It has become a regular ritual: As soon as a major sporting event looms in a country that scores low on democracy and human rights, calls for a boycott are heard from all sides. The two most important events of 2022, the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the World Cup in Qatar, are no different.
Top athletes are always asked if they should not mention the violations in the country that form the background to the medal hunt. With the cameras pointed at the stars for a few weeks and their sayings heard by millions, such questions are understandable. At the same time, this is unfair: athletes have no influence on the allocation of their championships. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the “Beijing 2022” decision in 2015, while next year’s World Cup was already allocated to Qatar in 2010 by FIFA. Matthijs de Ligt was eleven years old at the time.
Feelings of unease about sports will grow in controversial countries. Many sports federations, event organizers and major clubs prefer big money over principles. Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, China, Russia and Azerbaijan spend billions to win sports tournaments. This goes far beyond the World Cup or the Olympic Games: from Formula 1 to golf, from athletics to swimming or gymnastics. It’s a great move for international sport eastward, following in the footsteps of moneylenders of the 21st century.
Human rights organizations point out that such countries use sport to improve their poor human rights record, which is summarized under this term. sports wash. The same is happening in the world of football: the major European clubs are being taken over at a rapid pace by investors from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The most recent example is Premier League club Newcastle United, now owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Fans and club officials are eager to let go of their concerns about the source of the money in light of the successes their club may face, as players see their salaries skyrocket.
The fact that Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton recently used his fame at the Qatar Grand Prix, appearing on the track wearing a rainbow helmet to draw attention to the rights of the LGBTQ community, is commendable.
But he is alone. The problem is deeper. Changes can only happen if sports federations become stricter in taking over clubs and allocating tournaments, for example with demands in the areas of democracy, human rights, equality and labor rules. In this regard, the initiative of 23 European sports ministers, who, shortly before Christmas, called on international sports federations in an open letter to ask bidding countries for a major tournament, should be commended.
The influence of European countries may be limited, but taking a more critical stance on sports washing is a start. In any case, a stricter choice of tournament customization is better than a diplomatic or sporting boycott of an event about to begin.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on December 29, 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of December 29, 2021
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