How 2022 Will Epitomise Sport’s Burgeoning Geopolitical Economy

21 janvier 2022
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon.

As we look forward to the year ahead in sport, 2022 promises to be equally dramatic both on and off-the-field of play. Several sport mega events will be held, notably the Winter Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup, which will be staged in China and Qatar respectively.

Otherwise, the usual roster of matches, leagues, competitions and tournaments will be happening. Already in January, the Paris-Dakar Rally is taking place in Saudi Arabia and the African Cup of Nations is underway in Cameroon. In March, the UEFA Champions League recommences and in April Formula 1’s world championship starts again.

Yet the context within which each of these will be staged is changing, indeed it has been changing for the last three decades. The world of sport, and indeed the world in general, is very different to how it was back in the 20th century.

In 1999, a majority of Formula 1 races were being held in Europe; in 2022, European grand prix will be in the minority, with the likes of Azerbaijan having started to host races. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has become the home of the Paris-Dakar Rally, a result of the Riyadh government’s policy commitment towards large-scale investment in sport.

The UEFA Champions League will again be sponsored by Russian state-owned energy corporation Gazprom, which has been involved with the competition for nearly a decade. It doesn’t sell anything directly to consumers, instead striking deals to sell gas to countries. In recent months, as energy prices in Europe have risen significantly, concerns have been expressed that Gazprom is controlling energy supplies for political purposes. Some critics, such as Donald Trump, have even castigated the likes of Germany for their dependence on Russian gas.

In Cameroon, the four stadiums that will be used during the African Cup of Nations have been constructed by China, evidence of the East Asian nation’s stadium diplomacy. The venues have either been gifted to Cameroon by government in Beijing or have been funded through soft loans (that is, loans provided below market rates). The reason for this is that the African nation has natural resources which China needs to help sustain itself and its continued economic growth.

China’s hosting of the Winter Olympics is also significant, as it takes place against the backdrop of increasingly fractious relations with the West. This situation has arisen due to, for example, concerns about the country’s Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and its handling of issues such as the disappearance of female tennis player Peng Shuai. Indeed, in response to the latter, the Florida-based Women’s Tennis Association has pulled out of China, action which has put some sponsors and athletes in a very difficult position.

Government in Beijing does not seem to be especially perturbed by such concerns. The Olympics is not about placating or engaging the West, rather it is about China asserting its credentials as an event host, as an important member of the global sport industry, and as an increasingly powerful economic and political force.

Qatar is keen to adopt a more conciliatory tone with the world in its preparations for staging the 2022 football World Cup, though the tournament’s importance to the country is no less than that of the Winter Olympics’ to China. Football’s biggest event has served as the basis for nation building, nation branding and soft power projection, as the small Gulf state seeks to burnish its global image and reputation. This has not been straight-forward, indeed Qatar remains under scrutiny from the West amidst concerns about labour market issues, and equality and the treatment of minority groups.

Qatar’s staging of FIFA’s showcase event has a clear geographic dimension, as this very small nation seeks to build legitimacy and protect itself in a region that is prone to conflict. For that matter, Gazprom’s increasingly prominent role as a sponsor of sport reflects Russia’s geographic advantage of having huge natural resource stocks.

Alongside geography, politics is also playing its part in 21st century, notably through the increased role that governments and states are playing. For example, Saudi Arabia is spending billions of dollars on sport, which government in Riyadh believes is the means through which to promote a domestic reform agenda whilst communicating a more progressive image to the rest of the world.

Economically, sport is now seen by many countries as an important industrial sector that is can boost national income, help create jobs, drive export earnings and generate tax. The Chinese government is seeking to build the world’s largest domestic sport economy by 2025, worth $750 billion. Otherwise, Israel wants to establish itself as a global sports tech hub, just as South Korea wants to do the same in the esport industry.

The way in which geography, politics and economics are interacting with one another gives rise to the need for a new way of conceiving sport, which can be referred to as the geopolitical economy of sport. Following three decades of profound change, including globalisation and digitalisation, sport is no longer simply a matter of competing on the field-of-play.

These changes have been the result of shifts in global economic and political power, with Asian nations in particular now increasingly influential in sport. At the same time, countries including the United States, Great Britain and France understand that sport can deliver significant benefits to a country, such as the projection of soft power and enabling of stronger trade relations.

There are, however, major issues associated with the geopolitical economy of sport. For instance, whilst Qatar believes it is engaged in nation building, critics highlight the country’s ongoing issues with its kafala labour system. In the case of Saudi Arabia, as it seeks to become an important global sport event host, many accuse the country of laundering its image and reputation through sport washing.

As such, when fans get ready this year to enjoy some of their favourite events and competitions, it is worth remembering that sport remains an important game. Though the nowadays it is one that more and more is being played in geographic, political and economic terms.


This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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