A never-ending game between sports and politics

CGTN | 作者: Jia Xiudong | 时间: 2018-06-19 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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Should politics stay out of sports? The answer is not as clear or noncontroversial as Russia’s recent win in the opening match of the World Cup.

Sport vs. politics

The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia got off to a dream start for the hosts with a thumping 5-0 victory for the Russian national team over Saudi Arabia. The match also kicked off a month of festivities for football teams and fans from all over the world.

But outside the stadium, some people continue to question whether Russia is even worthy of hosting the World Cup. Some politicians and NGOs from the West have called for a boycott of the World Cup in Russia.

It is not the first time that Russia has been involved in the game between sports and politics. In the past few years, from the 2014 Sochi Winter Games to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games and to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Russia has been mired in controversy over a number of international and domestic issues.

Addressing the FIFA Congress in Moscow the day before the start of the World Cup, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked FIFA for adherence to the principle of "sports outside of politics." "Russia has always supported this approach," he said. In this case Putin believes that sports and politics should not mix, but Western countries have a mixed reaction to what Putin's said. 

Trade-offs in West-Russia relations

Western countries have imposed unilateral or coordinated sanctions against Russia and would like to use these major international sporting events to highlight their differences with Russia. At the same time, many of those countries have taken a realistic stance toward Russia, or a two-handed approach –isolation and engagement. And they each apply a different degree of isolation or engagement based on their trade-offs in dealing with Russia.

While UK Prime Minister May ruled out attending the World Cup, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated they may travel to Russia to attend games. 

What’s more, the latest serious “family quarrels” of the G7 members show that Western countries are not always on the same page on major international and regional issues such as climate change, energy, trade, immigration, the Iran nuclear deal, and relations with Russia. 

In addition, within each one of these countries, different civilian groups, business entities and political forces may have differing positions with regard to Russia and whether sports should be subject to politics.

These countries have multifaceted relations with Russia and have seldom been of one mind about how to handle the country. Vladimir Putin has just secured another six-year presidential term. 

While the prospect of lifting sanctions on Russia and normalizing their relations appears slim in the near future, Western countries may not want to further alienate Russia because they need Russia’s cooperation in managing a broad range of shared challenges. 

Under the Trump administration, American policy toward Russia remains unpredictable. The EU does not want to be in lockstep with the US all the time when it comes to sanctions on Russia.

As for Putin, to build a strong Russia has been his dream. In his State of the Nation address last March, Putin expressed hope that "the next decade and the entire 21st century be an age of outstanding triumphs for Russia." 

To achieve the dream, Putin will strive for economic growth, political stability and military strength at home and strike a balance between improving relations with Western countries and withstanding Western pressure on political, strategic, security and economic fronts.

Even when sports are used by Western countries to send a political message to Russia, its intended effect on Russian policy hardly materializes. The anticipation to using sports as a tool to alter Russia’s behavior will be further dampened when there is no international consensus on where to draw the red line.

Idealistic vision and reality

The idea of “sport without politics” finds resonance in all other international sports governing bodies.

"Sport and politics should be kept apart", claimed Avery Brundage who served as International Olympic Committee (IOC) President from 1952 to 1972. He decried the politicization of the Olympics. As a result, he was called a true believer in the Olympic movement and a defender of the strict separation of sports and politics.

For the same reason, however, Brundage was criticized for turning a blind eye to apartheid in South Africa. In his mind, “Sports transcend politics. It is an international phenomenon like science or music.”

But for sitting IOC President Thomas Bach, sport and politics can work together to build a better and more peaceful world. His idea is that the sports movement must remain politically neutral, but neutrality does not mean being “apolitical”: “Sport must include political considerations in its decisions. It must consider the political, economic and social implications of its decisions,” he said.

Bach has made a careful distinction between political neutrality and political indifference in the sporting arena. 

On the one hand, no one should use international sporting events and venues to make a controversial political statement, taking political sides, causing disturbances and arousing more animosity. On the other, sports can serve as a bridge of dialogue and understanding. 

In Bach’s words, “It must always be clear in the relationship between sport and politics that the role of sport is always to build bridges. It is never to build walls.”

In line with this distinction, when UK Prime Minister David Cameron decided not to attend the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia for political reasons, Bach said that the Olympics should not be used "as a political stage"; when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea shared the interest in jointly attending the PyeongChang Winter Games, the IOC approved an inter-Korean deal on the joint march at the opening ceremony.

The World Cup, like other international sporting events, doesn’t exist in a vacuum from the real world. Politics is always trying to influence the sport. It is imperative to maintain the neutrality of sport while keeping away the excessive intrusion of politics. It must also be noted that it is a lot to ask to change a country’s domestic and foreign policy through a sporting event.

The tension between sports and politics is sure to stay. The next World Cup tournament is in Qatar. A Western media outlet already began to blow the whistle that Qatar will be “even worse than Russia for fans travelling to the World Cup.” 

Well, the United States was just granted the 2026 World Cup, along with Mexico and Canada. What does the world have to say?

Whether being wary of politics in sports, or tired of being told not to be political about the World Cup, maybe we should just forget about politics and enjoy the World Cup for a while.



Jia Xiudong is a senior fellow at China Institute of International Studies CIIS.



Source: CGTN, June 16, 2018.