While Chinese sport is capturing much of the world’s attention, politics and money are influencing sport the world over, Simon Chadwick writes.
It seems obvious why most people will remember 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic has propagated the conditions for all manner of other events to unfold. But it wasn’t the virus that has caused increasingly fractious relations between China and the United States.
Nor was it the basis upon which, for example, several nations banned Huawei from being involved in their rollouts of 5G mobile networks. However, COVID-19 has served to amplify what was already a tense, complex global geopolitical and diplomatic environment.
Nowhere has this been more evident over the last six months than in sport. Indeed, the sporting landscape is becoming increasingly littered with incidents, spats, and confrontations. These are not only an issue for the likes of cricket and football, but also suggest that what might seem like minor skirmishes are symptomatic of heightening tensions around the world.
Relations between China and India have long been problematic, though in June an enduring border dispute resulted in the deaths of twenty Indian soldiers. This action by a recently emboldened China inevitably provoked an aggressive reaction from India’s government. However, there were spill-over effects in sport and related business activities as well.
In recent years, Chinese companies have become increasingly prominent sponsors of India sports, most notably cricket. In one case, Chinese mobile phone brand Vivo had been sponsoring the country’s Premier League cricket competition. Following the border incident, the Board of Control for Cricket in India announced that it was suspending its partnership with Vivo.
At the same time, government in New Delhi banned almost 60 Chinese apps, including Tik Tok. This followed similar measures introduced by Donald Trump and the United States, though it was especially significant on the sub-continent as the platform had become a communication staple for millions of cricket fans.
Digital technology and broadcasting seem to have become a flashpoint in growing tensions between East and West. Indeed, as resistance to Huawei’s roll out of 5G has grown across the world, so have the ramifications for sport.
In one recent case, the Chinese telecoms giant unilaterally terminated its sponsorship deal with rugby league side Canberra Raiders, citing Australia’s 5G banning of Huawei allied to increasingly adverse consumer sentiment towards the company and its products.
Another ally from within the US/India/Australia axis has similarly been encountering turbulence in its sports dealings with China. Under Boris Johnson, Britain has this year pulled back from what under David Cameron had previously been a warm relationship.
Johnson’s government has followed suit with its allies on Huawei (and, indeed, on other China related matters too), which is likely to be one point of tension between the two countries. However, such matters seem to be spilling over into sport.
For instance, in July CCTV5 demoted coverage of some Premier League football matches to its less prominent channel CCTV5+. Meanwhile over the summer, reports suggested that Chinese electrical retailer Suning was withholding a payment due in connection with its contract with the Premier League to broadcast matches in China.
Ultimately, this culminated in the Premier League’s apparent termination of its deal with Suning, a move that both parties attributed to issues associated with the pandemic. Some observers have suggested the decision was taken for financial and economic reasons. However, the timing of it is striking, strongly implying that politics played just as big a role as money.
Where this leaves relations between London and Beijing remains to be seen, though they won’t be any worse than relations between the Czech Republic and China. At the start of September, the central European country’s senate president addressed parliament in Taipei by announcing “I am Taiwanese”.
Among Chinese audiences this would have been an incendiary address even at the best of times. However, for two countries that had previously drawn close to one another but are now increasingly distant, the speech sent a stark message. The Czech Republic has recently distanced itself from China, which the senate president’s words have reaffirmed is the national direction of travel.
For fans of the football team Slavia Prague, it is likely that there are now growing concerns about what will happen next to their club. Acquired by China’s CEFC Energy in 2015, the deal was initially heralded as a great breakthrough in Sino-Czech relations.
However following controls on overseas capital flight across 2017 and 2018, club ownership passed to two Chinese organisations: CITIC (a state-owned investment company) and Sinobo (a real estate business). Following what happened in Taipei, one therefore wonders how long it will be before China divests itself of Slavia Prague, as indeed has seemed the case in the past.
It would be easy for some observers to admonish China for its aggressive, unilateral actions and for utilising sport as a policy tool to undermine its adversaries. Such views would not be without foundation; after all, the country’s state-led sports policy is clear for all to see.
However, what many in the West fail to see is the symmetry in relations with China. For instance, in the case of English football’s Premier League, the organisation enjoys close and often coordinated relations with the British government. Such was the sensitive nature of it terminating Suning’s deal, that it seems highly likely that the decision was taken in consultation with Downing Street.
This in turn implies that Britain engages in sports politicking as much as China does. The same is true in America, where more Tik Tok sanctions means that sport has been caught in the crossfire of something much bigger.
The United States has a track record in this area as well. In 2018, Nike terminated its deals with several Iranian football players in fear of it being sanctioned by the Trump administration. Given current heightened tensions, it is not inconceivable that other such sanctions aimed at China might ultimately be imposed. In this context, it is worth noting that, for example, Nike is the official shirt supplier to all of China’s Super League football teams.
Five years ago, a combination of money and politics brought Chinese sport to the world’s attention. And now, five years later, politics and money are a major part of the East/West sporting narrative. This time round, however, the essence of relations between the two is divergent and retrenched. The financial boom times are over.