Between October 2021 and March 2022, Dubai hosted World Expo (Expo hereafter). The event was originally scheduled for 2020 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but, similarly as in the case of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the original name of the event—Expo 2020—remained. Expo is classified as a mega-event. According to the information provided by the Bureau International des Expositions (n.d.), an intergovernmental organization responsible for and regulating international expositions, World Expos (officially International Registered Exhibitions) ‘are a global gathering of nations dedicated to finding solutions to pressing challenges of our time (…). World Expos welcome tens of millions of visitors, allow countries to build extraordinary pavilions and transform the host city for years to come.’

Expo is considered one of the largest events in the world. According to Müller (2015), it is one of the mega-events alongside the European football championships, FIFA World Cup, Asian Games and Olympic Winter Games, giving way only to the Olympic Games, which Müller termed as giga-events. Like other mega-events, Expos are directly linked to the goal of promoting countries. Their specificity is that, unlike most other large events in which the host city or country is the main subject of such promotion, each participating country aims to promote itself during the Expo through national pavilions or expositions in collective pavilions. Countries seek to promote their culture, tourism and many other assets through these channels. Naturally, the promotion of the host country is also evident, but nearly all states participating in Expo seek to disseminate certain information about itself.

The goal of the research presented in the article is to study the nation branding and public diplomacy initiatives conducted during Expo 2020 in Dubai using sport. States have increasingly used sport as part of the strategic shift from employing hard power to soft power (Grix and Brannagan 2016). The use of sport within soft power strategies, most generally in an attempt to improve the state’s international image, typically involved the staging of sporting events and sporting mega-events in particular. Other typical tools include sports exchanges, achievements in sport, sports development aid, sport investments or participation in sport (Kobierecki 2020), while Abdi et al. (2018), in their model, distinguished sports diplomacy resources (sporting events, sports human capital, sports producers and products), and the sports diplomacy conversion tools (high performance, competent cultural ambassadors, official and sports diplomacy solidarity, all associated with extensive media coverage). The main argument presented in the article is that the use of sport in shaping the international image of a state can also take the form of showcasing sport-related assets during the non-sporting event.

The research presented in the article aims to respond to the research question on how sport may be used to promote countries during an Expo. The goal was to identify the main themes through which sport-related activities and assets were being used and whether they had an overriding or a minor role in promoting states. The novelty of the research relates to the fact that it refers to a new perspective within the relatively well-developed field of research concerning the link between mega-events and the shaping of the international image of states since it is focused on the use of sport during a non-sporting event.

Theoretical considerations

From a theoretical perspective, the research builds upon the concept of soft power, the term coined by Joseph Nye Jr. According to Nye (2004), a state may sometimes fulfill its objectives without resorting to coercion or payment because other states could aim to follow in its path by admiring the values it represents, emulating its example, or aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness. Therefore, soft power is about ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want (p. 5).’ Soft power assets have traditionally been used by states to shape their international perception. As Nye (2008) observed in the context of public diplomacy, it is a tool of using soft power assets by governments to communicate particular content to the public in other countries to attract it. The range of soft power assets is vast, including virtually everything outside of economic and military assets (Wilson 2008), but in principle includes such elements as culture, ideology, and institutions (Nye 1990). Sport is also considered a soft power asset (Grix and Houlihan 2014; Woodward 2020), which creates the basic theoretical foundation of the research. Based on the assumption that soft power assets might be useful in shaping the international image of a state, it seems natural that countries would showcase them during Expo—an event that allows states to present themselves to the wider public, but also as a tool for reaching soft power goals in its own right (See Wallis and Balsamo 2016). Therefore, it is justified to expect sport-related motives in the country pavilions during Expo.

Conceptually, the research refers to three scientific categories: Public diplomacy, nation branding, and sports diplomacy. The use of sport or sporting assets to shape the international perception of states falls within the scope of the definition of sports diplomacy, although the category is often understood more broadly. According to Murray (2018), sports diplomacy covers four theoretical subcategories: Traditional sports diplomacy, (new) sports diplomacy, the specialized diplomacy of non-state sporting actors, and sports anti-diplomacy. Traditional sports diplomacy is about using sport to advance the state’s foreign policy objectives; specialized diplomacy of non-state sporting actors is about sports bodies engaging in diplomatic processes, whereas sports anti-diplomacy is about driving people and states apart with the use of sport. However, from the perspective of this research, the key part of Murray’s framework is sports diplomacy, also described as new sports diplomacy. Apart from state bodies, it also includes activities of non-state and public partnerships, while ministries of foreign affairs facilitate, manage, and evaluate sports diplomacy strategies and policies. Its objective is to enhance the state’s image, reputation, and partnerships. The connection between sport and shaping the international image of states was also recognized by Pamment (2016), whose understanding of sports diplomacy included ‘reputational advantages of sporting mega-events and elite sport, feeding into debates on public diplomacy, soft power, and place brands (p. 234).’

