Extremist sports

Competitive sports events, especially football matches, are often said to have taken over the role of wars between states. But seeing English and Russian football hooligans clash in the streets of Marseille, one gets the impression that sometimes this happens the other way around. Russian sport as a whole seems to be in a deep crisis: the reasons for this are a mixture of Soviet nostalgia, whataboutism and political ruthlessness. And the consequences may potentially be more dangerous for Russia’s leaders than many think.

2016 has been a terrible year for Russian sport. The year started with doping allegations against Maria Sharapova, one of the country’s best-known sports personalities. An ongoing investigation into mass doping of Russian athletes, which saw them being suspended from international competitions took a turn for the worse when Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of a Russian anti-doping lab claimed that the Russian government and the secret services had jointly organised an unprecedented nation-wide doping programme, in a bid to win the medal count of the Sochi Olympics. Rodchenkov told incredible stories about rooms occupied by secret service employees next to doping labs, holes in the wall for to swap urine samples, threatened employees and a vast criminal network attached to the Russian state that has helped Russian athletes win medals in multiple international competitions. As a consequence, Russian athletes will not be able to participate in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

In June, groups of Russian football hooligans clashed with English hooligans and ordinary fans and wreaked havoc on several French cities, eventually leaving their otherwise very lacklustre national team on the verge of exclusion from Euro-2016 as well as several people in jail and deported. An ongoing investigation into corruption at FIFA could possibly arrive at the conclusion that Russia bribed FIFA officials to win the right to host the 2018 Football World Cup. In fact, the former leader of FIFA, Sepp Blatter has already admitted that a bribe did indeed take place. Last, but not least, when a geared-up Vladimir Putin stepped on the ice for some show-play at the Ice Hockey World Cup hosted by Russia, he tripped and fell.

But it was not just the embarrassing revelations, gaffes, virulent nationalism and the co-opting of organised crime by the secret services that made this appalling series look all too familiar to many inside and outside Russia. It was also the reactions coming from Russian authorities. Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, while showing his friendly face to the officials investigating the doping allegations, continuously tried to downplay their importance and play the victim. “Our doping problems are no worse than other countries’, but whatever we do it’s always bad” – Mutko said, and slammed whistleblowers. After the clashes between Russian and English fans in France and the fine slapped on the Russian Football Association as well as the Russian national football team, most reactions by Russian officials, including the minister, were indignant and belligerent rather than apologetic and cooperative, visioning provocations or even a Russophobic conspiracy.

A sportsman without sportsmanship

In fact, none of this should be particularly surprising. Sports have always played an important role in Vladimir Putin’s politics. Not the least because promoting sports is cheaper than war but just as easy to turn into a television show or a horn of plenty for loyal oligarchs. Grandiose tournaments and heroic victories rhyme perfectly with the thinly veiled Soviet nostalgia of Putin’s politics too. Two of the strongest pillars of the identity of Soviet citizens were the shared experience of the victory in WW2 and the shared experience of topping medal tables in the Olympic Games of the Cold War period. Putin could not hope to match Stalin’s wartime charisma, even after the Chechen war that created his myth, but he could outdo any Soviet party secretary in terms of sports. He brought the Olympics back to Russia. He brought Formula One to Russia. He brought the FIFA World Cup to Russia. Through organising these competitions and promoting Russian officials to the upper echelons of international sports organisation, he exported Russian soft power. And he was a sportsman himself: sports have become an important part of his image and his politics.

However, sport did not take the place of war in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as it became painfully obvious in the past two years. Instead, the way Russia made war and did sport converged. Sport became an element of war, not a substitute. The same way of thinking used to justify disinformation, unconventional military units and doublespeak in the Ukraine war allowed the takeover of sports by corruption, hooliganism and a state-sponsored doping scheme: the explanation or belief that at the end of the day, everyone was doing the same thing, only some dressed up their cheats differently. That sports were just a different way of war where rules were retroactively written by victors where the logic of war still applied.

Nowhere has this been laid as bare as in France where Russian hooligans attacked English hooligans and fans with an unprecedented level of brutality and organisation. Such that French prosecutors saw a targeted training behind it. And they may be quite right about this. According to the British government, several of the Russian hooligans at Euro-2016 had links to the Russian authorities. Two of the convicted hooligans arrived with the official Russian delegation to the tournament. One of them was pictured with Vladimir Putin at the funeral of a football fan in 2010, which prompted riots in Moscow and heralded the marriage between violent nationalist hooliganism and the Russian state.

A recent report by Frederick Wesslau and Andrew Wilson of ECFR entitled ‘Russia 2030’ spoke of the militarisation of the Russian society. While such statements should be handled with ample caution – militarisation is mostly present in the television and in the budget, in which the Defence Ministry has been the sole beneficiary of a higher oil price – football hooliganism is a worrying sign of an increasingly subversive Russian state. If competitive sport is the substitute of wars, organised football hooliganism may be the substitute of the kind of hybrid warfare that we have seen in Ukraine.

This kind of aggression is worrying enough if it is controlled by a government with subversive motives.  But if it is not, it may be even more worrisome. If you know that your government will be behind you if you commit a “patriotic” crime, even if it did not send you itself, you will continue to commit such crimes. Are we really surprised that football hooligans from a state where political leaders have been pretending to be in a war with Western values and their representatives, including the EU, for years, are now destroying whole neighbourhoods in French cities?

Taking a tumble

Even if what is happening in Russian sport should not be surprising to anyone, the consequences could still be serious and far-reaching. Because sport and war are, in fact, very different. More different today than during the most fiercely competitive years of the Cold War that saw politically motivated boycotts of Olympics, a context, to which several Russian officials would like to link the present situation back. This time the situation is clear, and unsettlingly so for Russia’s leaders.

For one, the structure of sports competitions is different than the structure of wars: one is either there or not. You can shoot a news report about glorious victories in Syria, about spontaneous uprisings against a fascist government in Ukraine. You can even find regular walk-ons for these reports, as Russian state television has done in the past. But you cannot shoot fiction about sports competitions, from which Russian athletes are disqualified, you cannot exert soft power through officials who fail to get elected, and you cannot boost morale with sports competitions that do not take place.

Perhaps even more importantly, there is a lot of money in sports – as there is in war. But while the arms industry can survive a series of military withdrawals by focusing on arms exports, sports competitions cannot be exported. Neither can Russia create an import substitution scheme for medals, victories and the money that they create. The Sochi Olympics may have been a matter of national pride for Putin, but it was a 51 billion USD business for Putin’s business circle. The official price tag of the 2018 FIFA World Cup is 34 billion USD; the actual price may be much higher: the Sochi Olympics itself had originally been budgeted at 12 billion. And with every international competition that Russia cannot host, its oligarchs pay a hefty price. And they are not happy about it.

Sports usually seem to be a safer substitute for wars. Actually, as Vladimir Putin may soon find out, they are sometimes riskier. Sports and wars may both serve political agendas, and they may both serve them very well. But if your weapon of choice is subversion and organised cheating, the stake had better not be too high, because sports are, it seems, more resistant to dishonest practices. Unlike Russia’s post-modern wars on the ground or in the media, in which “nothing is true and everything is possible” – as Peter Pomerantsev put it – sport still works in a somewhat old-fashioned way. Sport is not a subject of interpretation. You have to be there – or have the standing to host the competition yourself. Once you are there, you have to run faster, jump higher, score more goals. And cheating will result in embarrassing disqualifications. 

Russia may have invented postmodern wars, but it has failed to invent postmodern sports.  And without that, what ultimately remains is just senseless violence, where no one wins, not even on TV, not even in the Kremlin.

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