This book shows that sports diplomacy is a prominent factor in international relations in the 21st century


Kristian Gerner
Dept. of History, Lund University

Michał Marcin Kobierecki
Sports Diplomacy: Sports in the Diplomatic Activities of States and Non-State Actors
317 pages, paperback
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books 2020 (Lexington Research in Sports, Politics, and International Relations)
ISBN 978-1-7936-0222-0

Sport and politics are strongly interconnected” (p. 232). This is Michał M. Kobierecki’s contention in his book on sports diplomacy. This obvious fact has been obfuscated or denied by sports people and in the mass media from the 1890s until today. The background to the assertion is the re-establishment in 1896 after 1503 years of the Olympic Games. In ancient Greece, truce must be held during the games. The Olympic movement founded by the Frenchman Baron de Coubertin included this maxim.

The Olympic Games became a success. In accordance with their ethos, no games were held during the two World Wars.

“War is the continuation of policy with other means.” Carl von Clausewitz’s well-known aphorism can be applied to sports: sports are war with other means. Sports became a peaceful instrument in the contest for global hegemony between the United States and the USSR in the Cold War. In order to take cognizance of the fact that “war” could mean conflict without use of lethal weaponry, without real warfare, international relations scholars coined the analytical concepts ‘public diplomacy’, ‘soft power’ and ‘branding.’

Public diplomacy is to be subtler than propaganda and should therefore become more efficient as an instrument to exert influence. It addresses the general public and not just governments. Sports diplomacy is a sub-category of public diplomacy. Soft power and branding are interconnected concepts. Branding of a nation or of an organization is the result of agency. A brand is consciously created and promoted by politicians or salesmen. Soft power may be the effect of propaganda or of public diplomacy. It may also be the result of sheer radiance of the way of life, of the cultural products and of the performance in sports of a state.

In the 19th and 20th century, international organizations such as the Red Cross became actors in international politics. The concepts of soft power, public diplomacy and branding are useful instruments of analysis not only for research on the behavior of states. They are also useful in research on the political influence of international organizations. The book under review makes use of these concepts in the analysis of the political role in international relations of international sports organizations such as the FIFA, the UEFA and the IOC.

Chapter 1 in Sports Diplomacy offers an overview over previous research and conceptualization in this field of study. Chapter 2 tells the story of sports diplomacy as a sub-category of public diplomacy and of diplomacy in general. Chapter 3 is about image building and branding of states. Chapter 4 is an analysis of the sports diplomacy of non-states. The prospective reader may browse through the two first chapters. They may be necessary as an introduction to the subject matter for readers that are not acquainted with sports history. The knowledgeable reader may focus on reading the last two chapters. They offer new insights.

Qatar, on the other hand, accomplished “soft disempowerment” as a result of reports about corruption in the FIFA in the choice of Qatar as the venue for the World Cup, and about the poor human rights record of Qatar.

Michał M. Kobierecki follows the beaten track in sports research in the soft power vein. The sports diplomacy of, respectively, the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia and China is duly investigated. He adds original contributions to sports research in his analysis of the national branding through sports by Norway and Qatar and by Kosovo. The latter state broke out of Serbia in 2008 and declared independence, but it has not been admitted to the United Nations. However, Kosovo is a member of the UEFA and of the IOC. This incongruence brings us to the most interesting research result of Sports Diplomacy. The pertinent reference is Kobierecki’s analysis of the rise of the International Olympic Committee, IOC as an influential actor in international politics.

The author compares the branding of Norway and Qatar as sports states. The comparison is between a democratic and a nondemocratic state. In the case of Norway, the state could strengthen its brand as a host of the Winter Olympic Games in Oslo in 1952 and in Lillehammer in 1994 and also by hosting successfully international sports tournaments for youth and through giving support for athletes in countries with more meager resources. Qatar hosted world championships in track and field and in handball in the 2010s before becoming the host of the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Kobierecki demonstrates the fruitfulness of his analytical framework by focusing on the impact of sports diplomacy and branding in these two case studies. He makes clear that in democratic countries where the general public and the mass media habitually perceives sports through ideological and political lenses, Norway could strengthen its brand. Qatar, on the other hand, accomplished “soft disempowerment” as a result of reports about corruption in the FIFA in the choice of Qatar as the venue for the World Cup, and about the poor human rights record of Qatar.

The author observes that a similar back-lash hit China and Russia concerning the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 and in Sochi in 2014. It is evident that the impact of soft power and branding depends on the general public and political leaders in democratic states with free media. It must be remarked that the same is true for the reception and significance of sports research and of social science in general.

The wax statue of Juan Antonio Samaranch, former chairman of the international Olympic committee (IOC) located in Beijing National Stadium, China on Oct 10, 2013. (Copyright © 2013 e X p o s e/Shutterstock. No use without permission)

The main protagonist in chapter 4 is the IOC. Kobierecki shows how the organization emerged as an important player in international relations. The making was in the making during a long period. Well into the postwar period, the IOC was understood to be a “non-political” organization, according to the spell of the formula that sports and politics do not belong together. It took a seasoned diplomat, the Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch to accomplish the feat of making the IOC into what it is today.

Samaranch was chairman of the IOC in 1980–2001. Kobierecki notes that “in the period of Samaranch’s presidency of the IOC, a significant rise in the intensity of contacts between the committee’s president and state leaders could be observed.” Moreover, under Samaranch, “the IOC’s financial situation was significantly improved” (p. 233).

Juan Antoni Samaranch presided over the IOC under the period when the Cold War ended and the whole world became capitalist in the sign of commercialization of many spheres of life, and sports not the least. Kobierecki concludes that states have become “factual petitioners of sports governing organization which function as their external public diplomacy stake holder.” (p. 233). Besides the IOC, the FIFA and the UEFA have emerged as actors in international relations. It is obvious that a sport must be global for its organization to acquire political stature.

In his book Sports Diplomacy Michał M. Kobierecki has managed to make clear that sports diplomacy is a prominent factor in international relations in the 21st century, this in addition to ordinary diplomacy and war. In a similar manner as war can be policy with other means, sports can be war with other means. The result of Kobierecki’s detailed analysis of a number of cases of sports diplomacy is the definite refutation of the thesis that sports should, and can, be separated from politics. In relations between states, diplomacy is a tool to avert or mitigate violent conflicts and war. Sports diplomacy belongs in this sphere. Politics should noy be thought of as bad. Sports politics should be thought of as good.

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2022

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