Geopolitics of international sport

Head: Patrick Clastres

International sports exchanges do not function like other types of cultural exchanges and consumption (music, cinema and visual arts, literature, gastronomy, etc.). Can we imagine international federations of classical music or jazz, theatre or poetry? The singularity of sport is also largely due to the fact that it produces winners and losers and that competitions stage bodies confronting each other, symbolically, but sometimes also violently, before billions of spectators. As Bob Edelman and Christopher Young brilliantly put it in The whole world was watching (Stanford University Press, 2020), sport is indeed " both the hardest form of soft power and the softest form of hard power".

But is sport so easy to manipulate? Is it really effective? Can it not represent a risk? What are the forces at work? What can history teach us and what are the present and future stakes? Our ambition is to decipher the geopolitics of sport by identifying the logics of actors at national, international, and transnational levels and by combining long-term approaches with the most vivid current events.

Since the end of the 19th century, a growing number of states have been trying to spread their sporting cultures and demonstrate the superiority of their institutions and their political, economical and cultural models by capitalising on the victories of their athletes. They have also long sought to organise mega-events for international prestige and recognition, to support their companies involved in the sports economy and the media, and even to take control of international sports organisations.

Yet the latter are clamouring for autonomy. They have been in existence since the 1880s and claim to manage their own sporting world by relying on a discourse of diplomatic neutrality and apolitism. Faced with the actions of states and ideologies in the 1920s and 1930s, they opposed the now popular adage that "you don't mix sport and politics". As for the International Olympic Committee, since its foundation in 1894, it has called for a hegemonic position. It relies on the independence and cosmopolitanism of its members, which is favoured by the principle of co-optation, on an ethical stance summarised in the Olympic ideology, and on a system of redistribution of the money generated by the Olympic Games that it set up in the 1980s.

But there is more to the world of sports than the Olympic orb. On the one hand, some international sports organisations do not want to be part of the Olympic Games programme. On the other hand, there are alternative forms of sports organisation on a world scale that have been able to compete with the IOC and continue to do so: women's sport, university sport, fascist, socialist and communist sport (Spartakiades), Jewish sport (Macchabiades), military sport, Third World sport (GANEFO), indigenous nations' sport, etc. This is not to mention, above all, the economically powerful system of closed professional leagues, which were first formed in the United States, but which are now spreading throughout the world at an accelerated rate.

In this already complex game, there are players who have long been discreet but who are making their voices heard in the age of social networks to the point of destabilising the architecture of the Olympic movement: athletes and NGO activists responsible for defending rights and freedoms.


Researchers at UNIL Position
Benbouhou Raphaël Doctoral assistant
Pr Patrick Clastres Domain head
Dr Hémeury Lucie Junior lecturer
Klima Helena Doctoral student
External researchers Position/Affiliate
Dr Carpentier Florence Associate researcher, Rouen University
Dr Lesnykh Lidia Head of archives and research, associate researcher, FISU
Rodriguez Mari-Carmen Doctoral student, associate researcher, UNIFR
Dr Tonnerre Quentin Associate researcher