It seems appropriate to devote this my first blog post to forumbloggen to a first ever sporting event taking place on European soil (and no, I am not referring to the first ever, more or less voluntary, step down from power by a Swiss man aged 79).
Overshadowed by the FIFA-scandals piling up, and somewhat pushed aside from public attention, the first ever European Games is set to commence in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Friday June 12th. With successful predecessors taking place on other continents (the African Games, the Asian Games and the Pan-American Games), the multi-sport event in Baku potentially marks the beginning of a long era of regional games on the European continent. In total, 6000 athletes from 49 countries will enter the Games in 19 different sports during the 16 days of competition.
For me, the very emergence of these Games causes great interest in a vast number of ways. Here the discussion will center around two main areas: First, the relationship between the Olympic movement and the European Games as well as the movement’s historical ties with the emergence of regional games, and second, the very fact that these games will take place in Azerbaijan and how the state, almost in a “Qatarian” way, seems to practice international sport as a diplomatic tool of soft power.
In many ways, the European Games can be seen as nothing but a “miniature-Olympics”: It is the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) that are responsible for their respective national squads, the opening and closing ceremony will take place at “the Olympic Stadium” in Baku, much of the Olympic symbolism is present with “the Journey of the Flame” going through 60 different Azerbaijan regions on its way to Baku as the prime example. Plus, Baku managed to secure the Games coming from two failed bids for the “real” Olympics which leaves us with the impression that, from a mega-event hosting perspective, it is a matter of giving Azerbaijan a chance to show that they are worthy of greater challenges.
In relation to the latest Olympic Games in Sochi it really is a matter of history repeating itself with an alliance of civil society organizations urging NOCs to put pressure on Azerbaijan to adhere to human rights and to release imprisoned regime critics.
It is however no secret, and should come as no surprise, that the European Games is arranged under the direction, and with the agreement, of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In fact, it came down to a voting by the NOCs (Baku was the only candidate) where the Swedish NOC was one of eight who voted against, with reference to the political situation in Azerbaijan not being in line with the Olympic values as one of the reasons behind the dissent.
The emergence of new multi-sport events has, however, not always occurred under the good influence of the IOC. Some might be familiar with The Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) which was set up in Indonesia on the initiative of President Sukarno who, after seeing Indonesia as the first country ever to be expelled from the IOC in 1962, was eager to challenge what he saw as an imperialist IOC authority over world sports. GANEFO was organized on the basis of politics and thereby ran directly against the stand promoted by the IOC – the Indonesia expulsion of the IOC came as a consequence of Indonesia for political reasons refusing Taiwan and Israel entry when Jakarta hosted the Asian Games (Lutan & Hong 2011). The first edition attracted 51 nations from four continents, but for the second edition, taking place in Pnom Penh, Cambodia, the number was down to 17 and only held Asian contestants. A third edition was never arranged.
Vitseros (2011) shows how the rise of GANEFO quickly became a battle with the IOC over newly independent and decolonizing nations of Africa, but also in Asia. It became “the sporting scramble for Africa” where Sukarno through GANEFO practiced a kind of “Third Worldism” which was ideologically appealing to many countries recently and well rid of their colonizers. Furthermore, Connelly (2012) outlines how hard the IOC fought to discredit and battle down the emerging counter movement, making every individual athlete who competed in GANEFO non-eligible to do the same in the Olympics.
Without articulating a normative judgment on this counterfactual issue, it is nonetheless interesting to try to imagine what the relationship between sport and politics would have looked like today if GANEFO had won that battle. No matter what, it seems an often forgotten aspect in the discussion about Olympic Games given to states that don’t score high on several “Western values” (and perhaps are not in line with the “Olympic values”) that spreading the Olympics to such states can be seen as a matter of making sure to avoid the rise of an GANEFO equivalent which in the long run would challenge the Olympic authority. Consequently, it seems that nowadays new forces can be allowed to emerge within the Olympic movement. This aim to reach global participation is what Vitseros, building on Hoberman (1986:29), refers to as an “amoral universalism”.
