At the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, there were sixty-thousand Chinese fans in attendance even though their national team hadn’t qualified for the tournament. By comparison, there were only fifteen-thousand England fans, who eventually saw their team make the Semi-Final stage.
One reason for this can be traced back to events at the 2016 UEFA European Championship in France, when a group of well organised Russian football hooligans attacked England fans in Marseille. Some observers speculated that these Russians had links to the Kremlin hence many English fans subsequently feared for their safety should they head to the 2018 World Cup.
Shock and awe
Yet for the relatively small number of English who visited Russia, indeed for many other people from around the world, they left and headed for home in 2018 with very positive views of the country. Many extolled Russia’s virtues as a hospitable, safe country that had organised a very successful event.
Therein lay a number of important lessons about Russia, one of which is that the country has a very different relationship with China and with other countries from outside the Western alliance. However, it was the way in which Vladimir Putin’s government deployed sport that was more striking, seemingly a duplicitous cocktail of shock and awe combined with charm and seduction.
This template has been apparent for years indeed it has been evident even during the last couple of months. Back in 2014, Russia staged the Winter Olympics in Sochi, spending $60 billion on the stage-managed event. As the world looked on at the event’s magnitude, a matter of weeks later Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea.
At this year’s Winter Olympics, most sport fans spent the first week marvelling at the performances of teenage Russian skater Kamila Valieva, then the second week snarling at and berating Russia for yet another episode of the cynical way in which the Kremlin has weaponised sport, particularly through its state-sponsored doping programme.
The DNA of this cynicism has also been evident across, for example, sponsorship deals in which Russian state-owned corporations have been engaged. For example, UEFA has had a deal with Gazprom since 2013 which extends to 2024. While the gas giant has helped boost UEFA revenues and became a feature of Champions League football, the organisation has been involved in more insidious activities.
Government in Moscow long since took the decision to route Gazprom’s supply pipelines under the Baltic Sea to Germany so that Ukraine and Poland would have no influence or control over Russia’s European gas supplies. Similarly, by not crossing their territories, Russia has also avoided paying valuable gas supply transit fees to Kyiv and Warsaw.
Some observers have referred to Russia’s activities as sport washing, a practice associated either with cleansing a country’s image and reputation or with deceiving people into believing an aggressor is something other than who or what we might think they are. But for the people of Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere, there have never been any doubts about Putin’s intentions. The strategy and the stains were always clear to see.
Other people take the view that Russia’s use of sport has been a form of soft power, whereby it has sought to attract overseas audiences by seducing them through the allure of sport. While there are some grounds for concluding that this is what Kremlin strategists have been seeking to achieve, the predisposition of Putin’s regime toward deception, divisiveness and destruction indicates that use of the word ‘soft’ is misplaced.
If neither sport washing nor soft power appropriately or sufficiently explain how the Russian government has deployed the likes of football and athletics, then surely a better explanation is that global sport has been ‘Putinised’. At its heart, this ‘Putinisation’ has seen state-led strategy focused on building power and exerting control across the world, executed through the divisive deployment of sport. But now, the tipping point has come and global sport must respond.
Short-term, many of the measures now being implemented by sport to sanction Russia are to be applauded. Yet ‘Putinisation’, demands that clubs, governing bodies, event owners and others more fundamentally change their ways. The Kremlin clearly doesn’t engage with sport on the basis of sport or rational economics, its decisions are much more geopolitically charged than this. As such, those sport organisations that have taken money from Russian sponsors or investors need to start thinking less about their financial coffers and more about the risks when associating with Putin and his ilk.
As for Russia, events in recent days have proved one thing: that Putin can’t be trusted nor, for the time being at least, can Russian sport. For the country to be reintegrated back into the system of global sport will require measures to be put in place that not only reassure us but also provide tangible evidence that sport is not being manipulated or exploited for geopolitical purposes.
What this means and whether it can be achieved are complex matters, though sport simply cannot afford to be fooled any longer.