Sports and the Nation

How Russia has used sports to boost its global image and mask its human rights record

In recent years, the Kremlin has organised an impressive series of sporting events, including the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and now, the FIFA World Cup.

Most football fans around the globe impatiently count down minutes to the beginning of the World Cup. With Russia as the tournament’s host, politics may share the spotlight with soccer more than usual. During the past four years Moscow has contributed to shaking the foundations of the global international order and skillfully utilised sport as a tool.

Russia, in its constant search for international legitimisation, sees mega sports events as a way to prove the world it is a guardian of universal norms. Both the International Olympics Committee and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association are officially flagbearers for the values of tolerance, peace, diversity and human rights.

For governments, sporting events are the opportunity to project a positive image of the country. Even the Vatican state set up a sports department in 2004 to open new frontiers for evangelisation. In recent years, the Kremlin has organised an impressive series of sporting events from the 2013 Universiade in Kazan to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to the 2016 Ice Hockey World Championship. The FIFA World Cup, with 11 host cities in Russia, is next in line. Yet by invading Ukraine in 2014 and intervening in the Middle East on Syria’s behalf, Moscow could not be farther away from the high-minded principles of international sporting organisations.

Can sports be depoliticised?

President Vladimir Putin prides himself on his athleticism, holding a black belt in judo, and he does not shy away from Russian state media releasing images of him diving bare-chested into icy lakes, fishing or horseback riding to relay the leader’s masculinity and vigour. However in interviews and speeches, the Russian commander in chief continuously emphasises a desire to separate sports and politics. Before the Olympic Games opened in Sochi, Putin complained about political questions from reporters, insisting the games “are intended to depoliticise the most pressing international issues.”

Other world leaders disagree, suggesting that any attempt to depoliticise sports is mission impossible. Juan Antonio Samaranch, former Spanish ambassador to Moscow and subsequently the president of the International Olympic Committee for more than two decades, described the Olympic Games as a microcosm of international relations, stressing that sport serves a role in the “harmonious development of mankind.” Former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan suggested that football in particular, given the number of FIFA members, is more universal than the United Nations – with the power to transcend borders, culture and socio-economic status.

Sports has long impacted politics and vice versa. The ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s between the United States and China, a series of table tennis games played in both countries, paved the way to open dialogue. Boycotting or banishing a state from sporting events has also been utilised as a way of political protest. Americans did not attend the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to object the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. More recently, South Korea, host of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, proposed a joint hockey team and march for the opening ceremony to its northern neighbor, paving the way for the summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States.

The United States will not have opportunity to use the World Cup in Russia for diplomatic actions since the US football team surprisingly did not qualify.

Football, played in more than 200 countries, is the globe’s most prominent and popular sport, and Putin welcomes that all eyes will be fixed on his country through July 15. Such sporting events serve domestic objectives, boosting national pride and allowing for redistribution of financial assets through government contracts – in Russia’s case, the situation is especially rewarding for entrepreneurs with close links to the Kremlin. Mass-scale events in Russia require mobilisation of significant administrative resources, often lacking economic rationale, like construction of a 48,000-seat stadium in Sochi, which has no professional football team.

Marred by corruption

With tight deadlines, major government contracts in play and a leader’s reputation on the line, corrupt practices and mismanagement are commonplace. Putin personally questioned Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister in charge of the 2014 Winter Olympics – the costliest Olympics at $51 billion – about construction delays and rampant corruption. No one was held responsible, and Kozak remains at his post. Any battle against extortion and waste of state funds is a masquerade, and corruption continues unhindered. Quality of construction is often poor like the Information Center in Kazan which was damaged by heavy rain.

Preparations for the 2018 World Cup did not go without scandals either. Vitaly Mutko resigned from his role as the chairman of the 2018 World Cup organising committee in Russia in December due to the investigation on state-sponsored doping. Mutko, a deputy prime minister, is still in charge of the Russian Football Union despite being removed from the FIFA Council and banned for life by the International Olympic Committee.

Corruption has dogged other construction projects related to this year’s World Cup. The final price for the Zenit Arena in St Petersburg amounted to 700% of the initial cost estimate, with multiple contractors changing along the way and the city forced to reduce social services to conclude the project. Three holdings run by Putin associates, including members of the ruling party United Russia, account for 80 percent of infrastructure contracts related to the tournament.

Sports, and football in particular, have both benefited from and contributed to the process of globalisation. The advent of professionalism and the explosion of commercialisation coupled with the widespread media coverage have made football a powerful global vehicle – a lucrative business where transnational corporations raise profiles of their brands. Global sports market revenue exceeded $90 billion in 2017.

Today modern sport has lost its early romanticism when amateurs honorably competed for glory. Sporting events are global phenomenon, serving governments’ political purposes as well as the commercial objectives of FIFA or the International Olympic Comittee. The World Cup in football will flatter Russia’s ego, but will not cover the nation’s systemic corruption and inefficiency.

Hosting the World Cup helps Russia scratch and claw its way in demonstrating that the country is not isolated by the West. Yet the mercantile factor matters most, and for the sport governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, such events are business as usual, a mere guise for dialogue, human rights or peace. Moscow will again gladly exploit this opportunity for its own international ambitions.

Michał Romanowski is a Eurasia expert with The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Warsaw.

This article first aooeared on YaleGlobal Online.

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