The understanding of sports diplomacy as an activity oriented toward shaping the desired international image of states is linked to two other, more general categories—public diplomacy and nation branding. There are many ways of understanding both terms and various approaches to the mutual relations between them. To avoid engaging in such conceptual debates, this study adopts the definitions offered by Pamment (2013), who defined public diplomacy as the communication of an international actor’s policies to the citizens of foreign countries, and Anholt (2007), who described nation branding as a process of designing, planning, and communicating the name and identity of a state to build or manage its reputation. Both categories are related to shaping the international image of a country, but based on the approach presented by Gilboa (2008), we can assume that public diplomacy is more about foreign policy goals, while nation branding is more about economic issues. According to Cull (2012a), Expo is the ‘institution in which the art of public diplomacy and nation branding converge (p. 249),’ with both being exercised in country pavilions. According to Wang (2020), national pavilions at an Expo ‘articulate and amplify the image and identity of a country (pp. 225–226).’ Wang continues that national pavilions are ’a spatial form of storytelling’ aimed at advancing the positive narrative about the image of a nation. Wang considers Expo an important element of a nation’s public diplomacy efforts and claims that it embodies nation branding since pavilions apply branding practices in their design and narrative strategies about their country's image. Some studies treated Expos purely from the perspective of nation branding (See Ren and Gyimóthy 2013), but such an approach has not been overriding in the research of Expos. In this study, we shall consider the use of sport in country pavilions during Expo 2020 in Dubai as a form of sports diplomacy aimed at shaping the international image of countries, both in the context of public diplomacy and nation branding.

Literature review

The research presented in the article should be situated in between two fields. The first refers to the use of sport in shaping a state’s international image; the second refers to the role of Expos in nation branding and public diplomacy. Concerning the first field, the scientific literature is vast, covering issues such as the branding role of hosting sporting events and high performance in international elite sport (See Lee et al. 2005; Dembek and Włoch 2014; Reiche 2016; Hautbois 2016; Haut et al. 2017). These and many other studies have focused on how hosting sporting events and achieving victories in sport can shape the desirable image of countries. There have also been attempts to measure their effectiveness (See Gries et al. 2010; Zeng et al. 2012; Kobierecki and Strożek 2017), although the conclusions have not always been coherent. Fewer studies have been dedicated to other forms of the use of sport in shaping the international image of states. Scholars have been investigating such means as the use of sports technologies (Dubinsky 2021), sports exchanges (Thomas 2012), providing sports development aid (Kellison and Cintron 2017; Parks 2014), participation in international sport (See Brentin and Tregoures 2016), or sport investments, for example, in foreign sporting clubs (Reiche 2015). A whole set of sports diplomacy conversion tools which allow converting raw sports diplomacy resources (sporting events, sport human capital, and sports producers and products) into desired diplomatic outcomes has been employed in a sports diplomacy model by Abdi et al. (2018). They include competent cultural ambassadors, such as athletes, fans, and coaches acting as universal and national ambassadors; high performance, both in the context of best records (high performance in sport) and best management (managerial issues relating to hosting sporting events); official and sports diplomacy solidarity (coherence between sports diplomacy initiatives and the official diplomacy); and vast media coverage. Still, the use of sport in shaping the international image of states at a non-sporting event such as Expo appears not to have been undertaken by scholars yet.

The second field of research to be discussed refers to Expos and their significance to the international image of states. Though not as intensive as other mega-events such as the Olympic Games or FIFA World Cups, Expos have also become a frequent subject of studies regarding their importance in shaping the international image of a country. Several more theoretical or conceptual publications refer to such meaning of the Expos (See Cull 2012a; Wang 2020). Among the most comprehensive publications on the use of Expos to shape states’ international image, Wang’s (2013) monograph Shaping China’s Global Imagination should be mentioned, which includes theoretical considerations on the meaning of World Expos and nation branding, and studies of several national pavilions during the Expo in Shanghai. Although China was of the central interest, the study also provided valuable observations about the participating countries, attempting to explain the different nation branding practices of the eight pavilions under study through the concept of nation branding as a strategic narrative.

Among the publications that analyze the branding importance of Expos, several groups should be mentioned. Firstly, there are those which focus on organizing Expos and their significance in shaping the international image of the host (Dynon 2011; Barr 2012), sometimes in conjunction with other events (Chen 2012). Many studies undertook the issue of branding the host, but in reference to cities rather than states (See De Carlo et al. 2009; Wang et al. 2012; Yu et al. 2012; LV et al. 2017; Hereźniak and Florek 2018; Sharma et al. 2019). Other studies focused on the second face of Expo’s branding significance, which is the use of country pavilions to shape the image of presented states (Wang 2011; Cull 2012b; Ren and Gyimóthy 2013; Wallis and Balsamo 2016; Álvarez-Ruiz and Wang 2016; Gębarowski 2018). These and other pieces of research provide practical observations and theoretical generalizations concerning the significance of Expos in shaping the international image of states.

As noted above, both the use of sport and the significance of Expos in shaping the international image of states are relatively well studied. However, most of them focus on a single country presented at the Expo or hosts. Outside of this, there exists a gap in the area between these fields—the use of sport in branding states during a non-sporting event such as World Expo. The few studies that have touched upon this issue include one by Cingiene et al. (2014), which, among other things, referred to the issue of Lithuania’s pavilion during the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, in which basketball was one of the key motives. Still, the use of sport to promote states through country pavilions during Expos remains highly understudied. The research presented in the article attempts to fill this gap and in the area of branding sports diplomacy attempts to contribute to the field by identifying and analyzing a method of using sport to promote the state’s image that has been overlooked in the scientific discourse.


The study was carried out through direct observation during field research at the Expo 2020 in Dubai between 11 and 20 February 2022. During the study, each of the 192 national pavilions was visited in search of references to sport and physical activity. The observations were documented through note-taking and supplemented by photographic documentation. The observation had a structured form and was performed in search of references to sport and following the preselected categories determined during the preliminary study: Elite sport, sporting events, and sports tourism (even though it does not correspond directly with sport understood as a form of physical competition).

