It has become a regular ritual: as soon as a major sporting event looms in a country that has a low score in terms of democracy and human rights, calls for a boycott are heard from all sides. The two flagship events of 2022, the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the World Cup in Qatar, are no different.
Top athletes are invariably asked if they shouldn’t bring up the abuses in the country that form the backdrop to their medal hunt. Since the cameras are on the stars for a few weeks and their statements are heard by millions, such questions are understandable. At the same time, it is unfair: the athletes have no influence on the allocation of their tournaments. The decision on “Beijing 2022” was taken in 2015 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), while next year’s World Cup was already awarded to Qatar in 2010 by the world football federation FIFA. Matthijs de Ligt was eleven years old at the time.
The feeling of unease about sport in controversial countries will increase. Many sports federations, organizers of major events and clubs prefer big money to principles. Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, China, Russia and Azerbaijan spend billions to win sports tournaments. It goes much further than the World Cup or the Olympic Games: from Formula 1 to golf, from athletics to swimming or gymnastics. It is a remarkable move in international sport eastward, following in the footsteps of 21st century pawn shops.
Human rights organizations point out that these states are using sport to improve their poor human rights record, summarized under the term sports wash. The same is true in the world of football: the big European clubs are bought at a frantic pace by investors from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The most recent example is Premier League club Newcastle United, which is now owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Fans and club officials are eager to let go of concerns about where the money will come from in light of the successes their club could face, as players see their salaries soaring to skyrocketing heights.
The fact that Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton recently used his fame at the Qatar Grand Prix, where he appeared on the track wearing a rainbow-colored helmet to draw attention to the rights of the LGBTQ community, must be applauded.
But he’s a loner. And the problem is deeper. Changes can only happen if sports federations become stricter on club buyouts and tournament awards, for example with demands for democracy, human rights, equality and rules. work. In this regard, we must welcome the initiative of 23 European Sports Ministers who, shortly before Christmas, in an open letter, called on the international sports federations to make requests to the candidate countries for a major tournament.
The influence of European countries may be limited, but a more critical attitude towards sports washing is a start. In any case, a stricter choice in the allocation of tournaments is preferable to a diplomatic or sporting boycott of an event which is about to start.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of December 29, 2021
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