Blackburn Rovers fan protest outside Ewood Park.Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool fans stage a protest in 2017 outside the ground during the FA Cup Fourth Round game at Ewood Park. [photo: Alamy]

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

The great powers and sports

While India’s niche control in multinational sports is reflective of a middle power, the United States continues in the dominant position as a sporting industry while China, thanks to the ambitions of Xi Jinping, is beginning to catch up and has plans to surpass the US. After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China launched its ambitious Plan 46 which aimed by 2025 to create an $800 billion sporting industry in the country. This was an optimistic plan, and Covid-19 has certainly stalled the effort, but the idea was to spend up to 1% of GDP on sport.

The drive to establish a global sporting presence has seen China acquire football teams in Europe led by the acquisition of Inter Milan. It has also engaged in “Stadium Diplomacy” around the world with, as Hugh Vondracek has written, the country building 142 stadiums around the world and the bulk of them are in Africa, the Caribbean, and Oceania. But most importantly it is one of the few countries in the world which actively seeks to host megaevents like the Olympics and the World Cup.

At a time when most countries are moving away from hosting megaevents because of the high costs associated with them, the Chinese are planning to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Xi Jinping also has a long-term plan for China to host, compete in, and eventually win a football World Cup and the Chinese government has committed funds to help achieve this ambition. China’s interests in hosting such events lie not only in the goal of becoming a sporting power but also in being able to enjoy the considerable soft power that would come from achieving such a status.

China has become a sporting powerhouse in the Olympics and recently has been consistently coming in second to the United States in the medals tally but as Leite and Rodriguez write, the next Chinese goal is threefold: qualify for, host, and eventually win the football World Cup. With this in mind, the Chinese government initially thought of building 50,000 stadiums in the country by 2030 but later presented a more ambitious plan to complete these stadiums ahead of schedule by 2025. Additionally the Chinese plan to set up an $800 billion sports industry which will be almost double that of the American sporting industry.

Whether China can achieve its sporting goals is of course questionable given the sheer scale of its plans and the uncertainty caused in global sports and industry due to Covid-19, but the fact is that in the quest to become a global sporting superpower, the Chinese are far ahead of India. They have articulated a sporting vision that not only combines integrating nations across the world into a Chinese sporting nexus but also seeks to achieve sporting excellence in games as varied as basketball, swimming, athletics, and gymnastics.

In contrast, the Indian vision is that of a middle power which took over a game that was losing popularity in its country of origin and was mainly adopted by the heavily populated nations of South Asia. Thus, while the game came continues to lose a viewing audience in England its new natural home is South Asia. For India, however, the challenge lies in going beyond the cricketing arena to other sports and there the Indian performance has been a lacklustre one.

Attempting to imitate foreign investors from the United States, Abu Dhabi, Russia, and China (to name the major countries that have invested in British sports) the Indian company Venky’s bought the Premier League team Blackburn Rovers but the acquisition was met by setbacks. The team was twice relegated and the owners, who had bought the team for 53 million pounds have over a period of a decade ploughed an additional 140 million pounds into the club with little success. No other Indian corporation have attempted to follow the path of Venky’s while other countries keep seeking to acquire new sports teams in a process of globalising sports.

What then is the future for Indian sports, particularly cricket, for making the game more international and improving India’s soft power in the international system? The answer lies in the fact that if India remains a middle power, it can only aspire to maintaining a sporting role in games that are not truly globalised. If the Indian economy can actually move to becoming the $5 trillion economy that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants, then India may actually be able to compete for hosting megaevents and becoming a stakeholder in other global sports like football, athletics, Formula One racing, and even perhaps one day yachting. Without considerable growth, however, India will be stuck in the niche of multinational sports rather than capturing the imagination of the world by hosting or controlling a truly global sport.

Amit Gupta is an Associate Professor, Department of International Security Studies, USAF Air War College, Montgomery, AL, USA.