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The Big Debate: Political Influence

Should sporting rights-holders take the geo-political climate into consideration more when making decisions?

Sport and politics have never been the most amicable of friends.

Only a month ago, senior government officials in the United Kingdom and the United States made calls for FIFA to strip countries of their right to host its flagship competitions due to political considerations. Most notably, UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg called for Russia to lose the 2018 World Cup if its president Vladimir Putin continues to destabilise Ukraine.

Politicans, however, are often the first to jump on the bandwagon  when a major sports event comes to town or takes the nation by storm. Even the least cynical of industry commentators will tell you that when President Obama stormed a White House viewing party of a 2014 United States FIFA World Cup match – to start a chant of ‘I believe’ in front of the cameras – it was a little bit opportunistic.

It is also a common complaint of the sports industry when a politician uses a sporting event to highlight a political cause. See politican and the man leading Scotland’s bid to become independent from the UK, Alex Salmond, and his unfurling of a Scottish flag when Andy Murray won the 2013 Wimbledon final for more details.

But there are also instances where sport and its political counterparts need a close and strong relationship, particularly when a bidding city is looking to host a major event and is currying favour to get government guarantees.

Could and should sport stay out of the political conversation altogether? We asked four experts for their opinion.

Gianni Infantino, General Secretary, UEFA

We will assess our Euro 2020 bids based on our criteria and the information in their bid documents – we will not take into account any political issues

There is currently a political situation in Russia [which is bidding to host matches at UEFA Euro 2020], but we don’t know what the situation will be in six years’ time.

Just look back to Euro 2012, when it went so well in Ukraine – nobody could have imagined what would be happening in the country just two years later.

UEFA is a sports organisation and we do not want to be involved in political issues. We know the political situation in Europe at the moment – we don’t live on Mars – and maybe sporting events and the discussions around them may give political people a platform to discuss their issues, which are far more serious than our sporting problems. However, we want to stay out of those conversations.

We will assess our Euro 2020 bids based on our original qualitative criteria and the information in their bid documents, and we will not take into account any political issues.

I honestly don’t think things like the current situation in Russia will have a big impact on our plans as we are so used to organising competitions in Europe and dealing with the countries. We are in daily contact with the Russian and Ukrainian federations – and they are in daily contact with each other.

When we have our UEFA meetings those countries always sit together as they share a language, so it’s a kind of neutral environment that is somehow detached from party political considerations.

Helmut Spahn, Director General, International Centre for Sport Security

Whilst many in the sports industry would not like to admit it, sport and governments need each other and it is a relationship that mutually benefits both parties

With high-profile events reaching out to new markets, and with sport engaging governments to address integrity issues, the relationship between sport and politics is at
a crossroads.

The use of sport to exert ‘soft power’ at an international level has and will always continue to exist when it comes to bidding for and hosting major international sport events.

As Turkey discovered last year – when concerns over conflict in neighbouring Syria contributed to Tokyo being awarded the 2020 Games, as well as recent situations in Israel and the Crimea – the politics of a region can play a significant role in deciding where major sports events take place, and where the industry will be investing over the next decade.

With major international events usually awarded every four years or so – as well as the bidding phase which can last up to two years – a four-to-six-year timeframe could see one or even two changes in government during that period, which also presents a significant challenge for any federation and major event rights-holder.

For any bid or major event to be successful, government support is crucial and, with the threat to the integrity of sport and the fight against match-fixing gathering pace, I expect the relationship between sport and government to become even closer in the near future.

Whilst many in the sports industry would not like to admit it, sport and governments need each other and it is a relationship that mutually benefits both parties. To what extent do governments want to influence sport, and vice-versa, is a completely different – and possibly more important – question that will need to be addressed in the near future as both look address international issues like organised crime and terrorism. Both loom large on the horizon.

Professor Lev Belousov, Rector, RIOU (Russian International Olympic University)

The majority of people respect the notion that for sport to achieve its higher goals, it must remain free from the influence of politics

Sport must be separate from politics. Yet at the same time, sport should not operate in a vacuum. Context adds colour, and there should always be room for awareness and respect.

However, for sport to show the world that competition among people can occur in harmony, the geo-political sphere must be excluded. It is sport’s job to send messages of global solidarity and equal rights to the world of politics, not to act, or rather to be used as, a platform for a political message.

Unfortunately a political gesture in a sporting arena often makes international headlines, so there is a temptation for athletes, protestors and governments. The people who engage in politics at an event may think they are making a bold statement or are standing up for a higher cause. But this is not the case – what they are actually doing is diluting the power of sport.

At the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, many athletes made bold statements by combining sporting excellence with the utmost respect for their fellow competitors.

Take the men’s cross-country skiing in which the gold medal winner, Dario Cologna from Switzerland, stayed by the finish line for almost half an hour after he had finished to congratulate the last competitor home, Roberto Carcelen from Peru.

This story is the direct result of an athlete being given the opportunity to focus solely on what it means to be an Olympian. I believe that rights-holders have a duty to provide these settings for every athlete competing at their event. And the first setting is to ensure politics are no part of it.

Jon Tibbs, Founder, Jon Tibbs Associates

As long as major sporting events attract global media attention, sport and geo-politics are set to remain uneasy bedfellows

There is one word to sum up the relationship between geo-politics and sport: dichotomy.

International sporting events face a dichotomy when trying to maintain their independence from political interference. On the one hand, the Olympic Movement declares that sport should be free from government interference and yet on the other it welcomes the governments of emerging nations – such as central Asian republics – as they seek to host events. The accusation from some, however, is that those same governments are only using sport as a political tool to promote and ‘normalise’ their countries.

Calls came from far and wide to strip Russia of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi over ‘anti-gay’ legislation and allegations of human rights and media freedom abuses. But the other corner pointed to strong evidence that the seven-year process of Russia preparing for the Games helped lead a nationwide anti-corruption drive by the federal government.

Thomas Bach has made it very clear that athletes are at the very forefront of his approach and ideology. Their actions, on the track, court or field of play and how they conduct themselves away from the competitive environment are his primary tools for inspiring people through sport. He wants a complete separation of athletes from geo-politics, so that their message of competing in harmony remains undiluted and pure. However, there is also a long history of athletes using the platform of the Olympic Games and other major sports events to make dramatic religious or geo-political gestures and statements. 

So despite the best endeavours of the International Olympic Committee and others, it seems that as long as major sporting events attract global media attention, sport and geo-politics are set to remain uneasy bedfellows

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