Qatar is a rich Persian Gulf nation known for its huge oil reserves and its flagrant human rights abuses. It is a dictatorship in which women have to seek permission from their male guardians to marry or work in many government jobs, in which being gay is criminalized and can result in a prison sentence, in which migrant workers are treated appallingly and in which journalists have been imprisoned for reporting critically on domestic politics.
Yet all of this is minimized as the world’s eyes fall on Qatar for the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup next month. Qatar’s leaders know this and it is why they have paid through the nose — estimates put it at US$220 billion, by far the most expensive World Cup of all time — to host the competition, including lavishing money on efforts to lobby British politicians.
Inevitably, soccer teams, international supporters, the world’s media and foreign dignitaries would duly head to Qatar for an international sporting tournament that has serious environmental implications and could, some predict, leave a huge carbon footprint.
At a conservative estimate, at least 6,500 migrant workers have lost their lives in Qatar since it was awarded the World Cup in 2011.
This World Cup is just the latest in a long line of expensive international sporting events that have been hosted by nations that stand accused of fundamental human rights contraventions.
The 2008 Summer Olympics and this year’s Winter Olympics in China, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, the Bahrain Grand Prix, the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Qatar and the 2019 Anthony Joshua fight in Saudi Arabia: There is an indisputable trend of big sporting events being hosted by rich but unsavory countries.
This is the reflection of a number of trends. There is the push factor of dictatorships around the world seeking to launder their reputations through the medium of international sport — US$200 billion on a World Cup does not just secure international visitors and sporting entertainment, but also publicity that money normally cannot buy. This is particularly valuable in an age when Gulf states recognize that at some point the oil and gas will run out and so are looking to build other sources of power on the world stage.
In response, competitions are more expensive to put on, as democracies that have to justify the expense to voters get priced out of the market. The 2006 World Cup in Germany cost just US$4.3 billion. The levels of financial corruption in international sport — governing bodies such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee have been notoriously porous to expensive bribes and shady deals in exchange for votes behind the scenes — have made things worse.
Sporting bureaucrats therefore often face unenviable choices. For example, between Beijing in China and Almaty in Kazakhstan for this year’s Winter Olympics, which ultimately went to the former, necessitating the manufacture of fake snow out of 185 million liters of water.
Sports governing bodies advance the case that awarding competitions to countries with questionable human rights records draws attention and scrutiny to their abuses, encouraging liberalization.
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe claimed at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Qatar that sport can uniquely “shine the spotlight on issues” and is “the best diplomat we have.”
However, there is little academic evidence of these effects. China’s human rights abuses got worse between the 2009 Summer Olympics and this year’s Winter Olympics. The same is true of Russia and the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were undoubtedly a propaganda coup for the Nazis.
Sporting competitions would lead to improvements only if sports bodies were to take a tough approach with host nations, attaching stringent conditions that improve human rights records beyond the period of the competition itself.
However, they are generally not willing to do this. In fact, they are much more likely to equivocate and protest their neutrality over the most dreadful human rights abuses.
When asked what he would say to Chinese Uighurs forcibly separated from their children and interned in concentration camps, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said on the eve of this year’s Beijing Olympics: “The position of the IOC must be to give political neutrality. If we get in the middle of intentions and disputes and confrontations of political powers, then we are putting the games at risk.”
Could there be anything more morally decrepit than a policy of neutrality on genocide?
The problem does not start and stop with sport. The approach international sports bodies take to countries such as the Gulf states is a reflection of international politics. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are considered close allies of the UK, with cooperation on security and the fostering of trade links, including arms sales.
The British Royal Air Force even has a joint air force squadron with Qatar. Earlier this year, then-British prime minister Boris Johnson went to Saudi Arabia to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite the fact that his government had arranged for the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to be murdered in its consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
International sporting competitions should not be awarded to governments with appalling human rights records.
However, this is a line that Western political, not just sporting, leadership has proved all too willing to cross.
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