There are many definitions of sport, and the debates about the issue have resumed recently in the context of the status of e-sport (See Heere 2018). This article adopts the understanding of sport presented by Woods (2007), who argued that sport should have a physical component, institutionalized character, include competition, and should require specialized facilities and equipment. Sports tourism, on the other hand, is perceived as an activity at the crossroads of sport and tourism which concerns traveling elsewhere, with the goal to participate in physical or sporting activities, in an event or exhibition with a focus on sport, visiting places important in the sports culture, or in the context of traveling as being part of the sport administration (Pigeassou 2004). In this study, sports tourism has been concerned in principle with regard to the first two of these activities.

The research was focused on exhibitions within the pavilions and their proximity, including posters, roll-ups, exhibited goods, videos presented on screens (including the interactive screens that required visitor engagement) and various forms of cinematic experiences offered by many of the pavilions (some offering various types of spherical cinema). In some situations, the search for sport references included asking the pavilion staff for directions and suggestions. The study, in principle, did not take into consideration side-events organized by pavilions. Some of them had hosted sport-related events, several of which have been described in the article. Still, due to the large number of pavilions, the research was focused on static exhibitions. It should also be noted that some pavilions were changing the details of their exhibitions periodically. For example, according to Brazilian pavilion staff member, at the time of the field visit, there was no reference to sport in the pavilion, but sport issues were supposed to be introduced in the following week. In such cases, it has been assumed that no references to sport were used.

It should also be noted that many of the pavilions referred to the main themes of Expo 2020. World Expos generally have themes related to the problems and challenges of the world. The theme of the Dubai 2020 Expo was Connecting Minds and Creating the Future, which was operationalized through three key motives: Sustainability, mobility, and opportunity. Accordingly, the country pavilions were located in one of the three theme districts: Sustainability, mobility, and opportunity (Expo 2020 Dubai UEA n.d.a). In many cases, these themes affected the issues presented in the pavilions, potentially leaving less space for sport. Still, many pavilions referred to the main themes in a flexible way, often presenting anything their governments found suitable.

As noted above, the research concerned all of the 192 country pavilions, although one of them was the State of Palestine which did not represent a recognized independent country, but was listed by the Expo’s organizers as one of the ‘country pavilions’. In this research, we will not engage in the debates concerning the status of Palestine and will consider its pavilion as one of the country pavilions, according to the official website of the Expo (Expo 2020 Dubai UEA n.d.b).


The thorough analysis of the observations from the field research allows proposing several categories in which sport has been employed in the country pavilions during Expo 2020 in Dubai. To a certain level, these categories have exceeded the previously assumed elite sport, sporting events, and sports tourism. Although sport rarely became the dominant theme in respective pavilions, it has been used in the following key contexts: Achievements in elite sport, hosting sporting events, local sports and festivals, active society, and sporting infrastructure and tourism. Each of the approaches is presented in detail below. Additionally, for each of the categories, one country that has excessively used sport in its pavilion was analyzed in greater detail, taking into consideration how the showcasing of sport in its Expo pavilion corresponded to its wider foreign policy and the goals concerning its international image, highlighting its general approach to the use of sport.

Achievements in elite sport

Elite sport in the country pavilions was a key part of the investigation. As noted above, theoretically, the research is based on the concept of soft power, considering sport as a soft power asset. In this sense, performance in elite sport matters in particular. When it comes to the use of sport in shaping states' international image, it is most significantly pursued through hosting sporting events and prowess in sport. However, hosting sporting events is based not only on sporting assets—to successfully stage a sporting mega-event, the host needs the organizational and economic capabilities. Therefore, the level of elite sport should be considered the purest of sport soft power assets.

The main theme through which elite sport was presented in the country pavilions was the overall high level of sport, both concerning individual sports stars and more generally. This was the case of Uruguay, the only country with sport as the central theme of its pavilion, with the ‘Score a goal to the world with Uruguay’ catchphrase at the entrance and plenty of references to Uruguay’s football history inside. Uruguay’s exhibition included a ball used in the 1st World Cup in 1930, the Jules Rimet Cup, and a list of achievements of its national team. The pavilion also featured many pictures and an interactive game in which visitors could try to score a goal against a goalkeeper displayed on a big screen.

Another country whose pavilion dedicated a lot of attention to elite sport was Jamaica. The pavilion featured a large-themed exhibition with posters, screens, and graffiti about elite sport. Sport was described as a major part of Jamaican culture and a driving force behind the economy, and world-famous Jamaican athletes were described as ‘have never been in higher demand.’ Jamaican sport was referred to in general, but there were also specific references to particular sports stars: Cricket player George Alphonso Headley, netball player Elaine Lamour Davis, Reggae Boyz (the first football team to qualify for the World Cup), diver-swimmer Yona Knight Wisdom, football and basketball teams, track and field athletes Courtney Walsh, Asafa Powell, Merlene Ottey, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and Usain Bolt. Bolt, the track and field superstar, received particular attention, including a statute with him standing in his famous ‘To Di World’ pose.

