Symposium : (Il)liberal Nation Projection Through Sport, Culture, Entertainment, and International Broadcasting

Callum McCloskey (1st year PhD student at University of the West of Scotland)

On the afternoon of Wednesday 19th October, I travelled to Manchester with colleagues Professor Gayle McPherson and Solomon Ilevbare, a fellow PhD student.

After checking in to our hotel, we headed out for a bite to eat in Chinatown, sampling a ‘Hot Pot’- safe to say some can handle spice more than others! After dinner, we retired to the hotel, in preparation for an early start.

This symposium aimed to address issues around soft power and cultural diplomacy by expanding debates and bringing together comparative perspectives on how nation projection differs across:

1) sporting, popular culture, and international media events and channels;

2) liberal and illiberal contexts;

3) different kinds of illiberal regimes; and

4) various media formats and technological platforms.

Conference Day 1

Symposium organiser Dr Vitaly Kazakov (University of Manchester) introduced the symposium which began with a panel focusing on ‘Nation projection through sport: ‘Soft power’, ‘sportswashing’ and ‘sports diplomacy’, chaired by Professor Jonathan Grix (Manchester Metropolitan University).

The panel included Dr. Paul Brannagan and Dr. Seth Perkin (Manchester Metropolitan University), Dr. James Dorsey (Nanyang Technological University), Dr. Kaixiao Jiang (Liverpool Hope University), as well as Adam Dinsmore (University of York) and Dr Laeed Zaghlami (University of Algiers).

Each presenter provided their own nuanced explanation of a particular aspect of soft power and sportswashing. For example, Dr Brannagan and Dr Perkin described ‘Small State strategies through Global Sport’, relating specifically to Qatar and the UAE. They outlined four strands to these strategies, one being virtual enlargement- which is how they attempt to enlarge their importance by aligning to the interests of others, which doesn’t promote their indigenousness, but a version of it they want the world to see.

Following the first panel, Professor Richard Giulianotti (Loughborough University) gave a thought-provoking keynote on Sport and the ‘Illiberal Turn’: Globalization, Soft Power, and International Development, which highlighted the problematic involvement of illiberal politics in international sport development.

The second panel of the day, chaired by Professor Gayle McPherson (University of the West of Scotland), centred on ‘Nation projection through sport: Governance, Values, and Sport Diplomacy’.

Presentations came from Professor Barrie Houlihan (Loughborough University), our very own Solomon Ilevbare (University of the West of Scotland), Malte Frank (Hengeller Meuller law firm), Dr. Michael Skey (Loughborough University) and Chris Harvey (UK Sport).

Solomon gave a fascinating insight into sportswashing and the nexus between international law and sports diplomacy, in terms of how international law is not binding in national contexts; which related to Professor Houlihan’s presentation, who explained that the signing of international (sports) documents is often a passive action, and therefore the enforcement methods of said charters/treaties are not sufficiently stringent.

A captivating keynote from Dr Sven Daniel Wolfe (University of Lausanne) on the ‘The Hard Edge of Soft Power: Mega-Events, Geopolitics, and Making Nations Great Again’ followed. It encapsulated how the term ‘soft power’ is often bandied about without any critical appraisal, asking the question, ‘what does it actually mean when we say ‘Nation X increased its soft power?’.

Panel three, chaired by Professor Vera Tolz (University of Manchester), analysed sporting events’ legacies and audiences, and consisted of contributions from Dr Tom Fabian (University of Queensland), Dr Jiri Zakravsky (Zapadoceska University), James Saunders, and Dr Richard Arnold (Muskingum University).

The discussion involved the role of social media in perception and its role in reconstructing a host country’s image (Dr Zakravsky), as well as how media can both reflect and shape public opinion (James Saunders), both in the context of sporting events. Dr Arnold described how Russia (2018 FIFA World Cup hosts) attempted to control producers of knowledge, rather than the substance- manipulation over repression.

Following day one, most attendees headed out for dinner and drinks- a great opportunity to network and ‘pick the brains’ of the presenters!

Conference Day 2

Panel 4, chaired by Professor Stephen Hutchings (University of Manchester), focused on ‘Nation projection through media: the Case of Russia’.

Speakers included Dr Anton Shekhovtsov, Rui Wang (University of Manchester), Dr Maxime Audinet (Institute for Strategic Research, Paris), Ryzhova, A., Vziatysheva, V., Kravets, D., Jungblut, M., and Toepfl, F.(University of Passau), as well as Dr. Maksim Alyukov (King’s College, London) and Dr. Mikhail Batuev (Northumbria University). Two fascinating keynotes followed panel four: the first from Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody (The Open University) and the second from Professor Hutchings.

In terms of sports mega events, Dr Batuev cited the distinction between ‘everyday’ Russia and the ‘co-branded’ Russia of the 2018 World Cup. Fan feelings for the ‘co-branded’ country they experience, coupled with media ‘sensationalism’, can end up providing a warped image of a host city or country, that does not reflect the everyday reality. 

The fifth and final panel of the symposium, chaired by Dr Kazakov, concentrated on ‘Nation projection through cultural production and outputs: cross-regime and historical perspectives’.

Contributors included Professor Pınar Özdemir and Professor Melike Aktaş Kuyucu (Ankara University), Professor Peter Rollberg (The George Washington University), Kanika Ahuja (Purdue University), Dr Jonathan Ervine (Bangor University) and Dr Marco Biasoli (University of Manchester).

The presentations from the final panel provided an array of perspectives from various nations, in terms of the role public relations and film plays in nation projection. In certain instances, sport documentaries and film can reflect hegemonic power networks, and can be somewhat ‘whitewashed’ to be used as a marketing tool.

Given the number of scholars in the top echelons of the field, there was a lot of learning to be done, both in terms of empirical findings and methodological approaches, which will stand me in good stead for the rest of my PhD journey and in future research. A sincere thanks has to go to Dr Kazakov for organising, the ESRC NWSSDTP for funding such an event, and to the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events at UWS for granting my first experience of an academic conference- one I won’t forget.

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