In the age of streaming media and digital content, March is a good month for the sports consumer. The Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics, which ran March 9-18, were the most successful Paralympic Games to date; with almost 600 competitors across 80 adaptive sports events, the competition broke attendance records and generated more social media attention than the last two Paralympic Games combined. And in the United States, the third month of the year means March Madness, the annual collegiate basketball championship tournament. As has increasingly been the case in recent years, the tournament serves as a focal point in the conversation about the amateur status of collegiate athletes who can't earn a salary while just about everyone else — from coaches to media outlets — cashes in on their labor. (Don't expect this to be the year of any seismic changes, though. College sports remain the cake that Americans want to "have and eat too" — not even the most vocal of critics can stop watching the games.) March also has been an entertaining month in European soccer, as Sevilla's unceremonious dismissal of giants Manchester United in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champion's League demonstrated.
Of course, each of these competitions has implications beyond the final whistle, and they've all featured previously in this space — which is coincidentally turning 1 year old this week. The column has examined a broad array of geopolitical intersections of sports and soft power, but one constant over the past 12 months of weekly offerings has been the relevance of Russia. It seems only appropriate, then, for this month's Play-by-Play — the anniversary edition — to focus on a developing story about Russia and sport diplomacy.
Other Illicit Russian Substances
The recent nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer living in Salisbury, southwest of London, and his daugher, has further strained relations between Russia and the West. As athletes and spectators prepare to converge on Russia this summer for the 2018 World Cup, the heightened tension could cast a shadow over the highly anticipated event. Along with putting those traveling to Russia for the tournament on edge, the poisonings have once again highlighted the role that high-visibility sporting events can play in diplomacy.
On March 14, British Prime Minister Theresa May took a break from the Brexit slugfest to announce that, in addition to the suspension of high-level bilateral contact with Russia, no members of the royal family or any government ministers would attend the upcoming World Cup. Some lawmakers in Parliament even argued for keeping the English squad at home. These calls are likely little more than headline grabbers. A boycott of a major sports event is a Cold War relic we shouldn't expect to see again anytime soon. There is simply too much at stake in the World Cup — too many supporters at home, too many opportunities to commandeer narratives for success abroad and, of course, too much money.
British Prime Minister Theresa May could send a message by going after corrupt money in English soccer, but she would doubtless upset a lot of folks in the process.
Russia, meanwhile, denies involvement in the poisonings. The country's Foreign Ministry even foresaw May's boycott: The day before her announcement, Russia was on the offensive, suggesting that it expected propaganda efforts from the West to undermine its legitimacy as host, especially because of the United Kingdom's lingering resentment over losing the bid to hold this year's games. The back and forth continued when British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson compared the approaching soccer tournament to Adolf Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics, designed as a global showcase of Nazi power. After Johnson suggested that the United Kingdom might need to advise fans to avoid traveling to the World Cup, the Russians were quick to respond with a statement that he had been "poisoned with hatred." One can only assume that their word choice was deliberate.
Another level of this imbroglio is May's intention to deploy financial sanctions, especially against "serious criminals and corrupt elites" in Russia. As many in the media have already pointed out, the depth and breadth of financial entanglements between the United Kingdom and Russia will make any sort of economic action quite difficult. The sports connection will be no less thorny. Moscow, after all, has prominent links to the English Premier League (EPL), the world's most popular sports league.
The most visible Russian figures in the EPL are Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich (one of President Vladimir Putin's cronies) and Uzbek-born oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who owns a 30 percent stake in Arsenal. But the connections go far beyond these men: in the numerous Russians who hold minority stakes in clubs, in the exclusive arrangement between Manchester United and Russian airline Aeroflot, in Russian natural gas company Gazprom's relationship with Chelsea, and in the league's slew of other sponsorship and endorsement deals with Russian and Russian-backed firms. The EPL is among the United Kingdom's foremost cultural exports, so any actions tied to the league would be sure to have proportionately high visibility. May could send a message by going after corrupt money in English soccer, but she would doubtless upset a lot of folks in the process.
It's the Only Thing
Apart from this unfolding drama, March was a relatively quiet month in sporting geopolitical terms. Two small developments, however, caught my attention and may be of interest. First, director Bryan Fogel's excellent film "Icarus" took home the Academy Award for best documentary. "Icarus" chronicles the Russian doping scandal. (My colleague Thomas Hunt contributed a column on the subject here in December — well before the film academy made its Oscar nominations.)
Finally, David Lappartient, president of the International Cycling Union, spoke out about a kind of doping we haven't spent much time on in the Geopolitics of Sports: technology doping. Lappartient announced during the week of March 12 that X-ray cameras would be used in the upcoming racing season to ferret out cyclists who employ stealth motors in their bikes. Cycling has a long history of battling all sorts of elaborate doping schemes. Since taking over the International Cycling Union last fall, Lappartient has made the fight against techno-doping one of his top priorities. It's unclear how prevalent the practice of hiding discrete machinery in bicycles is, but riders have been banned for the tactic, and the Tour de France has used geothermal cameras to investigate suspicious equipment for the past two years. Though the whole matter has an air of absurdity about it, I can't help but think that the sports world continues to validate the edict of the late Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."