Much attention was also dedicated to the achievements in sport in the Slovenian pavilion. In the main cinema room, among other things, there were references to accomplished athletes: Ski jumping world cup winner Nika Križnar, the first woman to win a gold medal in sport climbing at the Olympics Janja Garnbret, or double Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar. In addition to that, a separate room was dedicated to ‘Great Sports Achievements’, featuring a list of Olympic medals won by Slovenian athletes before and after 1990, and other achievements in sport, such as the European Basketball Championship in 2017, medals in the European championships in volleyball and handball, achievements of Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič in cycling, and of Luka Dončić in basketball. Many references to famous athletes could also be found in the Croatian pavilion, where both interactive screens and the main cinema showcased tennis players Ivo Karlović and Goran Ivanišević, skiers Janica and Ivica Kostelić, basketball player Dražen Petrović (described as the Mozart of Basketball) and football player Luca Modrić.

Several countries in their use of sport at Expo 2020 focused on a single sport as was the case of the already mentioned Uruguay. In the pavilion of Antigua and Barbuda, the focus was on cricket, a sport considered particularly important in that country. In a separate section, there were pictures and bios of famous players: Sir Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts, Rahkeem Rashawn Shane Cornwall, Hayden Rashadi Walsh, Alzarri, Sir Curlty Elconn Lynwall Ambrose, Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards, Sir Richard Benjamin Richardson. A section dedicated to cricket, described as the nation’s favorite and a trace back to British influence, was also installed in the pavilion of Barbados. In the pavilion of the Dominican Republic, there were baseball products and memorabilia, while on one of the posters, the Dominican Republic was described as ‘the home country of some of the best talents.’ The pavilions of several African countries referred to football. In the pavilion of Cameroon, footage of the national team matches were shown, while pictures of the players (including individual stars Samuel Eto’o Fils and Roger Milla) were presented both inside the pavilion and on the façade. In the pavilion of Senegal, there was a large picture of the national football team celebrating victory. In the pavilion of Liberia there were screens showing footage of the national football team matches and many references to the country’s president, former successful football player George Weah who was described as ‘one of the most celebrated football players of all time.’ The football team considered as a national pride, though more modestly, was also presented in the pavilion of Comoros, where the ‘Franco-Comorian football team’ was described as ‘a great point of pride for Comorians at home and abroad.’

One of the more frequent forms of referring to achievements in elite sport in the country pavilions was presenting athletes among the accomplished representatives of respective nations. In the Argentinian pavilion, a large poster was dedicated to the achievements of Diego Maradona, while in the Belgian pavilion, at the entrance, carton figures of heptathlete Nafti Thiam, cyclist Eddy Merckx, and hand cyclist Marc Herremans were presented among other famous Belgians.Footnote 1 The Cape Verdean pavilion, among other famous residents, presented American boxer of Cabo Verde descent Demetrius “Boo Boo” Andrade and the national football team, which reached the quarter-final of the 2013 African Cup of Nations. In the pavilion of Djibouti, the exposition of famous people included the athlete Ayanleh Souleiman, while in the pavilion of Mozambique, one of the posters showcased Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, described as ‘considered by many football pundits as one of the greatest footballers of all time.’ The Nigerian pavilion featured pictures of a British boxer of Nigerian descent Anthony Joshua, the female track and field team and the national football team. In turn, tennis player Novak Djoković and basketball player Nikola Jović, accompanied with short descriptions of their achievements, were presented in the Serbian pavilion, in the section dedicated to famous Serbs. Similarly, in the pavilion of Tanzania, in their ‘Proudly Tanzania’ exhibition, two out of six famous people were athletes: Professional footballer Mbawana Samatta and professional boxer Hassan Mwakinyo. Images of accomplished athletes could also be seen among the pictures of famous people in Zimbabwe’s pavilion, described as ‘resilient and hardworking.’ Their pictures without names or descriptions included two cricket players, one football player, and a swimmer—Olympic multimedalist and IOC Member Kirsty Coventry. On the façade of the Georgian pavilion, the 5-time world chess champion Nona Gaprindashvili and the weightlifting Olympic champion and world record holder Lasha Talakhadze were showcased among other famous Georgians. Similarly, on the façade of the Kenyan pavilion, there were pictures of long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge and a member of the national rugby team, although without any descriptions or bios.

Several country pavilions featured a high level of sport, though more modestly and without any particular context. In the pavilion of Belarus, close to the pavilion exit, there was a mosaic with pictures of successful Belarusian athletes in kayaking, ice hockey, canoeing, biathlon, rowing, gymnastics, tennis, track and field, speed skating, and the Belarusian delegation at an opening ceremony of an unspecified event. There were no names of athletes, but the pictures included global sports stars such as the tennis player Victoria Azarenka and biathlete Darya Domracheva. A similar form of presentation could be seen in the Armenian pavilion. On a wall dedicated to showcasing various aspects of the country, one of the sections was dedicated to sport, with pictures of Armenian athletes in weightlifting, chess, wrestling, and boxing. Pictures of elite athletes could also be seen on posters in Nauru’s pavilion, with a comment that ‘Nauru’s sportsmen and women have trotted the globe showcasing their athletic prowess and bringing home the medals to prove it.’ In addition to this, the Bangladeshi national cricket team was presented on the façade of the country’s pavilion, while in the Togolese pavilion, there was a full-sized cardboard figure of the captain of the national football team. In the pavilion of Honduras, football players were presented in a part of one of the films, with the subtitle saying that athletes demonstrate that Honduras is a country full of people who strive to achieve their goals.’ In the Spanish pavilion, on the wall, there were drawings of unspecified athletes—a football player and a tennis player—with catchphrases ‘Sports power’ and ‘Be inspired by our culture and the passion of our athletes.’Footnote 2 In the Latvian pavilion, there was a very modest reference to the country’s high level in ice sports—through one of the questions in the interactive quiz, while in the Vietnamese pavilion, achievements in elite sport were used as part of the general description of the country, with a dedicated display featuring a list of football achievements in the ASEAN Football Federation Championships, South East Asian Games and Asian Games.

