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PART 1: Sport as a power tool

Success in sport can be a powerful phenomenon with far-reaching political, social, and psychological advantages

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Few scholars in International Relations (IR) theory have recognized the connections between sport and politics in all sport competitions, particularly in the Olympic Games. Grix (2013:1) states that ‘the world’s greatest sports mega-events have been used and manipulated by states of all political hues as a means to further their own interests, and in a variety of different ways’. As Levermore and Budd (2004) have highlighted, sport is a global phenomenon that plays a vital role in the lives of millions of people worldwide, and so inevitably there are links between sport and states. Taking into consideration the definition of power or political influence as the capacity or ability to act effectively (Oxford Dictionary, 2016), these scholars understand sport and sport competitions, particularly the Olympics, as political; that sport can be used for the political manipulation of other states, and in promoting a state’s interests worldwide. The importance of sport within International Relations theory has been underestimated and understudied. As Grix (2013:1) puts it: ‘the situation today is that the very people one might expect to turn their attention to such a political event as the Olympics, and the political use of sport in general – political scientists and international relations scholars – are noticeable by their absence’. For this reason, there is a lack of research about the connections between sport and politics, and the political importance of sport has been misunderstood. However, existing studies on the subject of power relations in general show the benefits of using sport as a power tool both in national power politics and at international levels.

Scholars see social and physiological improvements as the main advantages of a state using sport in national politics. While Polley (2012:3) explains advantages in health promotion, housing, infrastructure development, and policy formulation by supranational bodies, concentrating on security and performance-enhancing drugs (Polley, 2012: 3), Mojca Doupona (2010) states that in the past, sporting institutions and figures have been presented in the media and in popular culture as representatives of the state and of national values. As Bairner states, ‘sport stories regularly spark an awareness of nation and provide occasions for public discussion that creates at least temporary unity among citizens, feelings of pride, and opportunities to assert and seek affirmation of national identity claims on broader geopolitical stages’ (2001, 2009). Riordan (1999:49-50) also shares similar thoughts that sport unites nations, and brings unity within one nation itself. Sport unites wider sections of the citizenry than perhaps any other social activity, as it is easily understood, popular, and bridges economic, educational, ethnic, social, linguistic, and religious barriers. Nationally, sport could be used as a power means in order to unite citizens and increase patriotic feelings, which help to improve governmental approval ratings. Moreover, making sport popular among the population at the governmental level helps to keep a nation healthy, which is one of the main priorities of any state.

Existing studies on power relations in general tend to focus on the projection of power at the international level, with particular attention paid to the links between state-branding, soft power, boycotting and political influence (Horne and Whannel, 2012: 128). However, sport can also be considered as a power tool within the context of soft power, state-branding and sport sanctions. According to Nye (2004), soft power is the capacity to obtain what you want through attraction rather than financial incentives and coercion. For example, Nye has highlighted the role of American sport in promoting US values (2004:47). Major league baseball games are broadcast in 224 countries in 11 languages, and national basketball games reach 750 million homes in 212 countries, speaking 42 languages. These famous games can unite people in particular nations, and be attractive to other nations. As a result, the development of sport overseas helps to promote a state’s influence in those nations. Sport has a role in attracting the hearts and minds of other nations.

With such an extensive reach, sport provides an effective platform for state branding, which, as a result, has become an important aspect of sport culture. Grix and Carmichael (2011) state that elite-level success in sport has the potential to bring international recognition to a country, and a ‘feel-good’ factor to the home-crowd that can encourage further participation. This produces a positive feedback, in turn leading to a healthier nation with more opportunities for success. An example of when sport was put on the international map, can be seen during the Cold War in East Germany, which was a small state with a population of 17 million. East Germany needed individual recognition because it was in the shadow of its bigger and richer neighbour, West Germany. Grix and Carmichael (2011:1) state that because of a ‘…void of a ‘national’ history or culture, East Germany set out to gain international recognition and acceptance as an independent state’. East Germany’s government successfully used sport as state-branding in order to put the state into the international arena, and this helped to emphasise their distinct cultural and historical identity. In this example, sport was implemented through state-branding to gain worldwide recognition, and so to leave the shadow of a bigger neighbour and become a competitive player in international power politics. Despite their capacities, all states – small or great powers – use sport as a means or power through state-branding. As we have seen, it has become important for states to use international sports events to enhance their reputation abroad, with medal table rankings providing, in the words of Hilvoorde, a barometer of a state’s sporting prowess (2010:92). The dispute between China and the United States during the 2008 Beijing Olympics over how the table should be interpreted demonstrated the ‘major symbolic meanings’ attached to these rankings, and the value of international recognition (ibid, 2008). State branding serves to advertise a state, declare its uniqueness, and gain international interest. It also brings a positive image for the state.

However, with the application of sport sanctions, sport can also be used as a political tool with which to manipulate the foreign policy of a competing state (Horne and Whannel 2012: 128). One of the purposes of sport in worldwide politics is to manipulate foreign policy, and this has previously been achieved by boycotting the Olympics and other sports events, or by imposing sports-related sanctions on others. A boycott is the act of voluntarily abstaining from buying, using or dealing with a person, organization, or country as a manifestation of protest, usually for political or social reasons. When related practices are legislated and mandated by a state authority, it is known as a sanction. International sanctions can be diplomatic, economic, military, environmental, or sport sanctions, which prevent representatives of a country from participating in global events (Carlsnaes et. al., 2007). Because the terms ‘boycotts’ and ‘sport sanctions’ are closely connected by their shared purpose – to manipulate the policies of other states, and to harm a state’s image – I will use the second term ‘sport sanctions’.

These types of sanctions have a deep history extending as far back as 420 BC, when Sparta was banned from participating in the Olympics after declining to pay a fine for ending the Olympic truce. More recently, in the 20th century a number of states similarly excluded from the Olympics: in 1920 all the losing states of WWI were banned; in 1936 German Jews were excluded from participation; following the outcome of the WWII, Japan and Germany were forbidden in 1948; in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States led a boycott that resulted in the participation of only 80 out of 147 nations at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. In response, the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. While the Moscow Olympics is well-known as the first Olympic boycott, some see the 1976 African-led anti-apartheid boycott of the games in Montreal as the first politically motivated boycott (ESPN, 2010). These examples demonstrate that sport has been used for political purposes in order to manipulate or demonstrate a negative attitude towards a particular state or a representative of a particular nation. Sport sanctions are one of the most essential tools in harming other states’ images, and decreasing their influence in worldwide politics.

In summary, success in sport can be a powerful phenomenon with far-reaching political, social, and psychological advantages, both domestically and abroad. At home, the international recognition that can be gained through effective state-branding can stimulate tourism and infrastructural growth, cultivate national pride and community cohesion, and subsequently improve physical health. Internationally, sport provides the opportunity to promote a state’s image and values outside its borders, and increase its prestige through state-branding. It can help to develop relationships by opening communication channels with neighbours and competitors through soft power. Alternatively, sport sanctions can be used to manipulate foreign policies to a state’s advantage.

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READ MORE:

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 diana.galeeva@durham.ac.uk