As the 2018 World Cup kicks off this week in Russia, manifestations of ongoing political tension raise the issue of whether a mega-sporting event can be removed from the political, social and cultural imperatives that globalisation has brought.
The World Cup, even more so than the Olympics, is the most watched and passionately followed sporting event in the world today. It is truly universal since it includes nations from every region in the world and can allow for fairy-tale stories like Iceland, population 334,000, reaching the final 32 in Russia. Yet this year’s Cup will be marred by the ongoing political tensions between Russia and the West with the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, comparing it to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics.
Historical analogies are always fraught with the possibility of misunderstanding the context and drawing the wrong lessons. This is certainly the case with Russia 2018. There are the deep-rooted societal attitudes in Russia, such as overt homophobia, that could mar the competition. More importantly, perhaps, it raises the issue of whether a sporting mega-event can be removed from the political, social, and cultural imperatives that globalisation has brought.
The Hitler analogy is inaccurate and is the kind of sensationalism that one has come to expect from a rabble-rouser like Boris Johnson. The 1936 Olympics were a great propaganda success because it showed a Germany that was militarily and economically on the rise and could be viewed as a role model for the rest of the Western world. Let us not forget that Hitler had plenty of fascist sympathisers in other countries, including in France, Britain and even the United States. Nazism was seen as a credible alternative to the other competing ideologies of the generation: democracy and communism. As for the games themselves, the cinematographic innovations used by Leni Riefenstahl are used to this day in sporting mega-events.
Putin’s Russia, however, is a long way from being Nazi Germany. The economy is in the doldrums, the Russian military may have nuclear weapons but is not comparable to the Wehrmacht. In an era of globalisation, Putin’s authoritarianism does not appeal to most countries in the world.
Nor do mega-events whitewash the bad behavior of states as they did in the 1930s. The Berlin Olympics and the Italian victories in the 1934 and 1938 World Cups did help promote German and Italian fascism but the Sochi Olympics of 2014 was mired in controversy because of Putin’s homophobic remarks, the intimidation of his critics including the band Pussy Riot, and widespread allegations of corruption. I always tell fans to compare the lavishness of Sochi with the barebones nature of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994: one of the Winter Games that is remembered fondly for the friendly atmosphere and revelry in the Norwegian town. Also, from an international relations standpoint, boycotting the World Cup in any shape or form will do little to change Russian misbehavior in the international system.
On the other hand, for Putin to get political and social mileage out of this event, he would need a Russia that embodies the best features of globalisation, like the 2006 World Cup in Germany, 2010 in South Africa, and 2014 in Brazil. The fact that each of these countries were open, had 21st century values, were friendly to visitors and were relatively transparent societies, led to World Cups that were not only great sporting spectacles but also fantastic social experiences. Who can forget the Germans putting giant screens in public squares for match viewing and creating memorable public celebrations? Or the South Africans with their vuvuzela horns or how Brazilians partied on Copacabana beach while watching the games? Russia will not bring that sense of joy to the competition.
Those who worry about a dreary World Cup, however, should remember that the competition has a life of its own that transcends the location and Putin’s politics. Football is a truly global sport while others, like cricket or ice hockey, are merely multinational. Once the competition begins we will all be supporting our national teams or, if the team is not in the competition, then our second favorite team, and the full passion of the fanbase will emerge. During the 1994 World Cup, over 50,000 Bangladeshis protested in Dhaka when Diego Armando Maradona—one of the greatest football players ever—was removed from the competition for failing a drug test. It is unlikely that more than a handful of those angry fans had ever visited Argentina or seen Maradona play in person. Yet these are passions that the sport unleashes.
What is far more important to sports fans is that on 15 July 2018, a new world champion team will be crowned and Putin will be a bystander in the audience.
Amit Gupta heads the Alternate Security Forum in Montgomery, Alabama, and is an associate professor in the Department of International Security Studies at the USAF Air War College.
The article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.