Tuesday, 08 July 2014 00:00

Giving a sporting chance to another point of view

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 Olympic Cauldron Relit for Sochi Winter Games 2014 Feb 21st 12690365295The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi earlier this year unexpectedly helped fire public debate in the Russian Federation

What impact do major sporting events have on local people? Do mainstream Western media only scratch the surface when it comes to popular opinion in the former USSR? Edgar Gerrard Hughes takes a look at a project that sought to discover exactly that.

Every so often, in the midst of a European television report about sporting events in one of the successor states to the Soviet Union, a local citizen will appear on screen for a few seconds and angrily denounce Western arrogance. They are presented as the voice of the nation, and the (intended?) response of many viewers is dismissive: these are not original or authentic opinions, but rather the regurgitation of official propaganda. We all know that media freedom in Russia leaves much to be desired, so when we see a vox pop from the streets of Sochi, it is easy to assume that the speaker is simply parroting their government’s self-interested agenda.

A response like that is, of course, at best lazy and simplistic. But how can we get a more rounded sense of the domestic impact of events like the Winter Olympics when these brief news cameos are our most readily available source of popular opinion? Five participants from Berlin’s prestigious Studienkolleg programme (incidently also the birthplace of E&M), which gives young people a chance to explore Europe on their own intellectual terms, set out to provide a better answer to this question. An answer based on the experiences of people actually living in the countries in question.

Their project "Power Games" focussed on the impact of three sporting events in post-Soviet states. Sochi’s recent Winter Olympics was one of these; the others were Euro 2012 in Ukraine and last month’s ice hockey world championship in Belarus. The first thing that surprised them was how open these countries were. "Not politically," says Alex, one of the students behind the project, "but just in terms of how welcoming people were." Alex had expected to encounter a degree of suspicion when questioning people about the social impact of sports. Yet, most people were in fact eager to air their opinions.

What emerged was a complex picture of interaction between local residents, foreign sports fans, international media and domestic authorities. LGBT activists in Russia, for instance, consciously made use of the unprecedented international attention to construct for themselves the sort of platform they are regularly denied domestically. Equally, the influx of foreigners into oft-isolated Belarus sparked an intercultural exchange which may leave a lasting mark on Belarusian society. It is not unknown for sporting events on such a large scale to have an internationalising influence. And in post-Soviet countries, "internationalising" tends to mean "Europeanising".

So what advice would the  team give to a journalist covering sports in a country like Ukraine or Belarus? "Be prepared to hear totally different stories there than you would in the Western media," says Alex. "People – whether directly involved in the preparation processes or not – will be convinced that your view is wrongly influenced by Western anti-Russian propaganda (just as you think their view is dominated by anti-Western propaganda). At one point, you'll probably start asking yourself, which side is actually right."

"Power Games" is one of six Studienkolleg projects currently being presented in a series of lectures at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Main image source: GoToVan (Flickr); Licence: CC-BY-2.0


Last modified on Monday, 14 July 2014 20:54

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