The Geopolitical Economy of Russia’s ‘Seduce and Shock’ War with Sport

18 mars 2022
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

For more than a decade, global sport has been blighted by a relentless flow of doping cases involving Russian athletes, which have resulted in the country being banned from international competitions. Even in recent weeks and despite her competing as a neutral athlete, Russia still managed to leave its fingerprints on the 2022 Winter Olympics when skater Kamila Valieva returned a positive drugs test.

There has been other evidence of Russia duplicitously deploying sport, for instance in 2016 and 2018. At the UEFA European Championship in France, held during the summer of 2016, Russian hooligans (whom some identified as being backed by the Kremlin) attacked the supporters of several rival national teams. Having first sown fear and uncertainty, the later World Cup, in 2018, was heralded by many as being a well organised tournament, and Russia praised as a very hospitable host.

This combination of ‘seduce and shock’ is a template repeatedly employed by Russia. Indeed, having been in the global spotlight whilst hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, within weeks Vladimir Putin had ordered the annexation of Crimea. Shortly after, Russian backed fighters shot down a Malaysian passenger jet in East Ukraine. There have been, however, more subtle examples of the template’s application, the case of Gazprom and its sponsorship portfolio being one.

Gazprom first rose to prominence in Western Europe on the back of its Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline and an associated shirt sponsorship with German football’s FC Schalke. Later, in 2013, the state-owned corporation expanded its reach by signing a deal with UEFA for the right to associate with the Champions League. In 2021, this deal was further extended to 2024 and included additional sponsorships with the Nations League and the European Championship.

Its sport sponsorships were never normal indeed they were far removed from the burger, fries and drinks deals that one usually associates with the likes of UEFA’s competitions. The state-owned corporation sells gas to governments, a process that sponsorship helped to enable. This reflects the geographic advantages that Russia enjoys, specifically here a wealth of natural gas reserves.

This strategic advantage has enabled Russian money to extend its reach way beyond a portfolio of sport sponsorships. The country’s network of influence has also extended to, for instance, Roman Abramovich who sold his Sibneft shareholding to Gazprom nearly twenty years. Yet the importance of Russian geography is not merely bound-up in gas reserves, it also underpins the Kremlin’s motives for invading Ukraine. Issues of territorial claim, identity and even ethnicity have been at the heart of Russian intentions.

In turn, the importance of geography has been become bound-up in Russia’s political ambitions. Gazprom’s Schalke deal may have caught the public’s attention, but in tandem with the sponsorship Russia was slowly building a German gas dependency that gave it some influence over the latter’s decision making (and decision makers). Furthermore, as Putin plotted an invasion of Ukraine, UEFA Champions League games were being played with Gazprom’s name visible on perimeter signage, on television and across social media platforms. The sponsorship had brought legitimacy Gazprom’s activities, which some others have labelled sport washing.

However, Putin’s deployment of sport for political ends has extended way beyond just selling gas. Staging the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and the 2018 FIFA World Cup were at one level a soft power play designed to seduce then convince the world that Russia wanted the same things as everyone else, was trustworthy and occupied a position of legitimacy in global sport.  Yet hosting both events was, at another level, about the muscular projection of an assertive and rising Russia.

The combination of muscularity and menace was clearly evident on the streets of Marseille during the Euros in 2016, though the seemingly endless Russian doping scandal also fits within this narrative. Doped athletes have seduced with their performances, whilst at the same time shocking sports into a world of diversion and division. Valieva’s positive drugs test induced disbelief: she was only in Beijing because the international sport community had agreed that Russia could compete neutrally.

Yet the subversion of participation and process have been features characterising Russian sport over the last two decades. Even now, with its athletes, teams and clubs banned from all manner of international sport competitions, Russia has appealed to the Court for Arbitration in Sport against the suspensions. Importantly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that such institutions are, at least in Putin’s eyes, further evidence of Western Europe’s stranglehold on the likes of Olympic sports. Challenging, undermining and subverting them is all part of Putin’s plan.

Beyond the geography and the politics Russia’s sport deployment comes the economics, though all three are inextricably linked. The country’s wealth of oil and gas has led some observers to conclude that the country is classically suffering from resource curse (sometimes referred to as the poverty of plenty). Others note how Russia has become a rentier state, with all the accompanying problems and inefficiencies.

One outcome of this has been, for example, the outlandishly expensive staging of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The $60 billion+ cost of creating infrastructure that, post-event, have never been fully utilised, is evidence of the sub-optimal decision-making often associated with rentier states and what is commonly referred to as resource curse.

In the same vein, rentiers typically pursue external investment opportunities, of which Roman Abramovich’s spending at Chelsea is one possible example. Yet his West London spending was never just made in the name of ‘Mother Russia’, it was also evidence of risk mitigation. Moving one’s assets off-shore is a way of protecting them from the intrusion of state institutions. It has nevertheless still allowed to Abramovich to deploy his economic resources as the foundation for building networks of political influence in Britain.

The problem many Chelsea fans have is that they continue to follow the club on a socio-cultural basis – it is theirs, it somehow belongs to them (even though it doesn’t). For others, their viewing of the club in rational economic terms means that Chelsea is seen as a commercial proposition. Both standpoints are outdated, naïve and incapable of explaining the complexities of our 21st century world.

Sport is now a geopolitically economic phenomenon, and it’s not just Chelsea. This term also applies to Gazprom’s relationship with Schalke and Uralkali’s sponsorship of the Haas Formula 1 team (as well as the relationship its Russian driver and his father have with Putin). Sport is no longer just about kicking a ball or driving a car. Nor is it only about making money. Instead, it is now apparent for all to see that sport exists within complex networks of geographic, political and economic forces.

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