Hands crossed, buried in his chair, Vladimir Putin is asleep. At least that’s what he wants to believe when the Ukrainian delegation starts its parade, during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Putin is asleep, and the whole world is tense, concerned about this new provocation in a context of escalating tensions between Moscow and Kiev. It is February 4, 2022: twenty days later, thousands of Russian soldiers will cross the Ukrainian border, the start of a conflict with multiple consequences. With, among the most unexpected, the explosion of the myth of the political neutrality of the sports world.
“The war currently raging in Ukraine poses a dilemma for the Olympic movement,” acknowledged Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), on Feb. 28. Should we follow the line of conduct inherited from Pierre de Coubertin, by making sport a unifying instrument, “outside any political dispute? Or should we focus on fairness, when the Ukrainians can’t train, unlike their Russian opponents?
It may be the biggest decision in sports since apartheid
Michael Payne Former CIO Marketing Director
The verdict comes at the end of the press release: Extremely rare, the IOC is recommending the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes, after requesting the cancellation of all scheduled events in Russia. “This is arguably the biggest decision the sporting world has made since South Africa’s isolation during apartheid,” said Michael Payne, former IOC marketing director. “It became increasingly clear that many athletes would not want to compete against Russians. Faced with Vladimir Putin’s blatant disregard for the Olympic truce — the Beijing Paralympic Games were not over when the Russians invaded — the IOC had to step in and take on a leadership role.”
Cascade of cancellations
That’s when the machine gets dragged along. The mighty UEFA, which rules European football, has banned Russian clubs from its competitions and moved the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg to Paris. Even FIFA, the governing body of world football, but with a devout apolitism, is following the movement. The rugby, handball, ice hockey and skating associations are getting ready. The Volleyball World Championships will not take place in Russia this summer.
The Sochi Grand Prix is canceled in Formula 1. The Haas team cut ties with driver Nikita Mazepin and, at the same time, title sponsor, Russian calibre giant Uralkali. “There was a knock-on effect, where not only positions were taken, but quick decisions were made. The sports world is in perfect harmony with the political world,” summarizes Carole Gomez, research director at Iris.
We used to play the Ukrainians and the Russians elsewhere. We are witnessing a real change in doctrine
Vincent Chaudel Founder of the Sport Business Observatory
Breach of contract is linked, in the wake of economic sanctions decided by the West. UEFA is canceling its lucrative partnership with Gazprom, thereby giving up 40 million euros annually. Manchester United cut ties with airline Aeroflot, PSG with online gambling company Fonbet. Billionaire Roman Abramovich, close to the Kremlin, has to decide to sell the Chelsea club a few months after winning the Champions League. Russian money, which according to Havas accounts for about 2% of global sponsorship, now has a smell that is not good to be associated with. “Until now, sport has kept out of the political aspects,” recalls Vincent Chaudel, founder of the Sport Business Observatory. “We probably would have played against the Ukrainians and the Russians elsewhere in the past. There we are witnessing a real change of doctrine.”
“It’s the end of innocence or hypocrisy”
The fact seems established: the sacred political neutrality of sport has just been shattered. But why now? First, because Russia has long been in the crosshairs of sports authorities, who are suspected of having set up an institutional system of doping. Then because international sanctions have become so high that it seems difficult to maintain economic ties as they are today. Finally, unlike other conflicts, “the situation is very clear, with an attacker and an attacker”, underlines Jean-Baptiste Guégan, adviser in sport’s geopolitics, summarizing this shift as follows: “It is the end of innocence or hypocrisy, depending on the point of view”.
The industry has been turned upside down and marketing is no exception. As in any crisis, the ax primarily threatens the communication budgets of companies, even though no general contraction has yet been observed. On the other hand, advertisers, allergic to the idea of being directly or indirectly associated with the conflict, are on the defensive. “For example, today we have a client who wants to sponsor a great sportsman, and who is carefully looking at the proportion of Russian or Russian “followers”. These are new things,” said Augustin Pénicaud, vice president of Havas Play (formerly Havas Sports & Entertainment). Brands that are already very conscious of their social responsibility (CSR), especially in the area of the environment, may need to integrate the geopolitical factor into their investment choices.
Afterwards, some weak signals had already been identified. For example, in early 2021, Skoda (Volkswagen group) and Nivea (owned by Beiersdorf) had refused to sponsor the World Ice Hockey Championships in Belarus, due to the repression of the opposition by the power present. Long hesitation had finally conceded the International Federation and Latvia had recaptured the entire competition. “It is in fact the reflection of an accelerating trend, with consumers becoming more and more vigilant,” deciphered Magali Tézenas du Montcel, general representative of Sporsora, which brings together players in the sports ecosystem in France. “From now on, the ‘country risk’ must be taken into account.
We have reached the point of no return
Augustin Pénicaud Vice President of Havas Play
In that context, the next World Cup, which will take place in Qatar in November, will be a test. It is unusual for several partner advertisers of national teams to have already expressed their intention not to communicate during the event, for fear of negative consequences. On the side of the emirate, which relies heavily on sports as a tool of “soft power”, the bet is risky. “It can quickly turn against them. Be it Qatar or Saudi Arabia, the Russian situation has calmed everyone down,” said Jean-Baptiste Guéguan.
“We’ve Opened Pandora’s Box”
It remains to be seen whether the sports world has really started its revolution, or whether the Russian case will remain the exception that proves the rule. Some lean towards the first option. “There we have reached the point of no return,” estimates Augustin Pénicaud, for whom “the politicization of sport is something that is accelerating, undoubtedly definitively”. With the risks that this new doctrine entails. “We opened Pandora’s box because we could end up punishing a quarter of the planet,” sighs Jean-Baptiste Guéguan.
How to react, for example if China decides to attack Taiwan? “It is clear that the sport will have to take a position,” said the specialist. “But we will have a real problem knowing that two of the premium partners of the IOC are Chinese (Alibaba and Mengniu), just like FIFA (Wanda Group). “A problem that arose during the Beijing Olympics, where all the international federations chose to send a delegation despite the diplomatic boycott declared by the West. For their part, the brands would undoubtedly be reluctant to give up in a market of one and a half billion inhabitants.
Even for countries that are not world powers, the comparison is not as simple as it seems. “We haven’t integrated what that would mean yet,” warns Vincent Chaudel. “We are recreating blocks that will collide”, by determining “visitable and unvisitable lands”. In short, closer to George Orwell (“Sport is war, less weapons”) than to Pierre de Coubertin, who wanted to build a better world through Olympism. Especially since many observers believe that sporting events organized in ‘invisible’ countries have had a beneficial effect, also from a societal point of view.
Russia, “probably” an exception
From an economic point of view, the operation also threatens to turn sour. “Financing sporting events is becoming more and more expensive and therefore we cannot organize them everywhere. If we also reduce the number of host countries, we end up with the members of the G7 who divide the organization of the competitions,” continues Vincent Chaudel. Another problem: by reducing the number of actors and their investment power, the sources of financing for sports could dry up quickly. But the sports world has adapted its lifestyle to its income level, and the prospect of a cut is not certain to charm its leaders. “Should we stay well between developed countries in all respects? For example, if Qatar were gone, PSG wouldn’t shine and Ligue 1 would be less attractive,” argues Magali Tézenas du Montcel.
So many elements that call for caution. “It’s not reasonable to look at hypothetical scenarios. Each case, surrounded by circumstances, is specific,” Michael Payne tempers. For the former CIO director, the case of Russia will “probably” remain an exception. Unless. “If similar political and economic sanctions were ever applied to another country, perhaps the sports world would consider doing the same.” In geopolitics as well as in sports, every day is enough.