Two interesting references to elite sport concerned the country pavilions of Kosovo and Switzerland. Just behind the entrance of Kosovo’s pavilion, there was a large picture of its national team, with its most accomplished athlete, Olympic champion Mejlinda Kelmendi, carrying the national flag with another national flag in the background. Although it was not an overriding theme of the pavilion, the location of the picture was meaningful regarding the importance that Kosovo attaches to the possibility of competing in international sport within its attempts to acquire universal international recognition. In turn, Switzerland employed sport in a typically nation branding manner. In front of the pavilion, there were posters and a screen with tennis player Roger Federer, one of the great Swiss sports stars, promoting tourism in Switzerland. Also, in front of the entrance to the pavilion, there was a display of Swiss symbols including Swiss army knife, the bank balance, and a tennis ball with which Federer had practiced. According to the inscription, it was meant to symbolize the ‘legendary Swiss precision.’

Out of the countries that used elite sport more intensively, Slovenia has been selected for a more in-depth analysis. The Slovenian pavilion had one exhibition entirely dedicated to its achievements in sport, while references to them were also present in the main film broadcasted in the cinema room. Slovenia is a relatively young country, established in 1991 after it seceded from Yugoslavia. It joined the European Union in 2004. Considering its population of approximately just two million, Slovenia is very accomplished in elite sport—if the two recent Olympic Games are considered, Slovenia won three gold, one silver, and one bronze medal in Tokyo 2020 (IOC n.d.a), and two gold, three silver, and two bronze medals during Winter Games Beijing 2022 (IOC n.d.b). According to Slovenian foreign policy strategy, the main objectives of the country’s foreign policy include ‘peace, security, prosperity, positive bilateral relations, a strong EU, a close transatlantic alliance, a stable and effective multilateral system, visibility of Slovenia and close bonds with Slovenians abroad.’ Public diplomacy and nation branding are considered important indirect tools of Slovenian foreign policy and are supposed to represent Slovenia as ‘safe, open, responsible, rich in culture and successful.’ This image is to be constructed by accomplished Slovenian nationals and Slovenians by the birth of various fields such as business, culture, science, who ‘constitute Slovenian soft power in the world.’ Within such an approach to public diplomacy and nation branding, particular attention is paid to athletes who have contributed towards Slovenia’s international reputation (Republika Slovenija Ministerstvo Za Zunaje Zadeve 2021). As we can see, Slovenia attempts to build its international perception with the use of elements perceived as a soft power asset, including the high level of sport. These goals and strategies were reflected in the Slovenian Expo pavilion, where elite sport performance was given great attention. Regarding the context of the achievements in sport presented in the Slovenian pavilion compared to the country’s foreign policy strategy, the use of sport in its Expo pavilion should be considered from the perspective of both public diplomacy and nation branding. Sport prowess is perceived as a soft power asset that allows a small country like Slovenia to distinguish itself. However, Slovenia also employs its athletes to foster typical nation branding goals such as the promotion of tourism. For example, Slovenia’s official website promoting incoming tourism features an article on Tadej Pogačar, a cyclist also presented in the Expo pavilion, in addition to the description of the country’s cycling routes ( n.d.). However, during the Expo, Slovenian achievements in sport appear to have been presented in a more general way.

Hosting international sporting events

The high level of elite sport was of crucial importance to the research in the context of perceiving sport as a soft power asset. Still, other aspects related to elite sport were also visible. The other key theme concerned hosting international sporting events. References to them could be found in nine pavilions. Azerbaijan was probably the country that referred to them most comprehensively. On the glass façade of its pavilion, alongside other motives, the graphics referred to F1 races in Baku, whereas inside the pavilion, interactive screens featured references to hosting sporting events. They included F1 races, co-hosting the EURO 2020 European football championships, the 6th Aerobic Gymnastics World Championships in 2021, the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017,Footnote 3 and the European Games in 2015.

Hosting F1 races was featured in several other Expo 2020 country pavilions. In the pavilion of Monaco, one of the key motives presented on the main screen concerned sporting events held in the country, with clips showing the Monaco F1 Grand Prix, tennis tournaments and football competitions. In the pavilion of Bahrain, one of the screens displayed F1 races and the horse racing organized in that country, while in the Saudi pavilion, in the main theater with spheric cinema, part of the show was dedicated to F1 racing held in Saudi Arabia.

In two of the pavilions, there were also references to sporting mega-events. The Chinese pavilion featured a small multimedia exhibition dedicated to the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, which were held at of the same time as the research visit. The screen displayed Olympic competitions and venues, and some of the key themes of the Games: The Green Olympics, sustainability, and transformation of the venues from the Olympics in 2008. References to sporting mega-events could also be seen in the British pavilion, where in the exhibition leading through the entrance, pictures were promoting the Commonwealth Games 2022 to be organized in Birmingham. Although it was not directly observed within the research, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games were also promoted through a side event—the Expo was visited by the Birmingham 2022 Queens Baton Relay, which passed through the Commonwealth national pavilions (Expo 2020 Dubai UAE 2022).

