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Sports diplomacy in the time of global protest

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Sports diplomacy in the time of global protest

The idea that sport represents a universal activity, capable of helping to overcome the differences between peoples and foster mutual understanding, is one of the founding principles of the modern olympic movementas intended by its founder, the baron Stone coubertin.

How can this vision be reconciled with an international scenario such as the contemporary one, marked by the crisis of shared institutions and norms, by the questioning of US hegemony by a plurality of emerging powers and by an increased risk of tensions and fragmentation of governance global? How the criticism of the dominant norms, principles and values ​​translates into protest in the stadiums, in the stands and on the pitches – and it is possible to define a different and more shared, ‘post-Olympic’ conception of sport ?

The protest in Beijing 2022

These are the basic questions that lo asks special core Olympic Diplomacy as Contestation, edited by Emidio Diodato and Veronica Strina on the last issue of The International Spectator, which will be presented during a dedicated webinar on June 20th. The reflection starts from a series of dynamics that emerged during the last editions of the Games: from Sochi 2014 e Rio 2016 until the recent Olympics of Beijing 2022the emerging protagonists on the stage of Olympic diplomacy were the countries belonging to the group of BRICS. Especially in the case of Beijing Winter Gamesthe government of the host country has exploited the role of organizer to signal to the rest of the world its vision of international relations, in which the existing structures and hierarchies are at least partially called into question.

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From this point of view, the Beijing 2022 winter games mark a change of pace compared to Beijing 2008 Olympics: as Michelle Cabula and Stefano Pochettino point out, the 2008 Games had wanted to demonstrate to the global public the rise of the People’s Republic as a technologically and economically advanced country, but within the framework of an overall adaptation to existing norms and paradigms. With i Games of 2022there is greater emphasis on one reinterpretation of the Olympic values – and, by extension, those of theinternational order – in a Chinese key, in the light of the country’s millenary history and civilization: a contestation ‘from within’ the status quo, oriented in a reformist sense rather than a revisionist one in the strict sense.

The new narrative developed by the Chinese side around the Games has in turn been the subject of dispute: the most striking example was the announcement of the diplomatic boycott of the event by the Biden administrationin response to the “crimes against humanity” perpetrated by the Chinese government in Xinjiang. How much this speech made inroads in the media of four European countries (Germany, Italy, Romania, Lithuania) is the subject of analysis by Veronica Strina and Michael Göbbel. Overall, the diplomatic boycott and human rights abuses in China became a topic of discussion in relation to the Games before the event, but quickly faded into the background once the competitions began. The differences between countries were also notable: while in Germany attention to the issue of human rights was quite high, the Italian media dedicated less space to the issue.

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A specific focus ai environmental topics finally, it is at the center of the study of Francesca Vomeri and Maurizio Gregori. The Chinese government he recounted his commitment to minimize the impact of the Games in profoundly different ways in 2008 and in 2022: in the case of the 2008 Summer Games, emphasizing the efforts made to align with internationally shared environmental standards; on the occasion of the Winter Games fourteen years later, proposing instead as a country at the forefront of the world, capable of producing a real “miracle” in terms of improvement of air quality. Also in this area, the narrative of the Chinese government has been the object of dispute by the Western media, especially English-speaking ones, which have focused, for example, on the enormous consumption of water to produce the artificial snow necessary for the Games.

Football in the Middle East

In addition to the Olympics, the other sporting mega-event that has seen a growing prominence from non-Western countries in recent years has been the soccer world cup, especially following the assignment of the 2022 edition to Qatar. If it is true that interest in football in the Gulf countries is a relatively recent phenomenon, however, the same cannot be said for those in North Africa: as René Wildangel and Jan Busse underline, football has been already imported at the end of the nineteenth century by the British colonizers, originally characterized as control tool for local populationsbut subsequently transforming itself into an identity factor in the context of national emancipation.

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The study by Cinzia Bianco and Sebastian Sons underlines how, on the contrary, in the countries of the Persian Gulf football – and sport more generally – has been promoted from above by governments as a political and diplomatic tool, to consolidate its status at the regionally and internationally, diversify economies and strengthen the domestic power base. This approach has been systematically pursued over the past two decades especially by the Qatar and of the United Arab Emiratesfollowed more recently (and so far with less success) bySaudi Arabia. These efforts are part of a broader commitment in the field of cultural diplomacy, including museum diplomacy, as analyzed by Serena Giusti and Alessandro Lamonica.

L’awarding of the World Cup to Qatar however, it has been at the center of heated controversy: it is just one of the most striking examples of the level of politicization that has always characterized the process of choosing the host country by the organization that governs world football, FIFA, as evidenced by the article by Francesco Belcastro. The public positions taken by President Gianni Infantino in favor of a possible joint candidacy of Israel and the United Arab Emirates for the edition of 2030close to the announcement of the Abraham Accords in 2021, are the plastic demonstration of how the major international sports organizations, despite their professed neutrality, tend to enter the international political debate, from time to time assuming positions consistent with their own specific interests.


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