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Sport, geopolitics and Russia. A short history

Throughout the last 70 plus years, the Soviet Union and Russia have used large sporting events for both geopolitical and domestic purposes. While the latter often brought about desired results, achieving success in the former continues to elude Russia. This year the Kremlin will most likely try to use the FIFA World Cup to show the world that Russia matters, and showcase Putin as a powerful world leader.

April 26, 2018 - Anna Maria Dyner - AnalysisIssue 3-4 2018Magazine

A Soviet football poster from 1954. Courtesy: IISG (CC) www.flickr.com

William Shankly, the legendary coach of the Liverpool Football Club, was known for saying that football mattered more than life itself. If such words can be articulated about football in particular what can be said about sport in general? The role that sport plays in society has been recognised since ancient times. The Romans believed, in the words of the ancient Roman poet Juvenal, that people are only interested in “bread and circuses”. Those “circuses” became an integral part of social and political life throughout the ages. Yet it was in the second half of the 20th century, and the rise of television, when sporting events became entertainment for the masses. During the Cold War, sport competition became a part of international rivalry, pitting one ideology against another.

The late Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński described this phenomenon in his 1978 book The Soccer War. He pointed out that in Latin America the line between football and politics was very thin. He argued that the list of governments which had fallen, or were abolished by military coups, because of a national team’s poor performance was actually quite long.

Arenas of political manifestation

Alluding to Carl von Clausewitz, one can say that sport is “politics by other means”. It generates strong emotions and can reach its zenith when a game is played by national teams of states who are in conflict. Such events can literally turn stadiums into arenas of political manifestation. This was the case in 1982 in Poland, just three months after the introduction of Martial Law, which was imposed by the country’s leader Wojciech Jaruzelski to quash growing support for the Solidarity opposition and in lieu of a possible Russian invasion. At that time, a game was played between the Warsaw team, Legia, and Dynamo Tbilisi (from the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic). The latter was the great Soviet pride after it had won the UEFA Cup a few months earlier. Despite a large number of militia in the stadium, the Legia fans shouted anti-regime and pro-opposition slogans.

In some cases, football matches offer an opportunity for high-level diplomatic meetings which would not take place otherwise. The only times the presidents of Turkey and Armenia sit next to one another, for instance, is during a football match. And this year, during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, representatives of both Koreas marched together under the same flag.

Politicians know all too well what sport means for their respective countries. Not only can a great victory improve the feeling of national pride, it can also generate extra support for politicians. In other words, sporting victories can translate into electoral victories. It is also quite common for retired athletes to become involved in politics, and political parties often exploit them as engines for bringing success. Given that all of the above is true for nearly all countries, it is particularly true of non-democratic ones. This includes the Russian Federation and its predecessor, the Soviet Union. In light of this year’s FIFA World Cup, which Russia is hosting, it is worth exploring Russia’s earlier experiences of hosting global sporting events.

Moscow 1980

In the Soviet Union sport was not only an important means of entertainment, but also a key element of state propaganda. Through sport, the new Soviet man was to be made. Thus, the best Soviet sportsmen worked for clubs linked either with the military or the KGB. Nikolai Semashko, the People’s Commissar of Public Health and one of the organisers of the Soviet health system, pioneered the inclusion of sport and physical education into socialist education during the 1920s. But it wasn’t until a few decades later when the USSR began to seriously use sport as an element of rivalry with other states. Interestingly, it is alleged that Stalin refused the Soviet Union’s participation in the 1948 Olympic Games out of concern that the team would fail. Soviet success came only after Stalin’s death, during the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, when the Soviet team brought home 98 medals – more than the United States, their greatest competitor.

During the Cold War, rivalry between capitalist and socialist states (particularly between the USSR and the US) was legendary. It started in Helsinki in 1952 and subsequently brought about six Soviet victories for the most medals (the US had four) in the summer games and seven in winter games. In the case of the latter, the USSR was beaten only by Norway and the GDR. In the 1970s, the rivalry expanded beyond winning and losing on the field, to which country could organise the best event. This was illustrated in the battle over what city would host the 22nd Summer Olympic Games in 1980 – the two candidate cities were Moscow and Los Angeles. It was reported that Moscow won the bid by a vote of 39 to 20.

After the decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award the games to Moscow, Soviet officials developed new infrastructure, including the Sheremetyevo International Airport. In 1977 the authorities revealed the mascot of the Moscow Games – Misha, the bear who became one of the most recognisable symbols and clearly an inspiration for one of the 2014 Sochi mascots.   

Historians of the Soviet Union claim that the high construction costs of the sport facilities and the infrastructure surrounding the games became a serious problem for Leonid Brezhnev, the then Soviet leader. At one point he even allegedly considered withdrawing Moscow as the host city. However, the prestige line of reasoning won out and the Olympic Games were held in Moscow (some events also took place in Kyiv and Tallinn).

