May 24, 2022

2022, a year of very geopolitical sport

In addition to these events, the annual competitions will also take place, between major matches, national leagues, championships and international tournaments. Already in January, the Paris-Dakar rally is underway in Saudi Arabia and the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon. In March the UEFA Champions League resumes and in April the Formula 1 World Championship restarts.

However, the context in which each of these events will take place is changing, and has been for three decades. The sports world, like the world in general, is very different from what it was in the 20th century.

In 1999, the majority of Formula 1 races were held in Europe; in 2022, European Grands Prix will be in the minority, with countries like Azerbaijan having started hosting races. Likewise, Saudi Arabia has become the home of the Paris-Dakar rally, the result of the Riyadh government’s political commitment to large-scale investment in sport.


Stadium diplomacy

The UEFA Champions League will once again be sponsored by Russian state energy company Gazprom, as it has been for almost a decade. Gazprom does not sell anything directly to consumers, but makes deals to sell gas to countries. In recent months, as energy prices in Europe have risen dramatically, concerns have been raised that Gazprom controls energy supplies for political purposes. Some critics, like former US President Donald Trump, have even lambasted countries like Germany for their reliance on Russian gas.

In Cameroon, the four stadiums used during the African Cup of Nations were built by China, an illustration of the “stadium diplomacy” put in place by the Middle Kingdom. These stadiums were offered to Cameroon by Beijing or were financed by soft loans (i.e. loans granted at below market rates). The reason is that the African country has natural resources that China needs for its livelihood and continued economic growth.

China’s hosting of the Winter Olympics is also significant, as it takes place against the backdrop of increasingly strained relations with the West. This is due, for example, to concerns about the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, as well as China’s handling of issues such as the mysterious disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai. Indeed, in response to the latter, the Florida-based Women’s Tennis Association withdrew from China, which put some sponsors and athletes in an awkward position.

The government in Beijing does not appear to be particularly troubled by these concerns. Rather, it is about China asserting its credibility as the host of the event, as an important member of the global sports industry, and as an increasingly powerful economic and political force.

Qatar is keen to adopt a more conciliatory tone with the world in its preparations to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, although the importance of the tournament for the country is no less than that of the Olympics. winter for China. Football’s biggest event has served as a foundation for nation building, branding and the projection of soft power as the tiny Gulf state seeks to boost its image and reputation. reputation in the world.

It hasn’t been easy, as Qatar still faces intense scrutiny from the West, which worries about labor market issues, equality and the treatment of groups. minority.

Qatar’s hosting of FIFA’s flagship event has an obvious geographic dimension, as the tiny nation seeks to establish legitimacy and protect itself in a conflict-prone region. Similarly, Gazprom’s growing role as a sports sponsor reflects Russia’s geographical advantage, which has huge reserves of natural resources.

In addition to geography, politics also plays a role in the 21ste century, notably through the increased role of governments and states. For example, Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars on sports, which the Riyadh government sees as a way to promote a domestic reform agenda while projecting a more progressive image to the rest of the world.

A geopolitical economy of sport

Economically, many countries now see sport as an important industrial sector, capable of increasing national income, contributing to job creation, generating export revenues and taxes. The Chinese government is seeking to build the world’s largest national sports economy by 2025, worth $750 billion. Furthermore, Israel wants to establish itself as a global center for sports technology, just as South Korea wants to do the same in the esports industry.

The way geography, politics and economics interact with each other necessitates a new way of thinking about sport, which can be called the geopolitical economy of sport. After three decades of profound change, including globalization and digitalization, sport is no longer just about competition on the playing field.

These changes are the result of shifts in global economic and political power, with Asian nations, in particular, now wielding increasing influence over the sport. At the same time, countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and France understand that sport can bring tremendous benefits to a country, such as projecting “soft power” and building stronger business relationships.

The geopolitical economy of sport, however, raises major issues. For example, while Qatar believes it is committed to nation building, critics point to the country’s ongoing problems with its kafala system. In the case of Saudi Arabia, which seeks to become a major host of global sporting events, many accuse the country of whitewashing its image and reputation through “sport washing”.

So, as fans prepare to enjoy some of their favorite events and competitions this year, it’s good to remember that the sport is still an important game. Even if, nowadays, it is increasingly played out in geographical, political and economic terms.

Simon Chadwick, Global Professor of Eurasian Sport | Director of Eurasian Sport, EM Lyon

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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