Sport and Geopolitics: Olympic Bills and Middle East Tensions

While it feels like the globe has stopped spinning, two items in the news this week remind us that there is still much at play at the intersection of sport and world politics.

Tensions emerged this week between Japan and the International Olympic Committee over the sizable costs related to postponing the 2020 Summer Olympics. In short, Japan is still on the hook for the majority of the expenses. Zooming out, this is a reminder of the great power and leverage of the IOC as a non-state actor, one who can bully host and member nations in a way that state-actors seldom can. The Games will of course go on, but the question here is one of precedent: as populations grow increasingly resistant to the high costs and questionable returns on Olympic bidding and hosting, the fallout from Tokyo’s final bill will surely inform future debates and may lead to future hosts demanding increased support and contingency plans from the most powerful governing body in the world.

On the other side of the globe, the New York Times Tariq Panja writes that the English Premier League has become the latest proxy in the Saudi Arabia-Qatar dispute. At issue: Qatari broadcaster beIN’s legitimate accusations that Saudi backed Arabsat has been behind a massive piracy scheme. As Panja writes, “The two wealthy countries are locked in a range of political and economic disputes, stoking tension in the Middle East. Relations soured between them in 2017 when Saudi Arabia led a regional boycott of Qatar, accusing the gas-rich emirate of a supporting terrorism and criticizing its friendly relationship with Iran.” More on that here. Further at issue and ostensibly related: a Saudi takeover of Premiership club Newcastle. The conflict intertwines matters of both economic and soft-power, in a textbook case of how states use sports to further their agendas. Both nations have prioritized sport as means to diversify their finances and gain regional and global footholds as they jockey for power and influence.

While we’re on the subject, if you’re looking for things to read while we wait for the return of competition, I have written extensively on this subject for the geopolitical forecasting firm Stratfor. The archive can be found here.

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