National branding and sportswashing

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Sport should be separated from politics, according to the official party line. It’s as convenient as hokum. As legendary French footballer Lilian Thuram said – “It can’t be outside of politics because everything is politics”.

Sure, he was talking about football, but it’s reasonable to extrapolate that to sports in general. Basically, sport is a story that can only be understood within the limits of social, political and historical moments.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, knew this. It was the Frenchman who revived an ancient competition that had ended in 393 AD and gave it global significance by adding nationalism to it, thus giving birth to the Olympic Games as we know them since Athens 1896.

Over the years, the idea of ​​competition, not as individuals but as representatives of a country, has become cemented. When an athlete wins, he is a national sports hero. The champion is a living, breathing advertisement for the country that shines in reflected glory.

So it stands to reason that when the wind blows the other way, the nation feels slighted. The ordeal of Novak Djokovic in Australia and the anguish felt in Serbia bear witness to this. Now, with Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, questions are being posed – of opinion, of attitude, of action – to the athletes. This is the flip side.

Many athletes have already spoken out against Russia’s invasive actions around the world. Even the Russians – Alexander Rublev, Daniil Medvedev, Fedor Smolov to name a few – also spoke out against the war. But many remain silent. Even some of those who spoke out against the war did not condemn their country’s actions.

“Individual players become part of the national pride,” says Dr Pete Watson, historian and professor at the University of Sheffield. “A sportsman’s success is part of national pride, so there is also a downside. But these days, fewer and fewer sportspeople have their political leanings as part of their brand. Players’ brands, careers, and families can all be damaged.

That said, there is evidence that this could change with the influx of support and appeals against Russia. There was another against China regarding the disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai. Yes, the Women’s Tennis Association took a tough stance, but the players were the catalyst. There were also strong statements from athletes regarding institutional racism in the United States and protests on the ground regarding human rights issues in Qatar ahead of the World Cup.

Far from the athletes, what was interesting was the reaction of the parent federations. FIFA and the International Olympic Committee – guardians of two of the biggest events in the world: the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.

Initially, FIFA and the IOC tried to dance around the issue – tapping wrists and talking tough – but soon found steel in their spines to come up with bans on Russia and Belarus. It’s rather unprecedented.

Over the years, FIFA has issued bans, but these were mainly related to government interference in the federation, corruption or the monetary situation. There are also inconsistencies with FIFA’s choice to remain silent on other conflicts such as Israel and Palestine, the US invasion of Iraq, the situation in Yemen and Congo, among others.

The IOC’s stance is perhaps more surprising as they have been shouting from the rooftops to keep politics separate from sport. Less than a month ago, the IOC made this clear when issues of Uyghur Muslims in China were raised ahead of the Winter Olympics. The Peng Shuai controversy was also overlooked. They even went so far as to ban athletes from making political statements on the podium.

Of course, severe measures must be taken. Sport must take a stand against atrocities. But why not in previous circumstances?

Perhaps because these examples mentioned are less “interesting” being smaller member countries. Or less global headlines. Perhaps Asia and Africa do not figure very high on the list of concerns of these predominantly Western-oriented institutions. It’s conceivable that it was the Cancel Culture, the defining characteristics of the era, bleeding into the sport. Or it’s the geopolitical push and pull.

Even the façade of neutrality that these federations try to maintain is ironic given the history of their landmark events.

Nazi Germany used the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a propaganda tool to showcase their nation’s power and Aryan supremacy; the 1964 Games in Tokyo were an opportunity for Japan to show that it had rebuilt itself after the ravages of World War II. Argentina’s ruling military regime used the 1978 FIFA World Cup as a distraction, to divert attention from wider societal issues. The 1980 and 1984 Olympics, in Moscow and Los Angeles respectively, were steeped in the symbolism of communism and the Cold War.

The 2008 Games were an opportunity to welcome the world to the new China while the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil took place against the backdrop of protests against the government. Even the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and the 2022 Winter Olympics in China have shown countries in a different light to gain greater acceptance.

Next in line is the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November.

“Every event is inherently political. The difference is which story is told. It’s a chance to tell a new story of a nation as billions look on. It is a political message of the culture, of the society, of the facilities offered by the country, of the nation that it is. It’s about attracting investment. Winning nations can show historic triumph,” says Dr Watson. “The Qatar World Cup is a chance for a small nation to show that it is more than just an oil state.”

How and why does this keep happening? The sport is first and foremost a business, and as such, cash flow calls for a lot of the hits. There is corruption as we have seen recently with FIFA. These institutions are also global conglomerates whose member countries all have different agendas and political demands. This forms voting blocks with anyone who wishes to advance their agenda and exchange favors. It’s a difficult balance to find. These global entities are repeatedly co-opted as pawns in the geopolitical game. And not to mention the marketing.

“Every major championship is a chance for the brand image of the nation. In the past, football was used as a smokescreen and an opioid for the masses. Organize an event to capture the attention of the masses and the press to divert attention to ongoing social issues. The marketing of such events has now improved,” says Dr. Watson.

He has and therefore has the other side of the coin. In the past, there were not enough channels for opposition voices to be heard. Now, in the modern world, it’s much easier for a counter-narrative to come out and that brings us to sportswashing. Basically, it’s the counter-argument to national branding.

This is a hot topic, especially with countries like Saudi Arabia (Newcastle United), Qatar (PSG), Abu Dhabi (Manchester City) making inroads in the Western market and gaining soft power. Russia, the big bad wolf of the east, is also investing heavily in sports. Questions arise, ever stronger, on the ethics of this action and on the human rights situation prevailing in these countries. But it remains a difficult subject.

Why countries try this can be easily explained. To gain soft power, prestige and support in the west.

Football club fans want success and many people are ready to look the other way because for them the political context is not as important as what happens at the weekend. That’s not to say ownership only benefits the club, Abu Dhabi – by all accounts – has done a lot for the city of Manchester. So did Roman Abramovich, currently facing sanctions in the UK over his links to President Vladimir Putin, for Chelsea.

These nations get reflected glory and acceptance of the success of their teams. The chances of Saudi Arabia or Qatar winning a World Cup or a global event are slim. So political and cultural success is about winning global leagues, with clubs that have global fanbases.

Success in the world of sport is important for nations. It is a victory that can be celebrated as one. It reflects the glory of the triumph of the war of old before it was rightfully condemned.

There are growing noises against sports washing and national branding. There is a clamor for athletes to speak up and take a stand, to take up the torch from activists. To play their part in writing the history of the world. Unite or divide, rally or pacify. Sport will play its part. The history of the world is reflected in sport and none of these actions are mentioned here to pass judgment. This is to illustrate how sport plays an important role in society.

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