David Owen

Now here's a thing: for all the, er, developments of the past couple of years, Russia's pursuit of soft power through sport still appears to be going swimmingly.

My grounds for asserting this? The latest edition of the Sports Political Power Index, a very valuable biennial exercise conducted by the Sports Confederation of Denmark (DIF).

This attempts to rank countries according to their influence in sports politics, based on a weighted analysis of nationalities of Executive Committee members of well over 100 International and European Sports Federations.

The latest data-set, put together in September and October 2017, takes into account a grand total of 1,673 individuals; International Olympic Committee (IOC) members are among those included.

DIF draws up separate tables covering a) European representation in global and European bodies; and b) all countries' representation in global bodies.

In both of these, Russia sits joint second - alongside the United Kingdom and behind Italy in the Europe-only ranking; alongside Italy and (far) behind the United States in the global one.

A strong showing, yes, but nothing to be too surprised about.

It is when examining trends over the past two years, however, that the continuing momentum behind Russia's soft power drive becomes apparent.

This is notwithstanding the still-rumbling doping crisis and a general ratcheting up of political tensions between the Putin regime and the main Western powers.

In the European list, Russia was the only one of the top six-ranked countries not to lose significant ground compared with the 2015 Power Index, as the main decision-making organs of sports bodies seemingly became more diverse, no doubt a healthy development.

Spain lost nearly 19 per cent of its 2015 ranking, Germany 12 per cent and top dogs the UK and Italy 12.5 per cent and 10.4 per cent respectively.

Even France's score dropped by 13 per cent as it began to gear up for hosting the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics in Paris. 

Russian influence over sport is still in a strong position ©Getty Images
Russian influence over sport is still in a strong position ©Getty Images

Set in this context, Russia's nearly four per cent advance looks considerably more noteworthy.

And there is more to come, or so it seems: as my colleague, Nick Butler, reported last Saturday (May 20), a Russian steel tycoon called Vladimir Lisin has been named as the preferred candidate of Mexico's Olegario Vázquez Raña when the octogenarian steps down as President of the International Shooting Sport Federation in November.

In the international list, Russia is one of only two countries in the top 12 to have boosted its score in comparison with 2015 - and the other is Japan, which is only two years away from welcoming the world to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

Even past and future Olympic host China and sports body host par excellence Switzerland have lost considerable ground over the past two years.

"It is obvious that a shift in power is taking place," says Poul Broberg, head of public affairs at DIF.

"Countries from the former Eastern Bloc have in recent years been aggressively pursuing power in international sports politics.

"That work is now paying off.

"The power is moving from West to East."

Broberg acknowledges nonetheless, when questioned, that it was "a surprise for us to see Russia continuing to gain influence".

He observes that some Russian candidates are "very wealthy" and "can invest in their campaign and contribute with personal wealth".

Candidates from Russia, he says, have also got "a lot of state support".

Russia's push, he argues, is proving "quite effective".

While the IOC has faced criticism for not being tough enough with Russia, "there are so many well-positioned Russians.

"There is very strong lobbying around this going on because Russia has so many well-positioned people; Russia has so many positions where they are able to influence the situation."

Russia's Vladimir Lisin could soon head up the International Shooting Sport Federation ©Getty Images
Russia's Vladimir Lisin could soon head up the International Shooting Sport Federation ©Getty Images

What DIF is attempting to do is, of course, an approximate science.

For example, since it is concerned with making its analyses comparable from edition to edition - this is the third time it has undertaken the exercise - it does not reflect power shifts that may have taken place inside individual organisations.

Within the IOC, for example, I would argue that the office of President has accumulated much more power than in May-July 2013 when data for the inaugural index was compiled.

The clout of rank-and-file IOC members has, by contrast, diminished, with some of this influence shifting to a small group of top IOC officials.

The IOC's decision-making processes have started, in sum, more closely to resemble a multinational corporation, albeit one with an unusually large number of non-executive directors.

There have also been wholesale changes in the governance - and arguably the internal power balance - of FIFA, governing body of the world's richest sport, football, in recent times.

DIF has taken a step towards assessing those countries best-placed to wield influence via non-elected sports officials, by including for the first time an analysis of the nationalities of secretary generals of International Federations.

Here, the UK and US lead the way, leading DIF to conclude that "English-speaking countries dominate".

Of 79 posts included, not one, seemingly, was held by a Russian. Is the Kremlin missing a trick here?

The Sports Political Power Index 2015-2017 may be viewed here.