Photo: The Korean Olympic Committee
It’s hard not to love the Olympics and the World Cup. These massive international sporting events are among our best moments as a species: people from all over the world coming together, competing against each other, and then winning or losing generally graciously. We get to hear about countries we’ve never heard of, engage in cultural exchange, and maybe, if you’re an Olympian, have an absolutely insane amount of intercultural sex.
All this is ruined when you bring the politics in. The last few Olympics (London excepted) have been marred by political scandals and human rights abuses. Shortly before the 2008 Summer Olympics, China was brutally cracking down on protests in Tibet and censoring the bejesus out of political dissidents. Then we had the 2014 Sochi Olympics — before the games we saw videos of police and plainclothes thugs beating up homosexuals, and after the event, Russia invaded Crimea.
And we can probably bet that the next three World Cups are going to be rocky. This year’s tournament in Brazil is already marked by massive protests against the absurdity of spending this much money on a sporting event when so many Brazilians live in grinding poverty. The 2018 World Cup is going to be in Russia, so…yeah.
And then the 2022 World Cup is set for Qatar. It’s eight years away, yes, but reports are saying that 900 workers have already died building Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure. Let me repeat that: 900 people have already died, eight years from the start of the event. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that by the time the event starts, 4,000 migrant workers will have lost their lives.
To give you a sense of comparison, six workers have died in Brazil during the World Cup preparations. There are probably several reasons for the appalling numbers in Qatar, but among them are that migrants have been working in 122-degree heat, their passports and wages are often withheld for months by their employers, and they have overcrowded, unhygienic, and underfed living situations.
The problem, as Marcos Carvalho puts it, is that “governments bid for hosting the World Cup, not countries.” On its face, you’d think that Brazil, the soccer-lovingest nation in a soccer-loving world, would be elated to be hosting the World Cup. But you’d also have to imagine that some futebol-loving fans would nonetheless prefer to have acceptable living conditions instead.
Carvalho’s point stands for the Olympics as well: Both Putin and the Communist Party of China considered their Olympics to be a public relations coup, as a way of saying to the world, “We’re back!” We should hardly be surprised Russia added “…in Crimea!” to that sentence after we all left.
So the question that arises is: Why are we giving world sporting events to Russia, Qatar, and China anyway? Are there any standards to which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA will hold their host countries?
It’s of course insanely simplistic to assume that the Olympics are responsible for Russia’s invasion of Crimea, or China’s authoritarianism, but we could, at the very least, just shame them a little bit. The second “Fundamental Principle of Olympism” in the Olympic Charter states that “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
Uh, yeah, where’s that fundamental principle coming in during the selection process, guys? And I understand that FIFA isn’t held to the same standards as the IOC, but you’d hope they’d at least agree that “human dignity” was a thing they should take into account when organizing the World Cup. Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA, said, “We have some responsibility, but we can’t interfere in the rights of workers.” Forget ‘human dignity’ — we can’t even get FIFA to engage in basic human decency.
Of course, both the IOC and FIFA have been accused of corruption in their choices of event sites, so you start to wonder how much world peace and harmony really figure into the exercise. The Olympics and the World Cup are immensely expensive events, and given their logistical nature, it would be hard to make them cheap affairs. But as most of the bill is footed by the host country, what if the IOC and FIFA showed that they were committed to at least basic human rights by pulling out of a rights-abusing country once. Just once!
To be fair, we should point out that this tactic could be used against any country, not just Qatar, Russia, or China: If, for example, the Olympics in Salt Lake City had occurred in 2004 instead of 2002, the United States would’ve been right in the thick of the invasion of Iraq, which was, according to the UN Charter, illegal. If the games had been in 2006, it wouldn’t have been too long after Abu Ghraib. The IOC, in totally good conscience, could’ve pulled the Olympic Games from Salt Lake City.
And the thing is, they wouldn’t need to do it again. If that whole “peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” clause turned out to not be bullshit, then countries that bid for the Olympics in the future will want to make sure they meet the standards set by the IOC. If they don’t think they’ll meet those standards, why make the investment, only to have it pulled, possibly causing widespread destabilization in their country?
Countries that didn’t meet those standards, of course, would still be invited to the Olympics. They just wouldn’t have a chance in hell of hosting. That should be an honor reserved for countries that treat their people, all people, with respect.
Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves this question: Are we even pretending these events are about being the only time the entire world can come together in peace and play games with each other? Or should we just cut the charade and acknowledge that their sole purpose is to earn money and prestige for corrupt rulers and elites?