Unfortunately in 1980 the USSR did not adhere to the ancient rule that the Olympic Games should not take place at a time of war, and the Soviet army continued their active operations in Afghanistan. As a sign of protest, 65 states (including the US, Canada, West Germany, Egypt and Turkey) boycotted the Moscow games. In addition, the IOC refused to allow Iran to participate. Understandably, the Soviet authorities feared that without foreign fans their stadiums would be empty. To avoid such a scenario, cheap tickets were offered to local citizens. But with many partners and global sponsors pulling out – Adidas was the only major company to not pull out – an economic blow was clearly dealt.  

In an effort not to disappoint fans traveling to Moscow, some western products were imported into the Soviet Union via Finland. For the first time Soviet consumers were able to purchase Marlboro cigarettes, Coca-Cola, Fanta and chewing gum – even the latter was considered an ideological product. Soviet officials also decreed that the “undesirable residents” of Moscow (i.e. the homeless and prostitutes) be driven outside the city for the duration of the games.

The hosts also made every effort possible to ensure that the Soviet team triumphed – and it did. The USSR won a total 195 medals (80 gold) and they were followed by other members of the Socialist bloc – East Germany and Bulgaria. For Soviet propaganda, the games were a huge success. They were used to distract attention away from both the war in Afghanistan and the growing economic problems. Political tensions continued through 1984 when the Soviet Union, along with the majority of the Eastern bloc states, refused to participate in the Los Angeles Games. Even though security concerns were given as the official reason, it was well understood that the decision was a direct response for the American boycott of the Moscow Games.

Second chances

The Russia Federation, as successor state to the Soviet Union, would have to wait over 30 years for another opportunity to host the Olympic Games. In 2007 the IOC announced that the Russian resort city of Sochi would host the 22nd Winter Olympic Games. Even though, according to some experts, Vladimir Putin did not plan to win the bid, the state propaganda machine aptly exploited the opportunity for its own purposes. Nevertheless, from the outset the Sochi Olympics generated many controversies. In 2013 the Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov published a report revealing that 30 billion US dollars, out of a total of 50 billion dollars’ worth of investments, were embezzled and unaccounted for. And a few months before the games were scheduled to begin, many officials feared that the Sochi preparations would not be completed on time.

Fortunately for the Kremlin, they managed to pull it off. Had it not been for the events unfolding in Ukraine, the Sochi Games would have been regarded as overall successful. Eighty-eight national teams participated with Russia winning the most medals – 29 altogether (11 gold). The only things that tarnished the almost perfect picture were the rumours of Russian doping and, of course, the situation in Ukraine, with Russia later annexing Crimea and its military intervention in Donbas. Russia’s image of success was quickly overshadowed by its brazen breach of international law.

Four years after Sochi, Russia was chosen to host another large-scale sporting event: the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The decision to award Russia the hosting of the World Cup was made back in 2009, well before the conflict in Ukraine. However, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the downing of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, representatives of many states began calling for stripping Russia’s right to organise the tournament. Scepticism grew further after it was revealed that Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant, was among the lead sponsors of the tournament. Yet despite the growing dissenting voices, FIFA refused to reverse its decision, and Russia is set to host the tournament this coming June. However, the political controversies continued after Richard McLaren, a lawyer with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), publically accused Russia of having operating a state-sponsored doping programme. In response, the IOC voted to exclude the Russian team from official participation in the 23rd Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang earlier this year, thus further damaging Russia’s image as a fair competitor.

Propaganda cover-up

The preparations for the World Cup, and the profits it will generate, were an important element of Vladimir Putin’s re-election campaign ahead of the March 2018 election. They were particularly used to build a sense of national pride amidst stewing economic problems as a result of low oil prices and continued western sanctions. Similar to Nemtsov in 2013, Alexei Navalny, the main opposition figure today, highlighted the level of corruption and the lack of transparency surrounding the infrastructure investments of the FIFA tournament. Navalny claimed that Russia has spent 40 billion roubles (around 730 billion US dollars) on preparations for the World Cup, with a significant portion of the money completely disappearing. What is more, the tragic Kemerovo shopping mall fire in March this year, which killed at least 64 people (40 of them children), has raised serious questions about standards of buildings in Russia where corruption schemes trump safety.

Nevertheless, Russian propaganda, domestically and internationally, will undoubtedly cover up any negative events relating to the tournament by focusing on its success as a demonstration of Russia’s greatness. Following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England and the subsequent expulsion of 140 Russian diplomats (suspected as being spies) from the West, the Kremlin desperately needs some positive PR. It will certainly use the FIFA World Cup to show the world that it matters and provide an opportunity to showcase Putin as a powerful world leader.

Throughout the last 70 or more years, the Soviet Union and Russia have used large sporting events for both geopolitical and domestic purposes. While the latter often brought about desired results, achieving success in the former continues to elude Russia. History has shown that nearly all major sporting events organised in Russia have been overshadowed by international events, military interventions and sour relations with the West. This summer’s World Cup appears to be no exception.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Anna Maria Dyner is the head of Eastern European programme in the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).

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