Can sports be an instrument of soft power?

Translated by: Daniela Aires, Matilde São José and Tiago Jorge

The dynamics on the international scene largely depend on the interaction between state and non-state actors. States, as “conscious actors who develop common understandings that influence the way they deal with each other” (Fawcett, 2013, p. 28), are those that seem to take the most advantage of soft power.

Before defining soft power and determining the role of sports in it, it is necessary to analyze the notion of power, which emerges as “the ability of people, groups, or States to exercise over others and get what they want from the world”. (Brown and Ainley, 2012, p. 160).

For Joseph Nye, an academic who dedicated himself to the study of the concept of power and developed the concepts of hard power, soft power and smart power, power consists in the “ability to affect others to obtain what one desires” (Nye, 2019, p. 7), or, in other words, “the ability to influence the behavior of others to achieve desirable results” (Nye, 2019, p. 7).

The international reality is “socially constructed by cognitive structures that give meaning to the material world” (Adler, 1997, p. 319), and the policies carried out by States are based on the type of relationships that exist between them. If its nature is conflictual, States tend to defend themselves against threats through hard power, in other words, using military means. Regarding diplomatic relations, states act through soft power, betting on cooperation among themselves.

            Soft power is “our ability to get what we want through attraction rather than coercion (Nye and Donahue, 2000, p. 126) and also “to affect others to obtain desirable results using the cooperative means of structuring the agenda, persuasion and positive attraction” (Nye, 2011, p. 19).

In this way, “States, through their interactions, shape the norms which compose the systematic structures” (Hinnebusch, 1997, p. 359) and it is precisely because “soft power is based on the attraction of some actors and their principles” (Nye and Donahue, 2000, p. 25) that it is intimately linked to norms, and they are what attract and influence relations between States.

It is important to take into account that, unlike hard power, soft power acts through intangible factors such as institutions, ideas, values, culture and legitimacy of policies (Nye, 2011, p. 19).

However, even though states can, by themselves, develop “government policies [that] can reinforce or waste a country’s soft power” (Nye, 2004, p. 8).

When speaking about approaching sports in the context of soft power, institutions and society gain relevance considering that it is through them that sports occupy a place in diplomacy and in the States’ conduct, as well as in their foreign and domestic policies.

Nygard and Gates (2013) consider that soft power is “the power to persuade whereby one actor in a non-coercive manner convinces another to want the same things he wants” (Nygard and Gates, 2013, p.356).

In this way, “sport politics and diplomacy constitute a form of soft power”, since “they aim to persuade and no coerce” (Nygard and Gates, 2013, p.237). As a tool of soft power, sport diplomacy is constituted as “an important staple of foreign policy”, being at the disposal of “great powers or middle powers” (Nygard and Gates, 2013, p.237).

In sports, soft power has access to different mechanisms, such as image-building which works upon the investment of the State or institutions in specific events, with “hosting the Olympic Games” as the greater example of it; the creation of a dialogue platform that consists in the process of “self-promoting” and “promotion of a relationship”; the trust building “between nations, communities and individuals”, and, at last, soft power can still act as a “catalyst for achieving reconciliation, integration and the promotion of anti-racism” (Nygard and Gates, 2013, p.238).

Soft power, like power in its essence, depends on the “context – who relates to whom, under what circumstances” (Nye, 2004, p.16), since the events happening in the international scene have a strong impact on foreign and domestic policy of the States.

Regarding the role of sports in the decision making of political actors, the best example seems to be the organization of the Olympic Games and its hosting. The truth is that “in the modern era the Olympic Games offer one of the most useful international political spaces for states and non-state actors to draw attention to international political aspirations” (Rhamey Jr. and Early. 2013, p.244).

              Possibly one of the most striking cases of the Olympics as soft power connected to the political aspirations of the Palestinian people is the popular “Munich Massacre”, in 1972, when a Palestinian terrorist kidnapped 11 member of the Israeli olympic team, who were later murdered. One can therefore assume this episode as a wake up call for the international order for the recognition of Palestine’s sovereignty.

In order to avoid similar episodes, nowadays, facing the war in Ukraine, Russian athletes and teams have been excluded from competitions, which has also resulted in controversy, as is Wimbledon’s case.

It is then understood that the Olympics “constitute, [therefore], a place for the exercise of soft power, an arena of influence out of the brute military capacities, in which states spend their resources chasing objectives and recognising the relevance of competitive results.” (Rhamey Jr. e Early, 2013, p. 249).

This event can equally be seen as the only one that “moulds the perception that states have of the position and international status”, though “they’re constantly looking at the result of other states’ behaviour and updating their status evaluations through different signs and markers” (Rhamey Jr. e Early, 2013, p. 256).

It is important to keep in mind that “status is a complex and multifaceted aspect of international order and, as a strong influence on states’ behaviour, is notoriously difficult to measure.” (Rhamey Jr. e Early, 2013, p. 256).

Despite the Olympics presenting themselves as the place where soft power flourishes the most, the truth is that sports in general “provides physical spaces for the staging of national diplomatic agendas” (Guthrie-Shimizu, 2013, p. 306).

Notice that “a country’s soft power resides, primarily, in three sources: its culture (in places where it’s attractive for others), in their political values (when they’re followed within the country and abroad) and its foreign policies (when seen as legitimate and having moral authority (Nye, 1999, p. 11)) and it’s in culture that sports become “a versatile cultural diplomacy tool” (Guthrie-Shimizu, 2013, p. 326), or soft power.

The power sports have “besides their universal and long-lasting place in society across history” (Jackson, 2013, p. 275), as cultural tool, involves the act of “winning the pople over (and therefore reach diplomatic objectives), not just in a political and certainly political and certainly non-threatening way” (Guthrie-Shimizu, 2013, p. 326).

Hence, the continuity and importance of sports in individuals’ life facilitates the influence states can exercise over each other through soft power, also because it is majorly produced by civil society and institutions, in the field of Olympics or other sporting events such as football or tennis tournaments, where the impact clubs, brands or players have in people increase, inevitably, the level of influence certain countries have in other’s way of acting.

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