As the 2011 Nordic World Ski Championships drew to a close last weekend, life is returning to normal in host country Norway. While a parenthesis internationally compared to, say, the Olympics or the football World Cup, the event was widely anticipated and appreciated in the Nordic countries and parts of central Europe. An estimated 1.2 million people attended the 11 days of events and medal ceremonies in Oslo. Among those basking in the glory of the athletes were the prime ministers of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Poland and all of the Scandinavian royal families. Which forces the question: Don’t heads of state have better things to do than attend sporting events in the middle of the working week?
The royal families’ engagement is easy enough to understand. The legitimacy of this largely symbolic relic from the past, nowadays peculiar to Northern Europe, relies entirely on popular support. What better way to achieve this than attending, and thereby stealing the spotlight at, events showcasing the best of athletic performance and national pride? (From their very own VIP area, naturally.)
Politicians, of course, have a similar interest in achieving popular support. By appearing with the successful athletes in front of the TV cameras (the highest ranking politician attending invariably gets to meet the winning athletes) they attempt to transmit some of the success of the athletes onto themselves. This is not to say that they aren’t interested in the sports. But that alone would hardly justify taking time out of their busy schedules to attend the events, particularly for those flying in from other countries.
Major sports events are also useful to politicians in the way that they divert national attention. The most popular events take up most of the attention of both mainstream media and citizens for the duration of events. As such, controversial decisions may be buried under the attention paid to the sports event in question. Indeed, the Norwegian government was accused of taking advantage of this over the last couple of weeks as it announced two controversial decisions and replaced its perhaps least popular minister during the championships.
The political benefits to a government of hosting a big sports event are not restricted to the domestic arena, however. The spectacular 2008 Olympics in Beijing were no doubt an attempt by Chinese leaders to present an alternative perspective of the country to the human rights-violating cheap goods manufacturing plant one often hears about in the media. Similarly, last year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa was important not to just South Africa, but to the whole African continent, in getting positive media attention from the rest of the world and showcasing that they, too, can play in the league of the more established powers. As such, major sports events can be a catalyst for perceptions of the host country – not just culturally, but also politically.
Historically, sports has also been a tool of international power politics. This is perhaps best highlighted by the Olympics boycotts at the tail end of the Cold War. The US led an international boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, allegedly in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the USSR led an Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, citing security concerns as a result of an “anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States”. It is hard to read these boycotts as anything but attempts to discredit, and fuel domestic and international perceptions of, political adversaries.
To conclude by going full circle back to the starting point, then, who were the winners at this year’s Nordic World Ski Championships? Norway dominated the cross-country skiing, although Sweden won most of the sprint events and Canada took its first ever gold medal. Austria swept the ski jumping competitions and also did well in the Nordic combined, where they shared the glory with the German team. And, let’s not forget, the politicians who were able to ride the sentiments of national pride and divert attention away from the political games we usually see them engage in.