July 3, 2022

“The fable of apolitical sport should not survive 2022”

Sf the year that is coming to an end has been very special for geopolitics through sport, what can we say about the one that is coming? 2022 will kick off in Beijing with the Winter Olympics which already crystallize international tensions, and will end in Qatar with the most controversial FIFA World Cup in history.

Euro football took the turn of a turning point last summer: tensions between Ukraine and Russia, between Greece and North Macedonia, pressure against the homophobic laws of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, knee to the ground of some footballers in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement…

“UEFA lost its political virginity there and will no longer be able to adorn itself with the clothes of neutrality”, estimated Carole Gomez, researcher at IRIS. If FIFA or the International Olympic Committee (IOC) cling to these tinsel, the WTA got rid of it in the Peng Shuai affair, choosing the confrontation with China in support of the tennis player.

Sportwashing threatened

The instrumentalisation by the worst regimes of the most prestigious international competitions – from the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 to the World Cup in Argentina in 1978 – is nothing new. But it has taken the more modern and more sophisticated form of soft power, an efficient geopolitical exploitation of globalized sport-spectacle.

Affected by their gigantism and by growing protests within democracies due to their prohibitive costs, major sporting events have more often fallen into the fold of authoritarian or illiberal states. Little embarrassed by their public opinions, they have, not without success, bet on the effectiveness of sportwashing.

The resistance has been less than the complacency of sports governments and the broadcasting media, and the field has been very favorable to these strategies of influence. In October, Saudi Arabia thus confirmed its entry into the game by buying, via a sovereign fund, the English club Newcastle United, to the delight of the supporters.

Today, this match is no longer won in advance. It is no longer certain, as FIFA President Sepp Blatter assured in 2014, about the organization of the 2018 World Cup by Russia, that football “Is stronger than any protest movement” – while its secretary general at the time, Jérôme Valcke, confided: “A lower level of democracy is sometimes preferable to organize a World Cup”.

Actors – federations, athletes, sponsors, media – can no longer ignore these issues by slipping them under the carpet of these “major popular festivals”. On the contrary, they are invited to get involved, when they do not take the initiative themselves. Neither the re-politicization of athletes, nor the “de-censorship” of the stadiums were anticipated by the geostrategists.

Political arenas

The global publicity offered by these events tends to backfire on its sponsors by also granting a media echo chamber to human rights organizations, and even to counter-offensives from other states – such as Germany. during the Euro.

Qatar does not yet know the cost-benefit balance of “its” World. Obtained in 2010, it was to constitute the apotheosis of his sports diplomacy, but today appears as a time bomb. The light cast on the emirate has, to say the least, not been as flattering as hoped.

Not only did this award precipitate FIFA in a cycle of scandals, but it necessitated moving the competition to winter to escape impossible weather conditions, at the cost of disrupting international calendars.

To the ecological absurdity of the construction of eight large (air-conditioned!) Stadiums in a microstate have been added above all the surveys on the living and working conditions of foreigners employed on Qatari sites. It will be difficult to evacuate the terrible image of a contested competition on a mass grave – 6,500 dead in ten years, according to The Guardian.

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Replicas such as the “diplomatic boycott” are certainly of uncertain effectiveness, and the fascination exerted by the spectacle of sport may still outweigh the scruples. But the fable of apolitical sport should not survive 2022, a year which is expected to further deny the spokeswoman for Russian diplomacy, Maria Zakharova, when she said last June that “Sport is not a political arena”.