The Qatar World Cup Is Peak ‘Sportswashing.’ But Will It Work?
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When France faces off against Argentina in the final match of the World Cup on Saturday, it will almost certainly be the most watched event in the world, culminating with celebrations in the streets of Paris or Buenos Aires, lubricated by good feeling and less good alcohol. And soon enough the world’s attention will turn away from the tournament’s host country, Qatar, a repressive monarchy where, according to the nonprofit Freedom House, “the vast majority of the population consists of noncitizens with no political rights.”
Like the last World Cup, which was hosted by Russia in 2018, this year’s tournament has been overshadowed by accusations of “sportswashing,” or the propagandistic use of athletics by a government to launder its tarnished reputation. When the cameras shut off and the journalists leave, will Qatar really emerge in a stronger geopolitical position, its image cleansed and its soft power fortified by spectacle? Here’s what people are saying.
A contentious choice
The 2022 World Cup has been mired in controversy ever since FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, awarded Qatar hosting rights in 2010. The choice made little sense to many in the soccer world: Although the tiny gulf nation is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, thanks to its vast reserves of natural gas, it didn’t have proper soccer stadiums, the infrastructure for mass tourism or a climate suitable for playing soccer safely in the summer, when the World Cup is normally held.
The strangeness of the choice, announced on the same day that FIFA awarded hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup to Russia, aroused suspicions of bribery that were borne out by investigations. Within a few years, “almost every one of the 22 members of the committee who had participated in the vote had been accused of or charged with corruption,” Tariq Panja and Rory Smith reported for The Times last month.
To prepare for its hosting duties, Qatar embarked on a $220 billion construction spree, erecting not just stadiums but also a metro system, an airport expansion, roads, bridges, artificial islands and luxury hotels. “Doha tripled in size during the 2010s,” Sam Knight wrote in The New Yorker. “The Qatari Investment Authority, which manages an estimated $450 billion, didn’t build a stage for a soccer tournament; it built a city to encompass the stage.”
This construction work was performed by migrants, who account for almost 90 percent of the country’s population of three million, under exploitative and dangerous conditions: Thousands are thought to have died since construction began, in many cases without detailed explanation or family compensation. “The reality is that Qatar operates what a former United Nations special rapporteur on racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, described in 2019 as a de facto caste system based on national origin,” wrote Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Qatar’s labor minister claims ‘every death is a tragedy,’ but Qatar does not treat all lives equally.”
Qatar has also come under fire for its treatment of women, who are required to get permission from a male guardian to exercise basic freedoms, and its attitude toward homosexuality, which is criminalized and punishable by up to three years in prison. In the tournament’s first week, FIFA blocked several European teams from wearing armbands promoting gay rights by threatening to penalize them.
Qatari officials have objected to the criticism as hypocritical and racist in its selectivity, pointing to America’s and Europe’s own treatment of migrants and dependence on Qatari gas. They have also highlighted labor reforms that the government has undertaken in recent years, including the establishment of a minimum wage ($275 per month) and the abolition of kafala, a labor system with roots in the British colonial era that allowed employers to hold their workers’ passports.
“I think we are justified in our outrage against the racist and Orientalist undertones that characterize the criticism emanating from the West against Qatar lately,” Mira Al Hussein, an Emirati sociologist at Oxford University, told The Times. “But we cannot fault the fact,” she added, that Qatar and other Gulf States have drawn attention for their “lamentable human rights record.”
Qatar’s big bet
For all the financial and P.R. trouble, what is Qatar hoping to get in return? “Sportswashing” itself may be a new term, but governments have employed the strategy going back to the original Olympics, according to Paul Christesen, a professor of ancient Greek history at Dartmouth. “People take sports super seriously,” Christesen told Sports Illustrated in April. “And as soon as people do that, you can leverage it for geopolitical purposes.”
Hitler, for example, used the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to project a vision of Aryan supremacy while concealing the brutality of the Nazi regime from the rest of the world, to considerable success: A New York Times reporter wrote at the time that the games had put Germany “back in the fold of nations who have ‘arrived.’”
For Qatar, the desire to burnish its reputation may owe to its regional vulnerability. In 2017, Qatar’s neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — and Egypt severed diplomatic ties and mounted a blockade against the country, accusing its government of supporting terrorism and becoming too friendly with Iran. The blockade ended only last year.
Qatar is “so small and so vulnerable, they can’t afford to antagonize anyone,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in Paris. “One of the reasons they wanted to host the World Cup is to be seen as legitimate and trusted members of the international community.”
The spotlight on Qatar has had something of a unifying effect, as neighboring countries seek to benefit from spillover tourism and cheer on one another’s teams. “While Western media has complained about the event, Arab-language influencers, public relations managers, social media pages and media outlets have heaped praise on Qatar in a variety of ways,” writes Aziz Abu Sarah. “According to a popular narrative in the region, in these few weeks Qatar has transformed itself from a tiny Arab country to a regional power broker, and one willing to stand up to the West.”
But Qatar’s sportswashing benefits Western countries too, argued David Wearing, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex. The Qatari people are no more or less desirous of civil liberties than the rest of humanity, he wrote, but the spectacle of the World Cup enables Qatari leaders to recast their authoritarian political system as the natural product of a backward culture that they are struggling valiantly to reform. Western teams and businesses can in turn feel better about participating in the World Cup — and about profiting from it.
“Playing into Orientalist notions of ‘tradition’ versus ‘modernization,’ the tournament is designed to showcase a Qatari regime heading in the right direction and deserving of the world’s embrace,” Wearing wrote in The Guardian. “The real goal is to provide Qatar’s western allies with an alibi for continuing the support that has been so crucial to the regime’s longevity.”
When sportswashing backfires
During the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which at that time was ruled by a military dictatorship that tortured and killed thousands of people it deemed leftist subversives, human rights organizations like Amnesty International used the opportunity to draw the world’s attention to the government’s abuses. The strategy arguably worked, wrote Simon Kuper of The Financial Times: “Some countries had begun taking in more Argentinian refugees. Engagement had achieved something, partly because the anti-communist Argentinian regime cared what its western allies thought.”
China offers a more recent example of how sportswashing can have the opposite of its intended effect. When the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai disappeared for weeks last year after accusing a retired government official of sexual assault, the Women’s Tennis Association, which enjoyed a highly profitable relationship with China, suspended tournaments it had scheduled in the country. “The more attuned the rest of us are to the cynical nature of these transactions and the underlying horrors they seek to obscure, the more likely these propaganda attempts will backfire,” wrote Andrés Martinez, a research scholar at Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute, in January.
Some argue that the negative press engendered by the World Cup has already prompted Qatar’s government to change for the better, citing its recent labor reforms. “That’s nowhere near saying, ‘Qatar has got better because of the World Cup’, which is FIFA’s line,” said Tim Noonan of the International Trade Union Confederation. “It happened because you had scrutiny from NGOs and trade unions and journalists and some reformers in Qatar.”
The imperative question now is whether at least some measure of that momentum will endure. “The reality is that if the World Cup is to be truly global — and it should be — there are very few countries whose values are universally acceptable,” the Financial Times editorial board wrote last month. “The hope must be that the legacy of the tournament remains positive even when the world has moved on.”
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“Why This World Cup Is Dogged by Corruption Allegations” [The New York Times]
“The Tragic Absurdity of Qatar’s World Cup Sportswashing” [The Nation]
“World Cup 2022: Qatar Is Accused of ‘Sportswashing’ but Do the Fans Really Care?” [The Conversation]
“What Gets Missed in the Angry Debate Over Qatar’s World Cup” [The Washington Post]