— Published on April 9, 2024

Cities, new actors in sports diplomacy

Events Focus

Rugby World Cup 2023, Paris 2024 Olympics. Two global events in less than a year in the same country, France. And a third in the sights: the 2030 Winter Olympics in the Alps.

For French cities, can sport become a new geopolitical asset? Research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), Lukas Aubin asked himself the question. His investigation and his answers are condensed in a book, Sport Power, produced with Territoires d’Evènements Sportifs (TES) and France Urbaine. He hasanswered questions from FrancsJeux.

FrancsJeux : Sports diplomacy – soft power – is often presented as being the business of States. However, your book is interested in French cities and their strategy of influence through sport…

Lukas Aubin : Geopolitics concerns all territories, not just States, even if it is often perceived through the prism of conflicts or the Cold War. The book starts from the hypothesis that there is a geopolitics of sport on the scale of all territories, including cities, and that it is exported internationally. Paris, of course, but also Marseille, Lyon, Nice and Lille have implemented sports policies aimed abroad. Cities engage in sports diplomacy, but sometimes without knowing it. I interviewed around fifteen local elected officials, in towns of different sizes. I asked them if they used sport with an international perspective. Most of them answered me in the negative. In reality, they do it, but without necessarily being aware of it.

Is France rather ahead, or on the contrary behind, compared to the other major sporting powers?

We think it is late, because the notion of sports diplomacy is quite recent in France. It began to appear in 2014 or 2015, when Valérie Fourneyron was Minister of Sports. The United States and China have been doing it since the 70s. Russia implemented it in 2009. The failure of Paris in the race for the Olympic Games in 2012 was an electric shock. It raised awareness of the importance of using sport as a political and diplomatic tool. France was behind, it is in the process of catching up. For thirty years, France has hosted the most important sporting events, the majority of which have involved several cities: the Albertville Games in 1992, the World Cup in 1998, the Euro in 2016, the World Cup in rugby in 2023, and now the Paris 2024 Games, before the Winter Games in 2030 in the French Alps. End to end, this succession of sporting events places France in the top 5 in the world.

Have you established a hierarchy of French cities according to their international influence?

Paris is obviously the most visible today, the only one whose sporting image speaks to the entire planet. It will organize the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with an audience estimated at 4 or 5 billion people. Its aura comes through sport. Other French cities have more localized strategies. Marseille, for example, focuses on the Mediterranean area, notably through partnerships in Greece and North Africa. Lille is more focused on the United Kingdom.

The Paris 2024 Games will highlight other French cities, less known abroad. Châteauroux, for example, host of shooting events. Can they take advantage of this to give themselves a sporting image?

It's not systematic. We often see a rebound effect: the city is very exposed during the event and the weeks that follow. But the phenomenon goes down quickly. To benefit from it over time, you need to put in place a sporting strategy. It can be based on several things: presenting itself as an ultra-specialized city in a sport or sector, like Caen for horse riding since the World Equestrian Games in 2014; do not stick to a trial run, but host sporting events regularly; highlight its natural assets and facilities.

The host cities of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, and those of the Paris 2024 Games, have joined forces within an association, Territoires d'Evénements Sportifs (TES). Is this essential to strengthen your sporting strategy?

It is very difficult for a city to exist alone when it comes to sporting issues. With the exception of Paris, of course. By coming together, cities can develop a common strategy, find allies, exert all their weight but highlight their diversity... The work done by TES goes in this direction: bringing cities together for better exposure and a common strategy .