Russian, Tatar and studies Arabic and Turkish. She tweets @diana_galeeva and can be contacted on [email protected]