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  • Writer's pictureAndreas Bøe

Sportwashing – A Political Tool

Sports and Politics

This winter, the Football World Cup will be hosted by Qatar. The best football players in the world will compete for glory in stadiums built under brutal conditions by migrant workers. Gay football fans risk their lives by entering Qatar, and several hotels there have already announced that they will refuse to house gay tourists. The World Cup in football just adds to the line of sports events being hosted in countries with values and rules breaking fundamentally with our western norms. The Winter Olympics 2022 was held in China, a country that puts Uighurs in concentration camps. Russia has recently hosted both the Winter Olympics and the World Cup in football.

Of course, Qatar did not get the rights to host the World Cup due to its football heritage or great facilities. This has, however, never been a requirement either. The Olympic Games were hosted in Rome, Tokyo, and Munich in the years from 1960 to 1972 as an attempt by the IOC to encourage harmony in the world after World War II.

However, using sports as a means of political diplomacy is getting less and less common. These days, we typically see what’s popularly called sportwashing. It is due to sportwashing that countries like Qatar, China, and Russia want to host such sports events. These countries believe that by doing so, they will improve their international reputation by removing the focus from the breaches of their human rights. Not necessarily to gain popularity from the masses, but maybe, even more, to be perceived as attractive to foreign investors.

Should the Football World Protest?

The entire football world has learned how corrupt the choice of Qatar as a World Cup host was. Out of the 22 people who decided that Qatar should be the host country, 16 of them are not either suspended or under legal charges. There seems to be no doubt that Qatar bought the rights to host this tournament. Considering the human suffering involved in this choice, it is strange to see that the football world is not able to unite and call Qatar’s hosting unacceptable. Can we place the burden on the athletes and managers? Should they be the ones to stand up against FIFA and Qatar?

Before a golf tournament took place in Saudi Arabia, golfer Viktor Hovland said: “I am a golf player, not a politician”. Ståle Solbakken, Manager of Norway men’s national football team, took an opposite stance when talking about the Qatar World cup: “Sports are politics. This is why I say that politics and sports will always be tied together”.

In the qualifying matches before the World Cup, Norway was among the national teams to protest against Qatar hosting the world cup. The players did, among other things, wear t-shirts saying “human rights on and off the pitch”. One of the Norwegian players wearing this t-shirt, Erling Haaland, later signed for Manchester City. Manchester City is owned by Sheikh Mansour, the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Did he have a responsibility to turn down the contract offer from Manchester City due to the human rights violations of UAE?

Should the Football World Protest?

Numerous football fans have decided not to watch the World Cup. It is difficult to get around the fact that watching the World Cup indirectly supports human rights violations. Other football fans say they will watch because the consequences of low audience ratings will only harm the workers and the poor anyway.

Photo by Thomas Serer on Unsplash

Some will make a relativist argument, claiming that we have no business with how other countries are organizing their society. Protesting against the laws and norms in Qatar implies that we consider our laws and norms superior. Is it so that human rights are so central that we should be willing and prepared to protest against anyone breaking them?

I believe the choice of boycotting events hosted by these countries should be a personal choice. Do you want to just enjoy the World Cup? Do you feel like signing for Manchester City is the best choice for your career? That’s totally fine.

We should, however, try to be consistent in our choice. If we agree that it was right to ban Russia from the World Cup due to their human rights violations in Ukraine, it would be a tad hypocritical to accept that the World Cup is hosted in Qatar. If it would feel wrong to watch Russia play in the World Cup, should it not also feel wrong to see Qatar hosting it? It is human to be more lenient towards marginalizing crimes and norm violations happening further away from us. For a European, problems in Ukraine seem far more relevant to us than problems in Qatar. We should not tolerate well the injustice that does not harm ourselves.

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