Sport is no stranger to geopolitics. The first Olympics boycotts in 1956 were in response to the invasions of Egypt and Hungary. Several countries in 1958 refused to play Israel in the World Cup football qualifiers. The US led a Cold War boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan (to which the Soviet Union responded in-kind in 1984). In 1982, the UK government was worried about the impact of a potential football match against Argentina during the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. African, Asian, and Caribbean countries in 1986 boycotted the Commonwealth Games over apartheid in South Africa (Nelson Mandela viewed sport as “more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers” and famously used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to bridge post-apartheid divisions). Unsurprisingly, as a potent symbol of national pride, sport has often been an instrument of foreign policy.
Many countries still view international tournaments as key venues for diplomacy. Australia’s Sports Diplomacy 2030 strategy, for example, expressly seeks to strengthen outreach across the Indo-Pacific region. Brazil’s foreign minister used the 2010s “decade of sport” to advance “soft power” through dozens of sports cooperation memorandums. India and Pakistan regularly hold international cricket matches despite a freeze in diplomatic relations.
Still, the geopolitical landscape for sport has gotten more complex over the last twenty years. Ownership, markets, players, and supporters are globalized. Teams, leagues, and tournaments have global reach, and by extension global exposures (from media markets to supply chains). Geopolitical tensions make it more challenging to manage global sporting interests and keep politics off the pitch.
Two major geopolitical challenges face sport in 2023 and beyond:
First, the Ukraine conflict is putting pressure on the avowed neutral politics of international sport. Russia and Belarus remain suspended from many international sports federations and leagues over the conflict. Exceptions allowing athletes from both countries to compete as neutrals face political, social, and sporting opposition. The Ukraine conflict is unlikely to end in 2023, meaning its geopolitical impacts are very likely to extend into major events in 2024, including the Paris Olympics.
Second, US-China competition poses rising political and reputational risks to international sport. For example, Chinese companies and sports federations in 2019 cut ties with a US team after its manager supported pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the US led a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics – something that will surely be remembered at the 2028 Los Angeles Summer games. If “ping pong diplomacy” was crucial to establishing US-China relations in the 1970s, tit-for-tat sporting boycotts would be an indicator of their erosion fifty years later.
Sport, like the economy, politics, culture, and technology, is likely to be impacted by geopolitical fragmentation. But it also provides a universal language – and a global market – as an antidote to confrontation and decoupling.