The role of sports and athleticism in authoritarian governments is a relationship with consequences that is growing more relevant in today’s age of information. One of the greatest strengths a state can have is its ability to get what they want without the use of force, through the use of soft power, both internationally and domestically. Hefty investments made by China in sports development highlights the contribution of athleticism to a state's sense of nationalism and nation building. My hypothesis is that by augmenting the soft power capabilities of sporting competitions and events, China can extend its power projection abroad and domestically with great success.
Ever since the introduction of mass international sporting events, such as the World Cup or our modern day Olympics, many actors have sought to reap the benefits of such events that single-handedly capture the hearts and minds of the entire planet. With so much at stake in terms of competition on the international stage, traditionally many authoritarian regimes twisted such massive events to their own political advantage, such as Italy and Germany exploiting their hosting of the World Cups in the 20’s and 30’s to expound their fascist ideologies both at home and abroad. (Anspach et als, 2009) The Cold War saw an increase in international athletic competition, as the perception of the indomitable United States and all that it represented could be challenged without the use of armies or nuclear weapons, but rather with twelve men on an ice hockey rink. Transition into the 21st century, and we have much of the same, but on a scale only China could manifest. China’s ever growing ambitions to capture the world's imagination in the arena of physical competition can only be matched by Xi Jinping’s own. One of his dreams is to see China on the forefront of mainstream sport competitions, to become the next world superpower in terms of producing talented athletes and teams in sports that captures the attention of the entire world stage. (Telegraph, 2019) The reasons behind this appears simple but carries great weight in the minds of China’s leadership, investing in sports unites the country in the spirit of competition, and inspires the young generation in China to participate in such sporting events in fervor of representing the nation on the international scale. Inspiring and uniting the people of a state has always been a challenge to non-democracies, but capitalizing on the mainstream fixation with sporting events provides China with avenues of reinforcing their national image through the diplomacy of sports, for themselves and the rest of the planet. (Patrick W.C. et als, 2011)
What are some of the possible uses that authoritarian states can get out of sporting events? In my research, I have found a variety of answers to this question. To begin with, the distinction between a state hosting sporting mega-events versus the performance of a national team in competition comes down to the reach of its effects. States hosting mega-events will cause greater effects on the international scale, with national team performance having a stronger effect on politics on the domestic scale. Throughout the 20th century, we’ve seen many highly competitive tournaments between states among a variety of sports. Emphasis has always been placed on results, that much has never changed. In the last few decades however, there has been increased political interest in hosting sporting mega-events, with more and more non-western developing countries casting their bids.
The way a city is chosen to host an Olympic event for example, is based on three criterias. The city must prove to the International Olympic Commission (IOC) that it is large enough to accommodate all of the expected travellers that would show up. This means that the bidding city must have the required infrastructure- hotels for tourists and traveling teams alike, stadiums and venues to host sporting events, and a dependable mass transit system for transportation. The second criteria is whether the city has the necessary financial support in place to shoulder the burden of hosting. Although winning a bid means increases to job availability (from construction of necessary stadiums to venues), the costs can become a burden on citizens, which makes it necessary to ensure that a host city has the means to host. Finally, the host city needs to be able to guarantee good media exposure of the events, as a part of the legacy component of Olympic games. (IOC, 2019) Based on these criteria, it would take a country large and developed enough to maintain the surge of traveling visitors, while also providing the necessary structure to facilitate the plethora of games. Following the submission of their bid, the host city needs to pay the application fee of around $150,000 to the IOC, as well as undergo the beginnings of their planned infrastructure development. (IOC, 2019) The point of the bid is to present ideas and concepts to the committee, in terms of scale and presentation for the Olympics, the more determined a state is to win a bid the more they will spend to do so.
