Olympic visions: thoughts on Argentina, the Falklands and soft power

The Argentine government have, in recent weeks and months, sought to harness soft power in the pursuit of their claims to the Falkland Islands. A few weeks ago, Sean Penn and Roger Waters (see previous post) were being paraded in front of the world’s media in order to assert Argentine sovereignty over the Malvinas. With the release of an Olympics-inspired video last week, the Argentine government have signalled their intent to use the forthcoming summer games in London, as well as the streets of Stanley (capital of the Falkland Islands) as legitimate forums for the public demonstration of their sovereignty claims.

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Argentine Olympic hopeful Fernando Zylberberg ‘training’ on the Falkland Islands

Last week’s video—first broadcast in Argentina on Wednesday 2nd May—featured the Argentine Olympic hopeful, Fernando Zylberberg, undertaking intense physical training in advance of the 2012 Olympics Games. While this, in itself, is hardly remarkable, it is the film’s striking (and more subtle) geographies that have propelled it to international attention. Rather than featuring the iconic avenues of Buenos Aires, or the mountains of Patagonia, this particular video was secretly filmed in and around Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, in March 2012.

The film obeys many of the conventions of a somewhat hackneyed sportswear commercial—the lone athlete dedicatedly testing and improving himself against the terrain and environmental conditions (he is variously lashed by wind and sea spray), warmed only by the breaking light of dawn. Icons of Stanley are woven into his training routine. The picnic tables outside the Globe Tavern become the apparatus for calisthenics, Ross Road (site of the Governor’s residence) is used for burst sprinting and, perhaps most controversially, Stanley’s Great War memorial is the scene for a bit of real world ‘step aerobics’. These shots are further interspersed with images of red telephone boxes, Union and Falkland Island flags, Land Rovers and UK streets signs. Just as we think the athlete has pushed himself as far as he can possibly go—a physical state signalled [at approx. 1:00] by his strained attempt to compete a single gruelling press-up—he is splendidly restored to his physical peak when his lips connect with the sand of the disputed Islands. Stirring stuff, made all the more emotional by the obligatory soundtrack of strings and brass instruments, and the closing titles, which read: “Para competir en suelo inglés entrenamos en suelo argentine” [to compete on English soil we train on Argentine soil].

The UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, condemned the video as “a stunt“, while Falkland Islands Government representative Ian Hansen expressed “disappointment” that Argentina had sought to use the Olympics “in the service of their territorial ambitions“. Hansen also confirmed that the video had been made without the knowledge of local authorities. It has since been reported by Mercopress, the South American news agency, that Zylberberg and three other Argentine athletes entered the Falkland Islands in March under the auspices of running the annual Stanley marathon.

Falkland Islanders were quick to note the more sinister implications of the video. Other than the presence of Zylberberg, for example, the Islands are shown to be entirely and eerily depopulated—a powerful visual gesture that has been interpreted in Stanley as symbolic of Argentina’s policy towards the Islands, i.e. “to pretend that the people of the Falkland Islands do not exist” (FIG 2012). There are also strong resonances with the events of thirty years ago. Just as in 1982, the Islands are rendered as a testing ground for a particular expression of Argentine power, albeit with a sporting motif that reflects, according to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s commitment to “creativity and truth” as opposed to any renewed military campaign.

But the video is not beyond playing on the sentiment and emotion attached to the Falklands conflict. The timing (coincident with the 30th anniversary) and closing dedication to the memory of the “fallen soldiers and war veterans” root the commercial in the events of 1982. The producers—a team working for Y&R Buenos Aires (part of Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP)—have also acknowledged that the war and its legacies were fundamental in the inception of the campaign. “The first thing we did”, they state, “was to test the script with the Malvinas veterans: they were really motivated”. In a curious blurring of fiction and fact even the athlete-cum-advertising star, Fernando Zylberberg, seems to have been affected by the associations with 1982. “I ran all over the Islands so as to have the different sequences, ” he is reported as saying. “There were many veterans so in my head I felt I was running in a battlefield and after that it’s impossible not to have energy to keep running.”

Falkland Islanders have responded in recent days with a humorous video riposte that seeks to subvert and diffuse the  Argentine commercial in equal measure. Using much of the footage from the original video, Islanders have spliced images of a London ‘Routemaster’ driving through Stanley, giving the impression that Zylberberg (and, by implication, Argentina) have, again, missed their Falklands opportunity. The spoof closes with the tagline, “To catch a bus on Falklands soil…we advise not using an Argentine timetable”.

For those of us interested in geopolitics, this latest episode in Falkland Islands-Argentine-UK relations is a powerful reminder of the unresolved emotions associated with the 1982 conflict, and further evidence of Argentina’s strategy of using ‘soft power’ (including commercials and celebrity endorsements) in the pursuit of their territorial claims in the South Atlantic. It is also a reminder of the importance of sport and more particularly the Olympic Games as a lightening rod for political protest, as a venue for competing ideologies, and as a forum for geopolitical intrigue. It equally serves to highlight that advertising, and the globalised world of advertising agencies, is powerful, intensely (geo)political and fickle. It was, after all, a young advertising executive called Martin Sorrell who masterminded the expansion of Saatchi & Saatchi—reputedly Margaret Thatcher’s favourite advertising agency—during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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Alasdair Pinkerton is a former Shackleton Scholar and has worked extensively in the Falkland Islands

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6 thoughts on “Olympic visions: thoughts on Argentina, the Falklands and soft power

  1. Great post. Argentina was also reprimanded by FIFA in February for proposing to rename its football league after its Navy cruiser, General Belgrano, which was sunk by a British submarine during the war. FIFA said the move could be in violation of its anti-discrimination policies. Not sure what came of this…

  2. Pingback: In the news: the future of the Falkland Islands « rhulgeopolitics

  3. Pingback: Alasdair Pinkerton on ‘The Falkland Islands: Creative Claims and the 2013 Referendum’ « rhulgeopolitics

  4. Pingback: Falkland Islands referendum 2013: the past 12 months | rhulgeopolitics

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