Sports competitions have long enabled countries to exert soft power and underscore their arguments in the political realm. The Allied nations excluded the former Central Powers from the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, as punishment for their perceived responsibility for starting World War I. A decade later, as hosts of the FIFA World Cup and the 1936 Games, fascist regimes in Italy and Germany harnessed the growing appeal, power and pageantry of sports to demonstrate the vitality and national renewal spurred by their movements.
Sports became more important after 1945 as Cold War political tensions spilled over into stadiums. The bloody 1956 Olympic water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union, in which in-pool violence opened new wounds weeks after Red Army tanks rolled into Budapest, spoke to sports’ new uses. Imperial powers such as France and Portugal also wielded sports competitions as an attempt to maintain cultural ties with their former colonies in Africa. Newly independent countries, on the other hand, reinforced their claims to sovereignty by joining international sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA.
Meanwhile, the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated the Olympics, drowning out, but not eliminating, other rivalries. Sports competition between the two superpowers became a symbolic battle between communism and capitalism. Which side could produce the better athletes became a measure of which could provide the better way of life.
The growth of media, especially the skyrocketing rates of television ownership and innovations in satellite broadcast technology in the 1960s, amplified the ability to exude influence via sporting prowess. The symbolism of the controversial Soviet win over the United States in the 1972 gold medal basketball game, in a sport the United States invented, was a big blow broadcast to the world.
National power and prestige were measured by medal counts, championships and titles, setting off a race to create victorious athletes. East Germany established state-run sports schools to find, train and eventually dope the country’s best talent, a formula that enabled them to dominate the record books. Many countries, including France, tried to compete in the Cold War sports arena. But their smaller populations and investments in sports systems couldn’t sustain the same elite-level training as the United States, Soviet Union or East Germany.
National sports rivalries remain today — the fierce swimming rivalry between American Lilly King and Russian Yulia Efimova springs to mind — but commingle with newer models of international sports cooperation. Co-hosting major tournaments is one of the more novel developments in this realm. The 2002 FIFA World Cup, held in Japan and South Korea, was one of the first instances when the prestige and allure of welcoming the world compelled bitter rivals to work together. The relative success of this experiment forged a new trend, one made more attractive by financial, infrastructure and security burden-sharing among co-hosts.
Hosting the Olympics costs an average of $4.6 billion (though the excessively high price tags of the London and Sochi Games ballooned this figure to $8.9 billion). A binational or multinational approach appeals to countries that want the prestige of hosting mega-events without having to shoulder this crippling fiscal burden alone.
The use of sport as an international unifier also reflects today’s interconnected world. The digital revolution has networked people in new ways, producing global citizens whose identities are often more complex than one-dimensional nationalism. This includes athletes who play or train abroad, part of the changing dynamics of sports labor and migration. Greater cross-cultural collaboration in sports is a natural outgrowth of this change.
At the same time, being a good global team player through sports promises benefits for a country outside the arena. It can build a powerful, positive brand, which increases the country’s global influence, cultural power and reputation.
These are all aspects of soft power, and sporting prowess is just one of the many metrics that feed into the annual Soft Power 30 rankings, a global report on how effective countries are at realizing foreign policy objectives through the persuasiveness and attraction of their national values, political system and cultural attributes. In the most recent Soft Power 30 report, France jumped to No. 1 in part because of its vast web of alliances and collaborations, partly on the strength of its sports relationships. France maintains an extensive series of influential rapports around the world, from leadership in international sports federations and participation in events such as the Francophone Games and Mediterranean Games, to the French Football Federation’s work with Major League Soccer to train youth academy coaches. Helming coalitions and international partnerships within the sports world has aided France, among other countries, in constructing new geopolitical leadership roles.
Given this history, it should come as no surprise that France innovated with the Olympics. Paris uniquely baked the notion of a global Games into its 2024 candidacy. Earlier this year, the 2024 committee unveiled its official slogan, “Made for Sharing.” The English-language mantra was a significant nod to the vision of a shared Games, given France’s heavy investment in promoting the French language and culture abroad as part of its public diplomacy policy.
France also sought radically local partners across the globe. Mayors from more than 50 major cities, from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to Sydney to Montreal supported Paris 2024 and its plan to be the greenest Games to date. Increasingly, on environmental and urban issues, large cities, more than their national governments, partner together to drive policy. By spotlighting these collective goals — and courting local leaders — the Paris 2024 committee provided a different model for Olympic bidding, one that could replace the national pride that usually animates the contest over who hosts the Games.
Even the recruitment of athletes to support the Paris bid reflected the power of sports to unify. Star French athletes such as NBA player Tony Parker and tennis pro Jo-Wilfried Tsonga unsurprisingly lent their support to a bid co-chaired by Olympic canoeist Tony Estanguet. But so too did a range of international athletes, including Spanish tennis champion Rafael Nadal, Jamaican Olympian Elaine Thompson and New Zealand rugby star Dan Carter, who also supported the “Made for Sharing” mantra of a Games for all.
Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympics to promote friendship and peace, a lofty goal. His home town hosted the Games twice, in 1900 and 1924, but in the decades that followed, the Olympics were marked by nationalistic fights on the field and tit-for-tat boycotts during the Cold War. By welcoming the world in 2024 under the “Made for Sharing” mantra, Paris may be returning to Coubertin’s original objective of sports as a unifier of nations.