By James M. Dorsey
2022 is promising to be the year of mega sporting events that potentially fly in the face of values professed by international sporting events and defy logic.
Consensus is near unanimous that temperatures in Qatar are too high for a summer World Cup. Similarly, Beijing lacks the snow needed for a Winter Olympics. That didn’t deter the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from awarding the 2022 tournament to Beijing.
If environmental concerns were not reason enough for pause, Doha and Beijing illustrate an equally disturbing trend: international sporting associations like the IOC and world soccer body FIFA are happy to give autocrats a global platform that allows them to polish their tarnished images and project themselves on the international stage.
Qatar is plagued by criticism of its controversial labour regime that puts workers at the mercy of their employers and raises questions about their safety and security. China is witnessing a crackdown on dissent.
Granted, it’s easy to level criticism at the hosting choices of international sporting associations. Achieving a balance between upholding the lofty values of international sporting associations and their choices of hosts of mega events is far more intricate and complex.
Those choices are determined to a large extent by the criteria potential hosts have to meet to qualify, legal intricacies, political concerns, and a need to ensure a level playing field on which countries are not disadvantaged because of their size or natural environment. International sporting associations have so far done a poor job in managing these issues.
Critics argue that the 2008 Beijing Olympics demonstrated that mega sporting events do little to advance an opening up of autocratic societies. China was accused of forced evictions without proper compensation and unwarranted arrests of human rights advocates in the walk-up to and during the tournament.
Moreover, China in the last two months has arrested more than 260 activists. A Chinese human rights group reported that authorities have ““arbitrarily detained” some 1,800 human rights activists since President Xi Jinping took office two years ago.
The arrests cast doubt on Chinese assurances that China will respect human rights as part of its successful bid to host the 2022 event. The Olympic Evaluation Commission said China’s "written assurances" included a commitment to press freedom, the right to demonstrate, labour rights and environmental protection in the context of the Games.
The Commission further expressed concern about Beijing’s air quality, noting that the Chinese government had promised measures to mitigate air pollution.
China’s track record is not the only reason to take those assurances with a grain of salt. The track record of international sporting associations is no more stellar. A German television documentary earlier this year that investigated the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar disclosed a guarantee by Russia as part of its contract with FIFA to suspend labour legislation related to World Cup projects.
Potentially, Qatar could offer a counter argument. Its successful World Cup bid despite persistent questions about its integrity has already produced change. Qatar, since winning, has broken ranks with its autocratic Gulf partners to become the only country in the region to engage with its critics rather than either imprison them or bar entry to the country. In cooperation with human rights and labour activists, it has developed far-reaching standards for the working and living conditions of its majority migrant labour population.
Whether Qatar indeed proves to be a rare case study of a tournament that drives social and economic, if not, political change will depend on whether it matches its words with deeds and on whether it follows through with further reforms.
The contrasting examples of China and Qatar complicate decision making. It’s hard to judge in advance of the awarding of a mega event what impact that decision will have. In China’s case, one of the world’s foremost powers determined to reshape the international order, it’s fair to assume that it will not be easily persuaded to change its ways. China’s sway is vested in its hard power.
The contrary is true for Qatar, a small country sandwiched between regional behemoths Saudi Arabia and Iran for which sports is a key tool to enhance its soft power in the absence of the kind of credible hard power that could deter its foreign distractors. As a result, Qatar is more susceptible to pressure to ensure that its soft power strategy of building friendships and alliances it can fall back on in times of emergency works.
While making those judgements is ultimately a question of assessment, there are things international sporting associations can do to reverse the trend evident in the IOC’s choice of only Almaty or Beijing of autocrats dominating bids for mega events. One such step would be to ensure that expenditure required justifies the results rather than reaffirming the legacy of debt and white elephants that many mega events leave behind.
Not dissimilar to Qatar, the IOC has promised change but has yet to implement it. Its Olympic Agenda 2020 adopted in Monaco in December envisions a more flexible bidding process and sports program, lower costs for hosting the games, and the creation of a digital channel to promote Olympic sports and values. If implemented it could lead to more cities following through on their bids. Four cities, including favourite Oslo and Boston, bowed out of the bid for the 2022 World Olympics largely because of cost.
Creating a level playing field is no less difficult than judging an event’s potential to drive change. Qatar no doubt has some of the world’s highest summer temperatures. Its proposed solution for air conditioning of stadiums remains untested and was written off by its detractors even before it had a chance to be tested.
Moreover, whether the World Cup is held in the winter when temperatures are lower or in the summer is primarily a European, not a Qatari problem. Similarly, Beijing’s need to artificially produce snow is likely to have an environmental impact. Exactly what that is remains unclear.
Bahrain, host of a Formula One race and another state with the hard power to crack down on its domestic critics but not to defend itself against external military threats, is like Qatar an example where pressure can produce some result.
Bahrain, a country that has flagrantly violated human rights since the brutal crushing of a popular revolt in 2011, is however also an example of the legal difficulty involved in balancing the values of international sporting associations with partnering with autocrats.
Formula One Group promised in April in a joint statement with advocacy group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) to “strengthen its processes in relation to human rights in accordance with the standards provided for” by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
The guidelines include respect for the human rights of those affected by a multinational’s activities consistent with a host government’s international obligations and commitments. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights obligations of the government concerned are of particular relevance in this regard,” the guidelines say.
In a statement included in the legal notices on its website, Formula One said its human rights efforts were focussed on “those areas which are within our own direct influence.” It said it would take “proportionate steps” to monitor the potential human rights impacts of its activities, identify and assess, potential adverse human rights impacts, and “engage in meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders in relation to any issues raised as a result of our due diligence.”
Formula One said human rights included the freedom to associate and organise and the right to engage in collective bargaining. It cautioned however that it would have to ensure that it does not violate domestic laws in cases where local “laws and regulations conflict with internationally recognised human rights.
Bahrain, a country that lacks freedom to associate and organize and does not allow collective bargaining, raises the question whether international sporting associations can balance their commitment to human rights with operations in autocratic environments. That is all the more true with Formula One races in Bahrain in recent years becoming platforms for confrontation between large numbers of protesters and security forces determined to suppress dissent.
On the surface of it, international sporting associations engage in a balancing act in which domestic laws ultimately force them to compromise their ideals. That is true in a majority of cases. Qatar is the litmus test of whether in some cases engagement does not simply mean questionable compromise but can in line with sporting ideals drive change.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.