Security and Foreign Policy

Diplomacy in the Age of Sports

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Russia took control of the global stage, using the event to showcase a gentler side to both its foreign and domestic audiences, different than the one the West is used to. Andreia Soares e Castro examines why sporting mega events are increasingly attractive to governments to either enhance international visibility or to change negative perceptions, despite the situation on the ground.


The virtues and benefits of sports are well recognized. As Nelson Mandela said: “[A] sport has the power to change the world…It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”. In South Africa’s case, sports were used as a vehicle to rid the country of apartheid, legitimize black political organizations, and promote liberation and freedom within South Africa.

Sports have since remained a valuable tool in South Africa’s foreign policy arsenal used to achieve specific domestic and international goals. The successful bidding and hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup made it the only African nation to host a World Cup and was viewed as an opportunity to showcase South Africa. The event contributed, along with other big international sporting events, to the positive image and international clout of the post-apartheid country.

But South Africa is not alone in this. Sports and football are being used by a number of countries to achieve specific targeted goals, proving that governments increasingly recognize the power of sports to raise their profile, and create influence, among other goals. Sports diplomacy – the use of sports as an instrument to further foreign policy goals, causes or interests – is, therefore, a significant and a rising source of soft power. Coined by Joseph S. Nye in the late 1980’s, soft power is ‘the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion’.

The importance given to sports diplomacy is confirmed by the major emerging economies’ attempts to use sporting events to achieve specific foreign policy goals: China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics (Beijing), South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, India hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games (Delhi), Brazil hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics (Rio) while Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympic Games (Sochi) and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. In addition, Beijing, the Chinese capital, is set to become the first city in history to stage both the Summer and Winter Games in 2022. China continues to use sports to increase its soft power and to be attractive. The Asian nation is also expected to host a FIFA World Cup in the near future, with President Xi Jinping stating his dream of hosting the tournament. International sporting events have, thus, become an investment in the global positions of their hosts. This is also true for states who already have a good global status, such as Canada, Japan or France, all of which have won bidding processes to host mega-sporting events in the coming years.

Brazil has hosted several international sporting events in recent years, including the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, as part of a broader and long-term strategy to enhance the country’s soft power, prestige and visibility, even if they generated various protests due to poor public services, corruption, forced removals of poor habitations, poor working conditions and high cost of staging the events, bringing with them a dark side – an opportunity to increase international status at the expense of its inhabitants. In the months following the games, political problems, including then-president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment as well as corruption charges and imprisonment of ex-president Lula da Silva, arguably damaged the image of the country. As such, the staging of mega-sporting events creates an opportunity to project a positive image, but it must be complemented with other soft-power tools and integrated in a long-term strategy if it wants to succeed.

Russia has invested in big sporting events as part of its soft power strategy to improve its image and leverage, and alter unfavourable perceptions despite the negative press about human rights violation. Vladimir Putin has succeeded in his goals (domestic and foreign), putting together a well-organized and smooth mega-event, amid heightened tension with the West and despite a staggering economy, considering the fall of oil prices, and sanctions introduced since the Ukraine crisis and the annexation of Crimea. Moreover, the announced diplomatic boycott related to the Salisbury attack did not hamper the success of the event. FIFA President Gianni Infantino said that the World Cup changed “the perception that the world has about Russia”. In other words, it helped to present a clean and positive image, making Russia look less frightening and hostile, thanks mainly to the Russian people, who presented a welcoming environment for all those in attendance, and to the relaxation of police detention and policing at protests during the World Cup. However, this image does not accurately represent what is occurring in Russia, where people don’t have the rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly, among other serious violations.

It is true that huge investments are made in order to guarantee that the hosting country is able to support all the requirements, investments that begin long before the decision to give the rights to host the event.

Underneath the huge investments to host international sporting events are benefits, opportunities and above all legacy. In fact, although these mega sporting events are only one-month or two-weeks long, the benefits are supposed to be felt in the long-term. The impact of hosting mega sporting events is multi-fold: infrastructure (new stadiums, hotels, roads, rail and bus systems, ports, and airports), urban and social opportunities; intercultural exchange; promotion of the country’s image on a global scale, with the potential to develop as a destination for business, trade and tourism. Additionally, the estimated global television audience is massive, considering that more than one billion fans tuned in to watch the final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, with the competition reaching a global in-home television audience of 3.2 billion people.

All that said, the hosting of big sporting events is an important soft power strategy to ‘win hearts and minds’, even though not always consensual and many times criticised. Indeed, sports and politics do mix, where the increased media attention is also used by activists and social movements to protest and raise awareness of political problems inside the hosting nations, such as human rights abuses and restrictions, censorship, labor violations related to the construction of the stadiums and sporting facilities, corruption, violence or repression.

While the hosting of big sporting events helps to rebrand national images, it is not sufficient in the long run if the asymmetry between the rebranded image and a restrictive political system and actions endures. That is to say that although hosting mega sporting events entails many benefits, it also has its limits and can back-fire, undermining its gains. Ultimately, despite the gains in overarching soft power, it is important to not ignore the oppressive regimes and repressive tactics.

Andreia Soares e Castro is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, ISCSP – ULisboa as well as a Researcher at the Centre for Public Administration & Public Policies CAPP/ISCSP-ULisboa. She received her Ph.D. in International Relations as well as her M.A. in International Relations from ISCSP-ULisboa.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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One comment

  1. Readers should be aware that soft power was developed long before Joseph Nye “coined” the term. During the Cold War and afterward the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) conducted an active sports diplomacy program in countries around the world, sending well known American athletes to train, conduct workshops, participate in host country events, and bring American players together with those of other countries. Often these athletes brought sports equipment with them and helped local athletes gain a better foothold in their individual sports. Mal Whitfield, a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, worked for USIA for decades and traveled all over Africa and other continents encouraging local athletes in track and field. I witnessed this in 1980 when we were in Somalia. There were other great American athletes who carried American sports skills and values behind the Iron Curtain when interaction on a different diplomatic level was difficult. This was also the case in our opening years of relations with the People’s Republic of China. One of my colleagues, Eddie Deerfield, the PAO at Embassy Kampala, organized a national athletic competition in Uganda that brought athletes from different ethnic groups together during the presidency of Milton Obote. It was a first. At USIA in Washington I helped Eddie and the embassy by obtaining and sending trophies to be awarded to winning athletes. The national event was a great success and furthered U.S. diplomacy in Uganda and neighboring countries. I could go on. The history of our sports diplomacy is a long and positive one. Unfortunately, in more recent years resources in the State Department to support sports diplomacy have declined. Yet, it is still a proven way to bring national and local leaders in different countries together with American diplomats and athletes under U.S.-supported auspices to foster greater understanding.

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