It's been an eventful start to the season for the Geopolitics of Sports team, and we've had to take a couple of short breaks. But the world of big-time sports takes no such breaks. On the field, the qualifications for the 2018 World Cup in Russia wrapped up with some exciting results. Along with the usual suspects, such as Brazil and Germany, tiny Iceland turned heads as the smallest nation to ever qualify for the soccer tournament. The U.S. squad drew international attention with its performance as well, albeit for a much different reason: For the first time since 1986, the team failed to make the cut, despite the U.S. Soccer Federation's massive investment in the sport in recent years.
Meanwhile, in baseball, the deceptively global sport that we've enjoyed exploring over the past few months, an entertaining playoff slate culminated in a World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, featuring players from Japan to Cuba and places in between. The championship tilt has been as exciting as any in recent memory, with both teams combining to obliterate numerous offensive records. In the wee hours of the morning on Oct. 30, the Astros pulled out a win in extra innings, taking a 3-2 lead in the series as the teams head back to Los Angeles for the final games this week. And as usual, the action off the field has been just as interesting.
The Song Remains Mostly The Same
About two months ago, I took a look at the simmering tension surrounding NFL players' protests during the national anthem on the cusp of football season. After a few uneventful weeks of sparse demonstrations, U.S. President Donald Trump entered the fray, bringing the debate back into the spotlight. First in a speech in Alabama, then in several of his trademark Tweets, Trump took the football players to task for an alleged lack of patriotism and disrespect for the military, suggesting that athletes who protest should be promptly fired. The players responded with even more extensive demonstrations than before, while the league's leaders and team owners (including several Trump supporters) criticized the president's position.
By now American readers are probably exhausted of this story, which proved quite resilient in the mile-a-minute media world, while international readers are equally right to wonder what all the fuss is about. But for those who will humor me, there are two points worth noting. First, this is a textbook case of the symbolic malleability of sport for political purposes. Overnight a league that the American left has long bemoaned for a number of offenses, from domestic violence to the exploitation of public subsidies for stadium construction, became a beacon of free speech and a battleground for 21st-century identity politics. To see the American right turn on the most "American" of games is just as odd.
Second, there is a layer to the narrative that hasn't gotten as much press coverage as I had expected: Trump has been at odds with the NFL since the 1980s. Not only has he unsuccessfully tested the waters of ownership in the league over the years, but he also famously sued it as co-owner of the U.S. Football League's New Jersey Generals on anti-trust charges. Though the suit was successful, the judge awarded only a single, symbolic dollar in damages, and the USFL disbanded soon after. It's probably best not to read too deeply into this history, but it does offer some insight into the president's contentious relationship with the NFL's biggest power brokers.
Back in May, I detailed the plight of Enes Kanter, the outspoken Turkish basketball player who allegedly had to slip past Turkish security agents to return to the United States after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revoked his citizenship. Earlier this month, sports and diplomacy collided once again when Turkey accused the United States of consular espionage, resulting in the reciprocal suspension of visa services.
This time the diplomatic scuffle affected the worlds of golf and women's basketball. The first athletes to fall prey to the dispute were basketball players Emma Cannon and Brionna Jones, who play in Russia during the WNBA's offseason. The two women were at an airport in Moscow with their team when they discovered they had been denied entry into Turkey for a EuroLeague matchup. (Strangely enough, there are several American women playing for Turkish clubs who entered the country before the visa feud began and appear to be cleared to travel as necessary.)
American golfer Matt Kuchar, moreover, had to withdraw from the October Turkish Airlines Open in Antalya because of the visa battle. As we have said before, golf's popularity is surging in some unexpected parts of the world, becoming somewhat of a 21st-century growth industry in places like Turkey. Though the number of homegrown golfers is rising in Turkey, the country's resort-based golf industry has felt the strain of a substantial decline in tourism rooted in concerns about political stability and security. And while one American professional's absence won't derail the sport, hurdles like the visa conundrum could hamper the sector's growth in the long run.
Hello Doping, Our Old Friend
As our regular readers know, it wouldn't be a Geopolitics of Sports column without an update on the ongoing saga of Russia's state-sanctioned doping program. In September, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) cleared 95 of the 96 Russian athletes who had been implicated in the scandal of any wrongdoing. Responses from the sporting world were largely cynical and fell into two camps: Either Russia's doping machine is so expertly managed that the agency didn't have sufficient evidence to prosecute the athletes, or the agency caved under political pressure and was intentionally lenient.
Ten days after the decision, Grigory Rodchenkov — the former head of Russia's anti-doping laboratory who blew the whistle on its activities — all but confirmed the speculation of the second camp. In an op-ed in The New York Times, he noted that WADA has yet to interview him, despite his willingness to cooperate with the investigation. A week later, Russian authorities announced that they had filed a warrant for Rodchenkov's arrest — a mostly symbolic threat, given his self-imposed exile in the United States. But with the 2018 Winter Olympics looming, we certainly haven't heard the end of this story yet.