Other countries that used hosting sporting events in their Expo 2020 promotions included Barbados, which has already been mentioned. As could be read on one of the posters in its exposition dedicated to cricket, in 2007 Barbados hosted several matches of the Cricket World Cup, including the final.Footnote 4 In the pavilion of Rwanda, the country was presented as an ‘attractive destination for sporting events,’ showcasing cycling, mountain cycling, athletics and basketball competitions. In turn, part of the exhibition in the San Marino pavilion was dedicated to events held in that country, including pictures and descriptions of the Rallylegends festival dedicated to historical rally cars and the San Marino and Rimini Riviera MotoGP Grand Prix.Footnote 5

References to hosting sporting events were presented most extensively in the pavilion of Azerbaijan, a post-Soviet country that declared independence in 1991. Since its independence, this gas-rich country has been engaged in a territorial dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh region, resulting in numerous clashes and armed conflicts. This dispute impacted the declared foreign policy goals of Azerbaijan, which include protecting the status of the leading state in the region and strengthening its position in the world community, restoring territorial integrity and resolving the conflict with Armenia, and integrating with the global community ( n.d.). Realization of these goals is also being pursued through public diplomacy, which has been focused on organizing international forums, promoting conferences abroad, and hosting sporting events. Their public diplomacy offensive was intended to impress the Western audience and is believed to have been associated with the role of countering the Armenian narrative over Nagorno-Karabakh. The most important initiatives within Azeri public diplomacy include hosting events, in particular sporting events, which aim to improve the country’s global relevance (Loda 2016). All the most important events organized in Azerbaijan (mentioned above) were featured in its Expo pavilion. They were presented without any particular context, or among the local attractions, for example, the Baku F1 City Circuit was presented on one of the screens alongside off-road rides, street food, and sunset polo. In this sense, sport was used in their Expo pavilion in a nation branding context, but we should remember that in general, hosting sporting events in Azerbaijan also has a strong association with public diplomacy and is related to the country’s key foreign policy goals.

Local sports and festivals

Another group of sport-related exhibitions in Expo 2020 pavilions included the presentation of local sports.Footnote 6 Such sports, like the achievements in elite sport, are pure examples of soft power, although their reach is smaller. If local sports are considered, in one of the main cinema rooms of the Australian pavilion there was a brief reference to Australian rules football, described as ‘the most highly attended spectators sport in Australia.’ The pavilion of Ireland featured a subtle reference to hurling—a recently renowned ancient Irish sport, presented in the context of the sustainable equipment for the game produced by the Irish company Torpey Bambú. Several Central Asian countries presented local sports as reflections of their cultures. In the Mongolian pavilion, posters presented traditional archery and naadam (a form of wrestling, described as ‘three games of man’), while the Kyrgyzstani pavilion promoted the World Nomad Games, an event initiated in 2012 to ‘show the world our preserved nomadic culture,’ featuring horse races and intellectual games.

Martial arts were particularly common among the local sports presented at the Expo 2020 country pavilions. Apart from those already mentioned, a poster showing a local martial art resembling wrestling was hung in the pavilion of Sierra Leone (although the Arabic description only focused on the merits of rural life), while in the pavilion of Togo, one could see pictures of Evala, a traditional form of wrestling being part of a local festival.

The second group concerned sports with a more global reach originating from a particular country. Martial arts of Japanese origin, such as sumo, were presented among other symbols of the country’s culture in the Japanese pavilion. In the pavilion of Thailand, one of the films featured foreigners who had moved to Thailand, including Youssef Boughnem from Belgium, a Muay Thai fighter who settled there because of his passion for this sport of Thai origin. A large part of the exhibition in the Spanish pavilion featured chess, with a large board on the floor, chess tables, and a mural showing the history of the game where Spain was described as the ‘cradle of modern chess.’

Although not everyone would consider it a sport, a large part of India’s pavilion was dedicated to yoga, with screens showing yoga postures, full-sized sculptures, a message concerning yoga from India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, and his avatar demonstrating yoga postures, and actual people demonstrating yoga postures. Like in the cases presented above, India used the fact that this globally popular pastime originated there, treating it as a typical soft power asset.

Thailand is an Asian country with a highly developed tourist industry. It has rather general foreign policy goals which include promoting its role on the global stage, playing a constructive role regionally and globally, strengthening ASEAN solidarity, promoting economic and cultural relations, enhancing international cooperation concerning security, and engaging in proactive diplomacy for the people (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Thailand n.d.). Thailand is also active in public diplomacy, which is believed to have the goal of projecting the national image and creating a better understanding of the country. The promotion of soft power assets and public diplomacy were included in the country’s 20-year National Strategy adopted in 2018, with key policy actions that included increasing the Thai brand and popularity through art and culture (Anantasirikiat 2021). Interestingly, although it is not directly stated in the country’s strategic documents, Thailand’s government has been pursuing so-called Muay Thai diplomacy, attempting to support the inclusion of Muay Thai into the Olympic program and promoting the sport abroad to increase the visibility and prestige of their country. Such undertakings included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organizing Muay Thai demonstrations and workshops worldwide (Jones and Theerawong 2021). The reference to Muay Thai in Thailand’s Expo pavilion appears to be the continuation of Muay Thai diplomacy, although the context may have been slightly different. Muay Thai diplomacy reveals a specific public diplomacy approach, while in the Expo pavilion, the sport was presented in a more nation branding context, with the direct message of attracting visitors. Thus, Muay Thai should be considered Thailand’s soft power asset, used in all areas of promotion of Thailand.