In discussing the European Games in Baku as a “miniature-Olympics”, it does need to be added that the event is scheduled to feature several non-Olympic traits as well, one example being a couple of new sports which never have been granted Olympic recognition. These new sports include a form of street basketball with teams consisting of only three persons, the – at least for me – unheard of Russian martial art Sambo which is said to be a mixture of judo and freestyle wrestling, and the increasingly popular sport of beach soccer.
It remains to be seen whether or not the sport fans of Europe will pilgrim to Baku, but when it comes to attracting football fans you cannot blame the state of Azerbaijan for a lack of trying. For a few years now, fans of Spanish football club Atlético Madrid have seen their club develop close relations with the state of Azerbaijan. On the chest of last year’s Spanish league winner and Champions League runner-up players, the international community of football fans could read “Azerbaijan – Land of Fire”. More recently however, they have shifted their shirt design and instead adapted the actual logo of the European Games.
On the homepage of Atlético Madrid, the club describes its link with the state of Azerbaijan as something much more than the traditional sponsor deal: “…it has a tremendous value, as the tool to achieve important goals, through actions of a different nature, sports, commercial, communication, marketing and corporate social responsibility for the benefit of all parties”. Furthermore, a visit to the Atlético homepage gives you access to a quite remarkable promotion video called “Amazing Azerbaijan”.
Perhaps these two actors can be seen as two emerging forces united by a shared goal to establish themselves on a higher lever (Atlético as the third party in the never-ending dual fight for glory between rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Azerbaijan as a striving force to be reckoned with in international sport). State sponsoring of football, and perhaps Spanish football in particular, appears to be an increasingly popular phenomenon, and those of you who watched the Europa League final a few weeks back might have noted how the shirts of victorious Sevilla FC displayed “Visit Malaysia”. Does this mean we might expect a large sporting event to take place in Kuala-Lumpur in the near future?
It is not very farfetched to argue that the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev advocates a strategy of gaining positive recognition internationally through engagement with sports, very much in the line with how Qatar does it (Qatar who by the way is the shirt sponsor of FC Barcelona). It is no coincidence that President Aliyev also happens to be head of the NOC of Azerbaijan, but the question is if these efforts in sport as a diplomatic tool are successful in the long run. As argued in James M. Dorsey’s excellent blog – The Turbulent World of the Middle East Soccer, a must-read for anyone with an interested in sport science – Qatar’s investment in soft power is starting to backfire. The attention that the FIFA World Cup selection has brought to Qatar and the on-going scrutiny of the abuse of migrant workers is not doing them any good in terms of international reputation. Besides, with the latest developments within FIFA Qatar might even find themselves in a situation where they can lose the right to host the World Cup.
As noted by Dorsey, “The bottom line is that Qatar is getting no buck for the billions of dollars it has invested in what is fundamentally a smart soft power pillar of its overall security and defense policy” (Dorsey 2015). The question which remains to be answered is what the new emerging force of Azerbaijan will get in return for their investments, or if it will backfire in the way Dorsey argues it has done for Qatar.
No matter what, there are plenty of reasons to sit down to watch the opening ceremony of the first-ever European Games on Friday 12th of June, and if issues of Olympic authority or sport as an investment in soft power does not interest you, you can always just sit back and enjoy the battle of who will become the European Champion of Sambo.
Dorsey, James M. 2015. A shrewd financial investor, Qatar boasts dismal return on investment in soft power. Available 2015-06-09).
Gitseros, Terry Vaios. 2011. “The sporting scramble for Africa: GANEFO, the IOC and the 1965 African Games”, in Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, Volume 14, Issue 5, 2011, pp. 645-659.
Hoberman, John. 1986. The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics and the Moral Order, New Rochelle, NY: AD Caratzas