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How states like Russia use international sporting events to communicate and compete within the international system

Luc ter Bogt

International sporting events are perhaps the single most fun political anomaly that still lingers in contemporary politics: While notoriously expensive and unsustainable, international sporting events remain widely loved, especially by political leaders. Former Radboud University Master’s student Luc ter Bogt explains the prevalence of international sporting events through their communicative advantages. He argues that states hosting these athletic competitions increase their status within international circles, and by doing so improve their competitive positioning.

An Expensive Hobby

The world's most beloved sporting events really are more taken for granted than they should be, considering their mere existence is an anomaly. Major global sporting events like the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup have become billion-dollar operations. As such, successfully hosting the next such event comes with a lot of responsibility and a hefty bill to pay. So, to make the next event happen, athletic federations need states that want to host, including by providing logistics, infrastructure, or housing. The costs thereof can accumulate up to billions of dollars, yet states seem to line up for hosting international sporting events. So why would any state even consider hosting an international sporting event?

Domestic and international advantages?

Hosting international sporting events has been related to multiple domestic and international advantages. Domestically, financial gain has been theorized to drive states to hosting sporting festivities (Maennig, 2017; Li & Jago,2013). However, the increased merchandise and tourism incomes is not able to come close to the overall cost of the event itself (Sterken, 2006; Baumann & Matheson, 2013). Domestic political security and legitimacy also offer possible rationales, as particularly authoritarian regimes like to use global events to boost national morale. However, this effect is inconsistent, as hosting has also triggered opposition by local populations (BBC, 2015; Watts, 2017; Winter, 2014).

In theory, hosting sporting events helps diplomatic strategy as it could allow states to increase their soft power, which is hard to gain but important to have. Soft power is assumed to build up status and help states form an attractive identity others want to work alongside. However, soft power is often a rather vague and ambiguous concept, more policy panacea than clearly scoped and defined. This may lead one to question the analytical utility of “soft power” as a motivating factor for state behaviour.

Lunch Tables and Sports Talk: Breaching the Borders between Lines of Communication

States have found a very specific role for sporting events, however, in using the event itself as a form of communicating (and changing) status. States, like individuals, have constituted a certain status and identity within and across different groups, which together form international society. They know their place within this international society as well as the place of others, which overall can be thought of as a ranking of sorts (Renshon, 2017; Götz, 2020). Furthermore, in a puberal sense of self-justification, states want to be included, constantly aiming to ascend the status ladder. In a sense, one can compare the international society of states to a stereotypical high school. There are different cliques and lunch tables that all have different status and identities within and between them. Ideally, states want to be part of the table with the highest status in the lunch hall. These aspirations are not merely an expression of vanity. While states within the international society are on paper equal, a lot of decision-making power in terms of international ordering is based on the perceived role of a state within the system. Highly regarded states lead the conversation and decide what international proceedings are pursued. They can use this position to have more say during international negotiations and enjoy more support for their own international initiatives (Naylor, 2019).

However, status and identity are to a considerable degree socially constituted, thus dependent on perceptions of multiple actors (Larson and Shevchenko, 2019). As such, it is difficult for states to improve their status within the international society. Also, some of the “traditional channels” by which status can change, e.g., fighting a war, are no longer easily available in contemporary world order. Consequently, states face difficulties in affecting and increasing their status. So, to enforce a change, states look beyond traditional channels for something splashy to attract global attention.

I argue that international sporting events constitute such a mechanism. States cultivate sporting events as a means of communication to reach those previously unattainable. They seek to use sports event as a way of rebranding themselves, since it is a rare occasion that they are the center of attention. Based on careful case research, I suggest that during international sporting events, normal international societal boundaries may not apply (at least not to the host). As such, international sporting events offer a mechanism that bypasses existing status groupings and enables identity reassessment.

Not least due to the sizeable investment states plunge into when hosting international sporting events, the importance of strategy and coordination cannot be overstated. Every aspect of the hosting is then part of a message a state wants to send toward international society. I argue that this involves weighing three main dimensions: Conformity, Confrontation and Creationism.

3C Paradigm: Dimensions and Applications

Figure: 3C Paradigm spider-plotThese three dimensions, Conformity, Confrontation and Creativity, form the 3C paradigm. This paradigm entails the main strategic principles that hosts can adopt during sporting events. Depending on the degree to which they are implemented in the hosting state’s event, they set the tone and message the host sends to the international community. States can, and almost always do, incorporate multiple dimensions. When a state adopts a strategy of proactive conformity, it chooses to try and improve its status by adapting to the international order that is currently in place. In such an effort, states try to attain status by acquiring assets and performing acts that the current international society rates highly. Acts of conformity can vary from mimicking current elites (e.g., great powers), to celebrating the normative setting of the order itself.

Confrontation is the ideal-typical opposite of conformity. In adopting a confrontational strategy, states look to acquire status by challenging the current international society. By challenging for status, the state means to upset some significant part of the international order to gain positioning.

Lastly, Creativity tries to introduce new elements within an already existing international society. States are effectively trying to influence the system's ranking apparatus. A creative strategy largely accepts the current order’s norms and values but tries to add or emphasize elements in which the hosting state excels.

Sporting Events: Worth your while?

International sporting events are a powerful tool for states to create a favorable setting for international societal communication. Their strength lies in circumventing stable and settled international societal groups and status ranking to communicate status ambition, which may result in great political success. However, they also possess weaknesses which limit their optimal use to highly specific situations. For one, their high costs limit their expected utility. Importantly, international sporting events do not guarantee any, let alone positive, change in status. They are merely the medium that carries the message. Whether this message is appreciated or adopted by the international society is strongly dependent on the host’s implemented strategy. It is difficult to generalize which (combination) of the 3Cs will be successful. Hosting international sporting events therefore involves a context-dependent, strategic consideration with a specific timeframe for success. States need to make sure their assessment is correct, and their implementation is top-notch. After that, it’s game on.


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