Active society

Several countries also chose sport to showcase their societies as active and their countries as being good places to live. The pavilions of Algeria, Bangladesh, Barbados, Botswana, Canada, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Fiji, Gabon, Paraguay, and the Solomon Islands featured such references in a very general way, usually by presenting people practising recreational sports. In the Russian pavilion, an exposition promoting Moscow's candidacy to host Expo featured people sailing for leisure. In turn, the Belgian pavilion featured many references to cycling, showcasing the bicycle as an important means of transport in the country. This message was also combined with presenting the country as technologically developed, with references to tech bicycles and the idea of a cycle highway network throughout Belgium.

The Australian pavilion was extraordinary for references to sport, although there were very few such elements in the main exhibition inside the pavilion. Australia is a traditional sporting nation and the first country to adopt a sports diplomacy strategy (Murray 2018). The attitude to sport of the pavilion was visible in an unusual way, through a complex of sport pitches named Aussie Park, located next to its pavilion. Australia used the complex to host multiple sporting activities (See: Australia Expo 2020 Dubai 2021), which in a way typical for public diplomacy were supposed to engage the public, particularly school children, to solidify the image of Australia as a sporting nation.

In some cases, the sporting activities of a society presented in the pavilions implied the positive social functions of sport. Girls practising sports were shown as part of the film displayed in the Pakistani pavilion in the context of the empowerment of women. This role of sport was also visible in the impressive pavilion of the Expo’s host, the United Arab Emirates. In the section dedicated to the Presence, several clips displayed on multiple screens showed, among other things, girls playing football. Although this was not implied straightforwardly, they appeared to have suggested a progressive approach to women in the UAE.Footnote 7 The UAE pavilion also featured a section dedicated to socially engaged people, including a poster dedicated to a triathlete and an advocate of a charity event ‘Race for the Purpose’ Romeo Puncia. Positive functions of sport were also underlined in several other pavilions. In the pavilion of Monaco, one exposition was dedicated to the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation, which runs programs for children related to swimming.Footnote 8 Many such functions of sport were highlighted in the pavilion of South Sudan, one of the youngest countries in the world. The inscriptions on the posters noted that ‘wrestlers used sport to promote peace among ethnic groups (…) to bring the nation together,’ or that youth has been using sport to tell stories of peace and conflict as part of the UNESCO Culture for Peace and Non-Violence Program.’

Australia’s key foreign policy objectives center on promoting an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, supporting Australian business globally, ensuring safety and security, supporting global stability and prosperity, and supporting a more resilient Pacific and Timor-Leste. According to the 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper, one means to achieve these goals includes the employment of soft power, while Australia’s key assets in this matter include its ‘democracy, multicultural society, strong economy, attractive lifestyle and world-class institutions.’ Among the projected activities, there is a direct reference to sports diplomacy, which is supposed to showcase Australia as a sporting nation and its expertise in event management, elite sport, and sports medicine (Australian Government 2017). Sports diplomacy has become one of the key approaches within Australian public diplomacy (Australian Government: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2016), while in 2015 Australia was the first country in the world to adopt a sports diplomacy strategy (Murray 2017), supporting the argument that Australia as one of the leading countries in sports diplomacy.

According to the second edition of Australia’s sports diplomacy strategy, sport is considered a diplomatic asset that can help Australia advance national interests, project its values and identity, serve as a bridge between peoples, and generally amplify Australia’s global reputation. The key strategic priorities of the strategy include empowering Australian sport to represent Australia globally; building links with neighboring countries; maximizing trade, tourism and investment opportunities; and strengthening communities in the Indo-Pacific and beyond (Australian Government 2019). As a result of such dedication to sports diplomacy, the Australian pavilion was expected to include many references to sport. Although within the pavilion there were only minor references to Australian rules football, the pavilion surrounds and the accompanying events demonstrated strong links between Australia and sport. Such an approach to sport in and beyond the Australian pavilion should be connected with the strategic documents mentioned above, in which sports diplomacy is linked to public diplomacy, while sport is also considered as part of the soft power strategy. Sport is considered Australia’s asset, and Australians are pictured as a truly sporting nation, both in the area of elite sport and active society. During the Expo, Australia continued to use this asset.

Sporting infrastructure and sports tourism

Expo country pavilions have also referred to sport in the context of sporting infrastructure and the possibility of practising sport while visiting the country. If sporting infrastructure was considered, sometimes it was presented in conjunction with hosting sporting events. For example, Azerbaijan showcased the Baku Olympic Stadium and the Baku City Circuit in addition to the promotion of its sporting events previously discussed. In the pavilion of Belgium, there was a large poster with a cartoon picture of the F1 circuit in Spa-Francorchamps in the children's section. The pavilion of Bahrain promoted Sports City, a planned initiative to build a sport complex with the state’s largest stadium, multi-purpose hall, football fields, athletic tracks, hotels, and shopping malls. In the context of the development of infrastructure, images of sports stadiums were featured in the pavilions of Benin, Gabon, Indonesia, and Senegal, while in front of the pavilion of Great Britain, a picture of Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium was among other landmarks of the UK.

Even though sports tourism should not be explicitly considered a sport, it corresponds to the research in that it refers to physical activity, which under certain circumstances could be considered through the lenses of the category ‘sport for all.’ In either case, references to sports tourism in Expo 2020 country pavilions were the most common among all sport-related topics. Of the 192 country pavilions, in 58 more or less direct references to sports tourism were made,Footnote 9 accounting for 30%. Some countries, such as Monaco or Portugal, underlined the sporting infrastructure, but the majority highlighted the natural assets such as mountains, seas, or rivers. Accordingly, the most typical sporting activities included water sports, skiing, cycling, and trekking.

