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Africa’s Stadiums and China’s Sports Diplomacy

The French newspaper Le Monde recently published two articles that describe how Beijing is actively engaging in sports diplomacy in Switzerland, the headquarters of many international sports organizations. It also describes how the Chinese government is building sports facilities in Africa, especially sports stadiums, to gain control over African heads of government, win local sports markets, and secure access to important sports events in the continent.

The Chinese government is making arrangements in the sports industry to serve its goal of becoming a geopolitical power. One article in Le Monde quotes Carole Gomez, a researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, who commented that, until the 1950s, sports were marginally important for the Chinese government, except for fitness or training soldiers. Learning from the Cold War, the Chinese began to realize that the Olympic Games were not just a sporting event, and that it should not only participate in international sports competitions; China should also produce outstanding results to promote national pride.

Jean-Loup Chappelet, a professor at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, outlined the strategic pattern of China’s participation in international sports bodies. It started with the participation of athletes. China followed by actively winning competitions. Then the Chinese government started organizing events. Finally, China gained a seat on the international organizing committee of the sport. Beijing began with table tennis and gymnastics and gradually advanced to a few new sports such as climbing and rugby sevens. Beijing used its huge domestic market and the construction of sports facilities as bait to gain a seat in international sports organizations. . . .  Sources familiar with the International Olympic Committee told Le Monde that international sports are in fact a mirror of today’s international community. What’s going on in the IOC is similar to what goes on at the United Nations and at the World Trade Organization. Beijing is actively pursuing control of these international sports organizations just as it is in other international arenas. While Europe and the United States are leaders in most of the international sports organizations, China is closely following in their footsteps.

Another Le Monde article mentioned that in mid-March, Alassane Ouattara, President of the African country Ivory Coast, personally inaugurated a 60,000-seat stadium, a gift from China, in the northern part of the capital Abidjan. The finale of the 2023 African Cup of Nations, the main international men’s soccer competition in the continent, will be held in Ivory Coast, where China will build two more stadiums elsewhere in the country, in addition to the one in Abidjan. The total cost is expected to be more than 200 million euros. Le Monde commented that China has built and renovated nearly 100 stadiums on the continent in recent decades, apparently to strengthen diplomatic relations with African countries, to open access to local markets, and to secure support from African countries in international organizations such as the United Nations.

In recent years, with the number of countries participating in the tournament increasing from 16 to 24, the Africa Cup of Nations could not have been held without China-built stadiums. The organizers lamented that the countries hosting the tournament could not afford to build their own stadiums and had to rely on China. In January, the rights to broadcast the games were sold to a Chinese company, Star Times. According to internal U.S. diplomatic documents, over the last two decades, Star Times, which gathers intelligence for Beijing in Africa, has become a major player in digital media on the continent. In other words, the African Cup of Nations are often played in China-built stadiums and Chinese media broadcast them.

Source: Radio France International, April 29, 2021