This weekend, the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup kicks off in the Gulf state of Qatar, amid myriad controversies, from the appalling treatment of the migrant workers who built the stadiums to the criminalization of same-sex relationships ; not to mention the disruption of European football seasons and allegations of corruption in the bidding process.
Thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar over the past decade and while the organizing committee says “only” 37 who worked on World Cup projects have perished, Amnesty International points out that working conditions forced are a widespread concern. Welsh LGBT fans, despite their side qualifying for their first World Cup since 1958, admirably took a stand by boycotting the event. With such controversies, even former Fifa president Sepp Blatter now admits that hosting the event in Qatar was a mistake.
Of course, this question creates a challenge for those associated with the World Cup. As Qatar and Fifa pursue the event, questions arise for the event’s sponsors, who are paying to be linked to this human rights disaster. Broadcasters too have a difficult line to toe, after repeated events in other authoritarian countries have failed to deliver hoped-for improvements in democracy and human rights. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics were touted as an opportunity to improve human rights in China; however, Human Rights Watch argues that – if anything – it has been a catalyst for further abuse.
In this context, broadcasters have suggested that the solution is to talk about the problem on the show. Gary Lineker, speaking on the Global’s News Agents podcast last week, spoke about the importance of educating yourself, adding that there are “massive issues”; while Gary Neville suggested, while hosting the BBC’s Have I Got News For You, that ‘either you highlight the issues and challenges in these countries and talk about them, or you don’t say anything and stay home and don’t go”. As Ian Hislop rightly pointed out, it won’t be in the commentary, which begs the question of how many people will actually pay attention.
The phenomenon of using sporting events to divert attention from human rights abuses has come to be known as “sportswashing”. Although the term itself is relatively new, scholars have traced its history in practice back to antiquity, whether in Athenian chariot races to project strength or Roman gladiator fights to entertain. the population of domestic problems.
Many claim that the 1936 Olympics in Berlin under Nazi rule are an early example of sportswashing. The idea has gained new momentum following recent events in authoritarian countries, in particular the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and now the next World Cup. in Qatar. Alongside these high profile examples, there has been a plethora of smaller scale events including the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, F1 races in the Gulf States including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia , and high profile boxing matches in Saudi Arabia.
Sportswashing is often understood as a state trying to use soft power to demonstrate its positive qualities to an international audience; divert attention from human rights issues with a celebration of sport. However, it is important to note that international viewers are not the only audience for sportswashing.
As geographer Sven Daniel Wolfe wrote of Sochi 2014, we can see the display of power more through the prism of creating a sense of national unity for Russians, rather than creating an attraction towards Russia from abroad.
In this case, sportwashing is not about winning over foreign governments and the public – it is about cementing power domestically. As political scientist Jules Boykoff notes, in these contexts sportwashing can be used to set the stage for military intervention, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea beginning just days after the closing ceremony in Sochi.
This distinction between international public and national public is important for the next World Cup. While countries like China and Russia may be using these mega-events to project power onto their national populations and cement their grip on power, what is happening in Qatar and other Gulf states is different. .
Part of the impetus for their investments in this area stems from a desire to shift their economies from overwhelming reliance on fossil fuel exports and to develop the tourism and events industries. For this, they must convince the international public that they are competent hosts and attractive destinations. In this context, ‘talking about it’, as Lineker and Neville suggest, has the potential to make a difference, although Hislop’s question of whether people will actually listen remains relevant.
Despite this, “talking about it” has already made a difference. The worst elements of Qatar’s Kafala system, which prevented migrant workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without the employer’s consent, have been changed. This comes with caveats: the laws changed after many World Cup stadiums were completed, and they need to be properly applied over time to make a difference – and not changed once the eyes of the world turn. While Fifa will try to take credit for creating the pressure for this change, it was groups like the International Labor Organization, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that pushed for it during the last decade.
However, Qatar is not an instructive lesson. Talking about it doesn’t always work. Western coverage of the Jeddah Grand Prix included an interview with the Saudi Minister of Sports, asking questions about softball regarding human rights – but questions about softball don’t create change. Human rights defenders and harsh critics can create pressure for change, given the right circumstances. But this must also be maintained in the long term.
There are often criticisms when mega-events like the World Cup approach, but they disappear once the event starts as the media focuses exclusively on the sport, before moving on to the next event and to ignore the problems the event leaves in its wake. Whether Qatar will follow a different path remains to be seen.
• Dr Adam Talbot is a Lecturer in Event Management at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on mega-events, human rights and civil society