States such as the United Kingdom are willing to spend over 17 million pounds on attempting to win the right to host such events. (Grix & Lee, 2013) The process of hosting an event such as the Olympics is rigorous and expensive, but it seems states are willing to pay the price. Authors Grix & Lee have an interesting perspective on this competition of bids. According to them, the shifting momentum in states willingness to expend time and resources for bidding and hosting sporting mega-events is an indicator of a new power source in international affairs. (Grix & Lee, 2013) The economic benefits that a host state can obtain adds a new dimension to international political economy, a dimension that is within reach of states with comparatively weak market status. The world today has new and incredibly fast sources of streaming and content delivery thanks to advancements and global spread of technology, guaranteeing a wide and diverse audience. Economic benefits besides, another argument presented by the authors is that of developing states who win bids to host sporting mega-events have a new avenue to practice public diplomacy, augmenting their soft power capabilities.
Authors Nygard and Gates describe the mechanisms by which ‘sports diplomacy’ can facilitate nation-building as well as ‘peace-building’. According to the authors, peace-building is attributed to several mechanisms; image-building, platform for dialogue, trust-building, and integration. (Nygard & Gates, 2013) Using the Rugby World Cup in South Africa, 1995, the authors lay out the consequences of its outcome for South Africa and race relations around the world. Traditionally, rugby has been regarded as a “white” sport in former British territories. In the year following the dismantling of the apartheid regime, Nelson Mandela used the opportunity of hosting the Rugby World Cup to facilitate a practice of public diplomacy, peace-building. The games provided South Africa racial unity in the realm of competition, championing rugby as a sport for all. (Nygard & Gates, 2013) South Africa went on to win the games, moving the country towards reconciliation and integration among divided lines. The authors provide even more examples of the utility of sports in diplomacy, highlighting the effectiveness a US national team in thawing relations between China and the US in the 70’s. Preceding Nixon’s famous visit to China and his subsequent meetings with Mao, the first representatives of America were none other than the US national table-tennis team. After requesting an invite in 1971, the Americans were allowed to compete in a few sets of friendly matches against the Chinese the following year. The event was successful in normalizing relations between the US and China, and eventually made way for Nixon’s visit. (Nygard & Gates, 2013) Besides economic benefits, sports have proved to be effective tools of public diplomacy, giving states a way to augment their soft power capabilities.
So far the opportunity costs and benefits of investing in sporting events has been established as a diplomatic and economic tool for developing and non-developing states alike. Besides facilitating discourse on the international level, what further use can sports provide to a government on the domestic level? Natalie Koch uses Kazakhstan as a case study of sports and its effect on domestic nationalism. The post-Soviet Kazakhstan Nazarbayev regime heavily invested in developing their capacity to host events, as well as sponsoring a national cycling team. From building modern stadiums, to providing large sums of cash to the nation's athletes based on their performance ($250,000 is awarded per gold medalist). (Koch, 2013) Kazakhstan has neither the economic status nor infrastructure capabilities to host an event as large as the Olympics, but other mega-events were still in its reach. In 2011 Kazakhstan hosted the 7th Winter Asian Games, parading a lit torch all over the country before arriving in the capital, Astana. The torch bearer was none other than Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, who told reporters that hosting the Asian Games provided a ‘great opportunity’ to show the world Kazakhstan’s achievements. (Koch, 2013)
The estimated cost of renovations to accommodate the competitions was estimated at $725 million. All this expense was part of a greater strategy on the part of the ruling government, argues Koch. State promotion of elite sport provides a nationalist performance for ordinary citizens. Nationalizing sport provides states an objective and resilient way to promote nation-building among its citizens. Koch is arguing that in order to preserve the current status quo, an authoritarian state can provide a focal point for fervent nationalism through investment and development of sports competition, establishing a bond between the state and the people. If successfully carried out, an authoritarian leader can link territorial bonding (how people relate to the ‘homeland’) with statist bonding (how people relate to the ruling government) at the same time, through sports. Essentially, the state is confusing support for a national event, in support of the ruling regime. The key here is that this bond can only be established due to the “... emotional expressions and nationalistic symbolism…” provided by athletic competition which “...should have a key place in… nationalism and national culture.” (Koch, 2013) When a state invests into producing competitive national teams, the state feels the passion of its citizens support just as much as the athletes are.
