Russia the latest country to employ sport for image makeover

Authoritarian states use sport’s currency to convey power and profile of rulers

Modern history confirms that when diplomatic relations between States become strained, when countries that exist at the margins wish to enter the democratic mainstream, or when politicians want to imply the previously unspeakable, sport becomes a useful forum. It is precisely because sport is thought to be above politics that it has become an indispensable ally for those in power. Sport is emotive, transcendent and, certainly at events like the Fifa World Cup or major national finals, nationalistic.

This summer, sport has become ubiquitous; it’s virtually impossible to watch television or listen to the radio without encountering it. Politicians, conscious of the positive associations of success or, at least, events that retain meaning for the public at large, capitalise upon the staging of major events by ensuring their high-profile presence at them. Aware of the capacity of erstwhile opponents to prove forgiving of previous disputes and opinions within the confines of sport, astute politicians seize the opportunities associated with it for personal gain. When words prove elusive, a handshake, a generous smile, all within a setting – sport – that has an exceptional ability to draw the attention even of those with an otherwise ambivalent attitude to it, can say all that needs to be said.

When words prove elusive, a handshake, a generous smile, all within a setting – sport – that has an exceptional ability to draw the attention, can say all that needs to be said

Of course athletes too are aware of how their embodied practices can, if they choose, be similarly deployed to convey political messages. In this regard sportsmen and women are both national assets and, at times, liabilities. At the Fifa World Cup in Russia a series of examples, including the apparent display of ethnic Albanian nationalism by the Switzerland players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiiri, the ready acceptance of Chechnya citizenship by Egypt and Liverpool forward Mo Salah and, away from the field of play, the evident bon homie between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, despite their oppositional views on the resolution of conflict in Syria, again reinforces the interplay between sport and politics.

Political margins

Russia is the latest country, existing as it does in the minds of many along the political margins, to realise the benefit of using sport for political ends. For the hosts of this year’s World Cup, a mega-sport event has offered an opportunity to redefine its global image. More broadly, the past decade has represented an unprecedented period of development within world sport. A host of global events has been awarded to countries of modest international standing, certainly in sporting terms. This may be welcomed as the further globalisation of this industry through the uncovering of new markets. Yet closer scrutiny of these emerging nations reveals commonalities that may prove significant in the future direction of global sport. Indeed, on the one side of this equation sits a collection of “new” nation states who regard sport as a credible, even necessary, investment towards realising their ambition of full global emancipation. On the other exists an ever-more complex sports governance network defined, in this era of neo-liberalism, by a pursuit of these very same “new markets” amid the expeditious “privatisation” of world sport.


On the one side  sits a collection of 'new' nation states who regard sport as a credible, even necessary, investment towards realising their ambition of full global emancipation

As such, it is a fact that more and more sports events are being hosted by authoritarian states, using them to convey legitimacy and strengthen the power and profile of their rulers. On the other side of this, whereas those that govern sport traditionally would have looked to western democracies as their natural place to do business, now they increasingly look east, to certain countries where money, rather than necessarily freedom, holds sway. Ultimately, therefore, those states involved in this process seek to redefine their international image by shrouding themselves in the cloak of sporting respectability. Sport understood as “European”, “modern” and “enlightened” remains desirable for certain emerging nations and others, including Russia. In the absence of a coherent approach on the part of “core” nations to engage with emerging or peripheral states in any sustained way, sports governing bodies remain critical in any process of emancipation.

Clones event

Amid the more modest surroundings of Co Monaghan, the decision of the leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to attend the Ulster Senior Football Championship Final in Clones last weekend has been broadly welcomed, if not universally so. In the latter case, some members of the DUP have expressed their regret that Arlene Foster attended a sporting event on a Sunday, a traditional day of worship, while other supporters of the party were dismayed that she chose to attend a GAA final as opposed to other events staged last Sunday, including an Armed Forces Day celebration in Coleraine. Yet Foster’s attendance at the game, in part facilitated by allegiance to her native Co Fermanagh, is another example of how political leaders find value in sport and its capacity to convey messages where words remain elusive. Those that follow Gaelic games, particularly in Ulster, were broadly welcoming of Foster’s presence at the match, while some appeared even flattered that the DUP leader chose to be present for the match, even if they shouldn’t have been so surprised.

In his seminal 2004 publication Soft Power, Joseph Nye speaks of how leaders exercise their ability to "attract and co-opt", shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. Conscious of the need to present a more amenable public image, particularly to Catholics, in the North, Foster took something of a calculated risk that the greater good would be served by attending the Ulster final and, broadly speaking, it paid off for her. Indeed, her decision might even have been interpreted as something of a counter-hegemonic act, challenging the binary distinction that too often defines life (and sport) in Northern Ireland and, while ephemeral, allowed the GAA itself to appear magnanimous, indeed progressive, in its approach. Amid the ongoing absence of constitutional politics in the North, sport – in fact culture more broadly – offers the opportunity for those who would wish to lead to continue to demonstrate their credentials of doing so.

Prof David Hassan is associate dean of the faculty of life and health sciences and professor of sport policy and management at Ulster University