why sport ‘can only work symbolically’

INTERVIEW – Vincent Chaudel, founder of the Sport Business Observatory, deciphers the influence the sports world can have in the conflict.

Sanctions, calls for boycotts, messages of peace… Since Russia’s decision to take military action in Ukraine, the sports world – through personalities, clubs and agencies – has reacted in different ways. Vincent Chaudel, founder of the Sport Business Observatory, deciphers this Friday morning for: Le Figaro the potential impact these decisions and positions could have on Russia and on the conflict.

LE FIGARO. – Given the context and position of France, what do you think of the move of the Champions League finalinitially planned in Saint Petersburg, at the Stade de France?

Vincent Chaudel. † The symbol is beautiful because France is president of the European Union during this period. It’s very good. Sports organizations do not want to make decisions based on political reasons. This decision was, I think, justified for security reasons. In this way UEFA does not alienate any of its members because it can rely on security arguments. If she made this decision for political reasons, she would alienate the Russian Federation, the Belarusian Federation, and then probably others. And tomorrow it may also be the case in another sense, for a different subject. Sports organizations therefore generally do not make political decisions.

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What is the concrete influence of sport on geopolitics today?

We cannot make sport the alpha and omega of diplomatic policy. But sports can move lines. Through sport, we managed to ease the atmosphere between North Korea and South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. When in 1990, on the occasion of the World Cup after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had a reunited German team , the symbol was brilliant. I am not saying that it allowed Germany to heal all its wounds, but it was not useless. We can also return to the fight against apartheid and the 1995 Rugby World Cup, with the presentation of the Springboks trophy by Nelson Mandela; it is the victory of the rainbow people. It’s about the symbol, but the symbol can be very useful in situations like this. In the same vein, Russian Andrey Rublev won the Open 13 last weekend in singles but also in doubles with Ukrainian player Denys Molchanov. Sport allows that too.

The sports world wants to stay away from political interference

Vincent Chaudel

Is sport therefore an important symbolic vector for the international community?

Certainly. Originally, international sports organizations, including the IOC (International Olympic Committee, editor’s note) said with Pierre de Coubertin that a sporting battle was better than a real war. It was moved by the conflicts between nations in the field of sports. These are not the same problems or the same consequences. A France-Germany, better to lose it on the ground than the guns in hand.

But does sport in general have a real impact on politics or geopolitics?

Historically, the sports world was built with the desire to be independent from the economic and political sphere. Independently of the economic sphere, this is becoming less and less the case because of the interference of economic interests in sport. On the other hand, once there have been attempts by the political world to get involved in the sporting world, it has always reacted violently. Take the example of the Knysna affair, during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. If the President of the Republic and his ministers react because they rightly believe that the image given to France is not positive because of the players who are going on strike, FIFA very quickly remembers that these are not politicians to make a decision . We will therefore let the FFF run, of course with political actions a posteriori, with hearings but without sanctions against certain key players; at least officially. There are other examples of this type in Europe or in Africa. The sports world wants to stay away from political interference.

Sanctions from the sports world have a media impact

Vincent Chaudel

But he can still play a peacemaker role, right?

Thanks in part to this desire to stay away from politics, it can continue to play its role of peacemaker between states, as athletes from countries that are sometimes in conflict can compete in continental or world competitions. When the 1998 FIFA World Cup allowed a match between the United States and Iran, the symbol was beautiful.

Do the various sanctions or stances that the sports world has taken over the past hours have a real impact on Russia?

It has a media impact. This influences the general public’s perception of the conflict. It also affects Ukrainians, who may feel supported. On the other hand, I don’t think these sanctions or positions have any impact on Russia.

I don’t think UEFA will break their contract with Gazprom

Vincent Chaudel

Could sanctions against Russian companies such as Gazprom and Aeroflot have a major impact on Russian oligarchs and thus on the country’s economic activity?

Schalke 04’s sanctions against Gazprom and Manchester United against Aeroflot are economic and come from the companies themselves. They are free to decide who they work with or not. Certain sanctions can affect Russia, but unfortunately canceling sponsorship contracts today has a neutral or even opposite effect. Today, Germany is dependent on Russia for gas, i.e. on Gazprom. Until Germany finds an alternative, it will continue to supply itself with Russian gas. In addition, if Gazprom’s sponsorship contracts are terminated, Gazprom will stop paying. So Gazprom will reduce its expenses and the players who have ended these contracts will see their revenues decrease. The perverse effect is that not only will Gazprom stop paying, but we will continue to talk about it and therefore denounce and promote it.

Gazprom is also a partner of UEFA. Does the relocation of the final, which was initially to be played in Russia, change anything for the company and its interests?

As it stands, I don’t think UEFA will break its contract with Gazprom. The most skillful way to do this, in my opinion, would be if she managed to get the Gazprom contract bought up by another actor. If a major company offers UEFA to buy off this contract for more money, the European Football Association can explain to its members that the termination of Gazprom’s contract is in everyone’s interest. In fact, UEFA will try to avoid political decisions. It can make decisions for safety or economic reasons.

For some, the power of sport is to keep going despite the conflicts

Vincent Chaudel

Do you think the match between Poland and Russia scheduled for March 24 should be played out as part of the qualifiers for the next World Cup?

The game should be played in the spirit of sport. Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, who are in the semi-finals of the qualifiers for the next World Cup, have jointly admitted they do not want to play against Russia for security reasons. Probably the result will be to play on neutral ground. I doubt that these meetings are not organized in some way.

Some may be moved by the discrepancy that would exist between the horrific images of the war and the Russian invasion and that of a football match, that is, a match involving Russia. Do you understand them?

I fully understand them. And at the same time, during certain editions of the Olympic Games or the World Cup, countries were regularly at war. There were delegations or teams from countries that were attacked and suffered, and we rightly welcomed their presence. We return to the starting point: sport has a symbolic role. In my opinion, these matches against Russia will take place, with guaranteed safety. For some, this choice may be up for debate. For others, the power of sport is to keep going despite the conflicts.

I think there is a distorted view of sport because it is given more political power than it actually has.

Vincent Chaudel

Can the sports world influence the conflict today? And if so, how?

Sport can only work symbolically. A meeting between Ukrainians and Russians on a sports field – even if it is still too early now because we are in the middle of the conflict – in a positive way would be a strong symbol. I will talk again about Andrey Rublev and Denys Molchanov who won before the outbreak of the military conflict. If they came to play together this weekend, it would be very strong as well.

Symbolically strong, but no concrete geopolitical impact?

If sport had the power to have a very significant influence in geopolitics, we would be ruled by athletes alone. I think there is a distorted view of sport because it is given more political power than it actually has. Sport was able to respond positively to apartheid in South Africa, as it was painful for South Africans to deprive this country of international relations in rugby, an important sport for the country. But it took ten or fifteen years. To make a real impact there, it would be necessary to deprive the Russians of matches that would be very important to them.


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