Authoritarian regimes play games at World Cup

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Jessica Ludwig
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

The World Cup isn't the only thing being contested on the pitch in Qatar.

FIFA, the international sporting body that hosts the quadrennial event, expects an estimated 5 billion people to tune in to this year’s tournament. Qatar is using the soft power inherent in its status as the World Cup host to launder its reputation as a human rights abuser before the international community – a practice known as “sportswashing.”

The Qatari government has been widely criticized over the past 12 years for a number of migrant worker deaths from unknown causes— investigations and data collection were not conducted by authorities. The deaths were suspected to be linked to inhumane working conditions at stadium sites and other venues linked to preparing the country for the 2022 World Cup games. Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, aggressively dismissed the questions raised around migrant worker deaths and other repressive Qatari government policies in an hour-long speech before the start of this year’s games.

The Swiss and U.S. governments are investigating FIFA and some of its officials for bribery, corruption, and money laundering related to the 2010 World Cup bidding process that selected Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022 and Russia in 2018.

Qatar and FIFA are not the only actors to use sports to paper over corruption and human rights abuses. Olympic gold medal speedskater Joey Cheek (Torino Winter Olympics, 2006) recently recounted how he was denied a visa by the Chinese government in 2008 to travel to the Beijing Summer Olympics. Cheek organized a coalition of international athletes— Team Darfur—seeking an end to the genocidal conflict ravaging the Sudanese region. The group had directly called for the People’s Republic of China to stop blocking critical votes at the U.N. Security Council.

Since that time, autocratic regimes and human rights abusers have attempted to repress and censor free expression in the international arena by leveraging sports and sporting events. However, athletes have found unique ways to show their support.

The Iranian men’s soccer team remained silent when their national anthem was played before their opening match at this year’s World Cup. In an interview before the game, the team captain expressed his support and sympathies for the victims of the Iranian regime’s violent repression of protestors.

The international community needs to remember that the world is indeed watching how it responds to the abuses of power. Sporting events are no longer a neutral venue free from politics. The authoritarian governments of the world are already using them as a field to play their own power games.