Patrick W.C. et als provide a useful analysis to further illuminate the relationship between sports and nationalism. Going back to the spectacle of the Olympics, the researchers highlight the games ability to provide an occasion for symbolism that invoke a nationalist meta-discourse. (W.C. et als, 2011) The athletes must wear uniforms indicative of the country they represent, and when receiving medals they stand in front of waving national flags. The Olympic Charter by the IOC defines the games not as a competition between nations but rather the athletes that are representing them. Despite the sentiment, the politics of sports ends up contributing to the politics of national identities, thanks to the inevitable promotion of national identity in such competitions. The researchers argue that through the Olympic games, spectators become greatly attached to the spectacle before them, with the media acting as an enabler for invoking emotional intensity. (W.C. et als, 2011) The authors cite from Keech, Fox and Bramham (2001), highlighting sports as a tool for enticing national unity, as well as concentrating sentiments of nationalism and cultural identity into a concentrated consciousness. Another researcher the authors bring up is Gill (2005) who is quotes that, “... national identity is analyzed specifically as a performance, and sport is the context in which this performance takes place.” (W.C. et als, 2011)
There is a clear relationship between athletic competition and invocations of national or cultural identity. Due to the importance and significance surrounding sporting mega-events, states are provided an opportunity to capitalize on the attention (domestic and abroad) paid to such performances. This is especially relevant in regards to China. Brady, A. addresses the 2008 Beijing Olympics and its fundamental purposes to the CCP in China. Mass broadcasting of the Olympic games is comparable- in terms of scale and government support- to the mass campaigns imposed in China under Mao Zedong. Brady attempts to highlight the ability of China hosting an Olympic event as a way for the CCP to modernize their system of propaganda, dubbing the years following up to and including the 2008 Olympics as a “campaign of mass distraction” on the part of the ruling government. (Brady, A. 2009) From 2006 to 2008, the CCP instigated a nation-wide public etiquette campaign in an effort to impress upon visitors to the country for the games. News coverage in China was dominated by the preparations of new sport stadiums and the then ongoing etiquette campaign. This, argues Brady, was all a concentrated effort of propaganda on the part of the CCP. The goal was to give the citizens of the country a focal point, a goal, to be mobilized around. (Brady, A. 2009) This statement echoes that of Koch, the state provides a way to concentrate ambiguous feelings of national pride and identity in a constructive and mobilized manner for the general public. All eyes in China were looking ahead to the Olympics, and away from the troubles plaguing the country such as inflation, unemployment, political corruption, and environmental degradation. (Brady, A. 2009)
The literature presented here clearly demonstrates the powers that lurk amongst sport competitions. States have demonstrated their willingness to expend financial capital on hosting sporting mega-events, as well as investment into national teams. Furthermore, the relationship between sports and nationalism as well as foreign policy has been clearly outlined. China has invested heavily in bids for sporting mega-events beyond the 2008 Olympics. In 2019, China hosted the Basketball World Cup, and has already won the bid for a second Beijing Olympics in 2022. This would make Beijing the first and only city to ever host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. Even then, China still feels the backlash from sports diplomacy, following the controversial Tweets and discourse ignited by NBA managers and players in the wake of the Hong Kong protests. It is important for the Chinese government to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens of China, because without it the CCP would cease to exist. Sports provides a way for the CCP to mobilize the country around nationalistic sentiment while providing distraction from ongoing threats to the regime through sports propaganda, or ‘sports-washing’. But like anything drawing massive amounts of attention, and money, it comes with a double edge. The NBA has a huge presence in China, and even though the league is currently playing along among hundreds of other corporations with financial interest in the Chinese market, it does not stop the criticism that is naturally attracted by western countries. Going forward, it is imperative we do not underestimate the attractiveness and emotionally charged capabilities of sports, and how it can be utilized without our knowing by state interests.
Simo Nikolic is a student of International Relations living in NYC. He currently interns at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and his interests include history, political philosophy, and international affairs. He’s interested in the sociological effects of political and economic systems on human behavior.