The pavilion of Monaco featured references to both sporting infrastructure and sports tourism, highlighting the possibilities of practicing sports and showcasing elite sports competitions such as the famous F1 race or tennis tournaments. This tiny, but rich, microstate with its economy based on tourism and banking had its Ministry of Foreign Affairs established only in 2005, with the declared goal to ‘spread of influence and the evolution of Monaco's image in the world’ (Gouvernement Princier Principate de Monaco n.d.a). Monaco has traditionally pictured itself as a sport-oriented country, promoting prestigious competitions, mass participation in sport, and participation in major sporting events (Gouvernement Princier Principate de Monaco n.d.b). Sport is also used to increase the international visibility of the principality, with world-class sporting facilities to serve as venues for sporting events and provide the opportunity to practice sport (Gouvernement Princier Principate de Monaco n.d.c). Such an approach reveals a typically nation branding perspective, without deeper political meaning and the goal to attract visitors. The message of the references to sport in Monaco’s Expo pavilion was similar.

Discussion and conclusion

Sport and sport-related issues did not constitute the dominant component in most of Expo 2020 pavilions as key themes of the Expo were rather remote from the issue of sport. Many of the country pavilions, particularly those designed individually, have attempted to contribute to the themes of sustainability, mobility, and opportunity. Thus, the most sophisticated pavilions had few or no references to sport, showing a lesser interest from developed countries and emerging powers to showcase sporting assets during the Expo, which in turn could speak of only a minor role for sport in attempts to shape their international image. However, sport-related issues have been present, and in several pavilions, they even gained a dominant position. The forms through which sporting assets have been presented were very diverse, including posters, sport venues, memorabilia, sculptures, sections in the interactive screens, events, facades, graffiti, murals or films displayed on screens on the walls or in specially designed theaters. The key sport themes included highlighting the high level of elite sport, hosting sporting events, local sports and festivals, and active societies, accompanied by the promotion of tourism by presenting the possibilities of practising sport. From the perspective of the research goals, elite sport was particularly important. It concerned presenting individual sports stars, successful national sports teams, and heritage in selected sports. Sometimes this took a more general form, but there were also pavilions in which successful athletes were referred to as national pride and presented alongside other successful nation representatives.

Among the general observations of the use of sport in Expo 2020 country pavilions, it should be noted that it did not always correspond with certain countries' general sports diplomacy strategies. Some countries that have actively employed sport for national branding and public diplomacy in the past have also employed sport during Expo 2020. Australia partnered with Expo’s sports complex and held numerous sporting events, Azerbaijan showcased the sporting events it hosts, and Kosovo’s pavilion welcomed visitors with picture of its national team, excessively used to promote its statehood internationally. Thailand promoted Muay Thai, developing its earlier endeavors within the so-called Muay Thai diplomacy, references to high level of sport in the Slovenian pavilion coincided with that country’s foreign policy strategy, while Monaco highlighted its sophisticated sporting infrastructure as a touristic attraction. On the other hand, certain countries that have very intensively used sport for nation branding and public diplomacy in the past, such as China, Russia, or Qatar, had few or no sports references in their pavilions. This could be explained as an attempt to avoid controversies associated with their sports policies, but at the same time, this could be the result of attempts to focus on the main themes of Expo 2020.

Another important observation concerns the assets presented in the pavilions, with different states building on different things. There were countries with a high level of sport that did not refer to it at all (this, in particular, refers to well-developed nations which could freely choose their branding strategies at the Expo), while others attempted to build on even the most modest assets. Nigeria, Cabo Verde, and Mozambique showcased famous athletes who had represented other countries, respectively Anthony Joshua (UK), Demetrius Andrade (USA), and Eusebio (Portugal). Several countries showcased sports stadiums as proof of their growing infrastructure or showcased national teams with limited or regional achievements. Although it probably did not stem from the limited sporting assets, two countries also presented projected sporting assets of the future, with Bahrain referring to the Sports City and Belgium to cycling technologies and victories of the national football team.

Even though sport in principle did not occupy a key role in promoting countries during Expo 2020 in Dubai, the frequency of its use in country pavilions allows one to call it a tool of branding sports diplomacy. Its characteristic feature is that sport-related assets are used in a non-sport-related environment of World Expo, an event with a totally different characters to other mega-events, as it emphasizes actual visitors experience rather than media coverage. The number of countries undertaking sport-related issues exceeded initial expectations. 63 country pavilions (excluding those promoting sports tourism) have in one or more way referred to sport, representing 33% of all Expo 2020 pavilions. Taking into consideration the respective categories, 33 pavilions referred to achievements in elite sport, 9 to hosting sporting events, 10 to local sports, 8 to sporting infrastructure, and 18 to active society. These figures speak in favor of acknowledging showcasing sporting assets in Expo pavilions as one of the common methods of conducting sports diplomacy to shape the international image of states. They also suggest the importance of sport as a part of states’ soft power arsenal, even despite the fact that most sports powers (both in contexts of sports performance and managerial skills, see Abdi et al. 2018) have been modest in referring to sport, what could suggest only minor importance attached by governments to sports resources during the Expo. As to the exact approaches by countries to the use of sport during Expo 2020, in most cases, they were more typical for nation branding, aiming in particular to boost tourism. It might be the result of the character of the Expo, which in principle targets visitors. Still, in some of the analyzed cases, referring to sport corresponded with the general public diplomacy strategies, while in general, sport very often was considered a soft power asset.