Can sporting events really help rebuild the reputation of a nation?

Viktor Yanukovych has a problem. On the eve of Euro 2012, a tournament his country is set to host with its next door neighbours Poland, his government have become pariahs amongst other European nations due the treatment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. What was meant to be an event to showcase how far the former Soviet state has come over the past 20 years now looks like it could damage the reputation of Ukraine.

Ukraine has been looking forward to hosting Euro 2012 for a while

We’re often told that these huge sporting spectacles act as a PR coup for troubled nations, apparently legitimising those regimes accused of abhorrent acts, however there are others who suggest that this not only overstates the power of sport but denies those fighting against these governments valuable airtime. Away from football, Formula One recently courted controversy by travelling to Bahrain. Morally there is little doubt the race should not have went ahead, however some would argue that the protest movement within the Kingdom benefited as a result of the coverage it was given internationally.

While I doubt there is much truth in such a claim (coverage dropped off once the F1 circus left) Euro 2012 could be a different beast. If, as is being suggested, European heads of state boycott the event the joy of hosting a prestigious international football tournament could soon be replaced by embarrassment if President Yanukovych watches the final alongside 53 empty seats instead of Merkel, Cameron and co.

Viktor Yanukovych

There is a degree of truth to the suggestion that this type of large scale event can rebuild reputation – South Africa acquitted itself well during the 2010 World Cup, with fans remaining safe despite scare stories suggesting that they were bound to be raped and murdered within days of arriving. However this was widely due to the fact that the preconceived ideas many held had been exaggerated. Holding the World Cup, European Championships, Olympics or any other event isn’t a magic bullet. They can only really generate positive PR if a nation is actively working towards change. If not the opposite is quite often true.

When the world is watching you better be whiter than white.