2018 is promising for the geopolitics of sport. Three international sporting events will be under the spotlights this year: the Olympic Winter Games in Korea, the Commonwealth Games in Australia and the football FIFA World Cup in Russia. Three major spots for international relations. Each of these events will embody actual or potential crises: the Olympic Games take place a few kilometers from the nuclear power of North Korea; the FIFA World Cup is hosted by a country under economic, financial and sports sanctions; as for the Commonwealth Games, they are organized by a country that rebuilds its military capabilities against China. And they will be probably used by the UK during a critical phase of the Brexit.
Financial stakes, scandals related to doping, environmental degradation or corruption have long tarnished the image of these competitions. Sport is more than just sport as Pascal Boniface puts it. Sport is politics, economics, diplomacy, communication, etc. Indeed, the diplomatic, economic and symbolic significance of the major international sporting events are now well known. Be it the Berlin Games used by the Nazi regime in 1936 to celebrate its rise to power, the Moscow and Los Angeles Games of 1980 and 1984, where the Cold War tensions were expressed in the form of boycotts, the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 used as a display of power by China, high-profile international sports competitions have been significant political and economic events. They served both as a sounding board for the evolutions of the world but also as an arena for geopolitical rivalries. Let’s not overestimate the influence of sport: those competitions are distorting but instructive mirrors of the international relations.
On the threshold of 2018, let us take the time to analyze the geo-political and geo-economic issues of these three competitions.
1. Winter Olympic Games in Korea and the thaw out between North and South
The 23rd edition of the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games will take place in South Korea from 9th to 25th February 2018 at a time when the North and the South engage in a long awaited appeasement in their relations. The main sites of the Games are located about 80 kilometers from the demilitarized zone separating the two sides since the Korean War in 1950-1953.
The first concern of the host country will be the security of the competition and the furthering of the thawing out with North Korea. Will the North use the participation of its athletes to try to partially defuse the tensions with the international community? Since the beginning of the Trump presidency, the Kim Jon-Un regime has fueled the arms race of the region. It is perfecting its nuclear warheads through a series of tests and is extending the range of its missiles threatening le South Japan and even the US in Guam. In consequence, South Korea’s allies are deploying anti-missile batteries, including THAAD, near China’s territory and the Russian Far East. The main concern of the participating countries for the security of their delegations and the ever-increasing tensions between North Korea’s nuclear threats and the warlike statements of the Trump presidency, South Korea’s first objective will be to present the serene face of a competition whose security is assured. The Olympic truce, at least partial, will be the first challenge of the Games.
The Olympic Games give the hot country the opportunity to conduct a necessary operation of nation branding or, more exactly, of nation rebranding nation. The country already reshaped its image thanks to the Seoul Summer Olympic Games in 1988: after a rapid reconstruction and a strong growth under the rule of General Park, South Korea showed the world its prosperity, its integration into the international economy and its evolution towards liberal democracy. Today, the challenge is different: South Korea is to display its soft power and demonstrate its ability to cope with the Northern neighbor. South Korea is famous in Asia for its songs (the famous K-pop), its TV series and its movies. The motto of the competition emphasizes the role of South Korea in the digital revolution and in the pop culture: « Passion. Connected. »
Last, the next Olympic Games will remind us that Asia is emerging in international sport. After the Olympic Games in Tokyo (1964) and Sapporo (1972) in Japan, Sydney (2000) in Australia and Beijing (2008), Korea will carry the colors of Asia in the globalization of sport. This is the significance of the International Olympic Committee vote in 2011: Pyeongchang was selected over two European cities, Annecy and Munich, with 63 votes out of 95. If the economic world has already taken its center of gravity in North Asia, the universe of worlds sport is still focused on Europe and North America.
Under the magnificent images of the Korean mountains, regional politics will be scrutinized.
2. Brexit, guest star of the 21st edition of the Commonwealth Games in Australia
The second most important (in the chronological order) international sporting event of the year will take place in Australia from 4th to 15th April. That sport event is not to be underestimated in terms of geopolitical significance: since 1930, every four years, the Games bring together the 53 nations of the British Commonwealth. Successively called « Games of the British Empire » and then « Games of the British Commonwealth », they maintain, on the sporting, cultural and symbolic level, the link of the United Kingdom with the states bound to the British crown. The Queen’s Baton Relay symbolically links Buckingham Palace to the Games venue, and carries through the wolrd a message from the British monarch to the opening ceremony of the Games.
The importance of the event lies first with its audience: 9 million people watched the opening ceremony of the 2014 edition in Glasgow and 1.5 million viewers on average are expected for the 21st edition in Australia. In addition, 70 countries from all continents will send delegations. On the diplomatic level, a Commonwealth Summit will convene in London at the same time.
The 21st edition of the Commonwealth Games has a political significance that goes far beyond the commemoration of cultural and historical ties.
In Asia, it will emphasize the strategic status of Australia. The context dramatically evolved since the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. The country is renewing its military efforts: it has announced a drastic increase in its defense budgets to reach 2% of GDP in 2021. The order of no less than 12 submarines is the flagship program of the Australian rearmament program., Australia will remind us of its status of major US ally in areas (Pacific and Indian Oceans) where the expansion of the Chinese is a major concern among former British colonies: New Zealand, India, etc.
In Europe, this competition will take place at a time when the Brexit negotiations will enter a new phase and when the United Kingdom will chair the Commonwealth Organization. The strengthening of trade with the Commonwealth was a key argument for the Brexiters during the referendum campaign. For instance Boris Johnson constantly presented the Brexit as an opportunity to redevelop trade with the Commonwealth states and reconnect. Less Europe and more Commonwealth will probably be Theresa May’s motto during the Games and the Summit.
3. The FIFA World Cup in Russia: restore the image of the country or affirm its power
The biggest media coverage of the year 2018 will undoubtedly go to the FIFA football World Cup. The geopolitical significance of the event derives from the venue, the duration and the timing of the competition. It will take place from June 14 to July 15 in 12 cities of Western or European Russia. In other words, nation rebranding will thus be the first of the host country’s concerns.
On the one hand, the World Cup will be held in a state whose National Olympic Committee has just been suspended by the International Olympic Committee because of doping during the last Sochi Games. The IOC has only left open the possibility for Russian athletes who have never been suspended for doping and testing to participate in the competition as « Russian Olympic athletes ». In a country that constantly uses sport as a lever of national prestige, this is a significant snub. The success of the organization of the 2018 World Cup will be a way for the Russian authorities to try to redo its image. The goals will be to avoid the controversies over the financial and environmental costs of the Sochi Games, to improve its reputation in the fight against doping and to attract as many European spectators as possible.
On the other hand, the FIFA World Cup will be held in a state facing economic and financial sanctions, following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass in 2014. The Russian economy, plunged into recession since the drop in hydrocarbon prices, and is just recovering. And, on the diplomatic scene, Russia has taken the initiative by launching a military expedition to Russia from September 2015 on.
What is at stake today is the strategy of Russia next Spring, when the European Union will examine the lifting the sanctions and the implementation of the ceasefire in. Will Russia choose the appeasement to avoid the boycott of European leaders that occurred for the Sochi Winter Games? Or will it rather use the event as a stage for the Russian power? The same question arises in domestic politics: will the Russian authorities focus on security, the fight against terrorism and the pressure on the opposition forces? Or will they want to show a vindictive face for Western opinions by letting the opposition express itself?
Appeasement or rupture? The symbols and signs will be scrutinized a few months after the re-election, for the fourth time, of Vladimir Putin to the presidency of the Russian Federation, probably in the first round, on March 18th.