News & Insights

The Permanent Politicialisation of Sport

By: Terrence Burns & Jeremy Galbraith 

Sport is universal, it provides inspirational moments that bring people together. Globally, it is one of the most powerful, efficient, and effective marketing tools for brands. There is a reason why the logos of blue chip brands dominate the fields of play and paddocks of sports such as Formula 1, the FIFA World CupTM, and the Olympic Games. Sport has the unique power to bring the world together with a simple and shared idea – the love of the game.   

We see this at the Olympic Games, the FIFA World CupTM, and numerous other global sporting events every year. This bridge has only been possible because for decades, there was a common reframe: keep politics out of sports.  

Take the position of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), for example: “the Olympic Games are not about politics. The IOC, as a civil non-governmental organisation, is strictly politically neutral at all times. Neither awarding the Games, nor participating, are a political judgment regarding the host country. The Olympic Games are governed by the IOC, not by governments.” And they are not alone; many other leagues and platforms hold similar views. 

This objective, some would say “obsession,” has given us incredible, historical moments that stretch far beyond the field of play. Think about the ping-pong diplomacy that changed the U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. President Richard Nixon even welcomed the Chinese team to a reception at The White House. In 1995, President Nelson Mandela used rugby to help bring South Africa together following his election. And at the 2008 FIFA World CupTM, a qualifying match between Turkey and Armenia provided an opening for a new diplomatic channel between the countries. 

This is not to say that athletes have not used sports to bring attention to causes that they support. Think U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympic games or, more recently, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem. Or the political boycotts of the Moscow 1980 or Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. But still, the desire to keep politics out of sport remained until now. 

Global sport has often been politicised but that doesn’t mean it is political. Increasingly however, it is being used as a tool to bring attention to social movements, and now with Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a diplomatic weapon. Following the invasion, 44 international sports federations implemented various actions against Russia, Belarus and their athletes. Wimbledon has banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing, and Russia was banned from FIFA World CupTM Qualifying. 

And as the world learns more about what has happened in Ukraine, these actions may continue to grow (and stay in place) for some time. 

So, what does this mean for the future of global sport? 

First, global sports rights holders such as the IOC and FIFA no longer have the luxury of avoiding the reality of geopolitics that impact sport. In the future, these institutions must consider the political ramifications of their host city and nation selections. Global sport’s collective response to the war in Ukraine was significant, but by no means has it been universal which is a reflection of the global reaction to the war. 

It also changes how and where global sport is played. Given the reaction to the war in Ukraine, perhaps there will be greater scrutiny on sponsors of the Qatar 2022 World CupTM by the media and fans given that an estimated 6,500 workers have died since the bid was awarded? 

Should the Olympic Games only be hosted in countries with strong human rights records, and, according to whom? China just hosted the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games despite accusations of widespread human rights abuses including against Uyghurs and daily incursions into Taiwan’s airspace. Did Beijing 2022 negatively affect the power and value of the Olympic brand and sponsors’ investments in it? 


And that is the ultimate question – where is the “new line” for global sport in this time of undeniable cultural and political upheaval? 

There is still great value in using global sport as a platform to reach billions of customers and consumers – it remains one of the most efficient marketing tools for brands. But deriving enduring brand value and creating commercial opportunities will require greater effort and nuance as sports federations, leagues, and sponsors navigate this new normal.

The marriage of sport and business has always been the intersection of shared values and affiliation. As our world fragments along new, unpredictable cultural and political realities, brands must consider new variables and adjust their success metrics accordingly. Sport is no longer immune from the societal and political pressures that dominate the modern media space, and brands would be wise to factor this new reality into their current and prospective investments in sport.