International Sports Associations Caught Between $ Signs and Human Rights Ideals

03/12/2015 11:10 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

A just published study highlights how commerce and glitz are reinforcing support for autocracy by international sports associations and undermining the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) newly found resolve to hold potential host cities to human rights standards to which world soccer body FIFA pays lip service.

The study by Andrew Zimbalist, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, was published as the Azerbaijani capital of Baku is gearing up to host in June the first Europe Games. Digital clocks counting down to the tournament festoon the city that has built a 65,000 seat soccer stadium and a state-of the-art gymnastics arena for the more than 6,000 athletes expected to compete.

Like with the earlier European Song Festival in 2012 as well as a forthcoming Formula One Race, the hosting of 2020 Euro matches and European soccer body UEFA's Under-17 championship, the European Games allow a corrupt, dictatorial regime in which the intractable link between sports and politics is symbolized by the fact that President Ilham Alyev doubles up as head of his country's National Olympic Committee to positively project itself on the international stage. Those tournaments are likely to build up to an Azeri bid for the Olympic Games.

Rather than acting as a catalyst for change, the song festival and the forthcoming European Games have focused attention on the country's crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression that has led to the targeting of scores of activists and journalists, prominent among whom journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who has persistently reported on corruption and abuses of human rights in Azerbaijan.

"We are a kind of a loser nation. We failed in a lot of things in our recent history. These games, the Eurovision song contest, bring us an illusion of victory. It's also an opportunity to earn a lot of money. The contracts to build venues, hotels, concert halls, roads are all being given to the president's families and oligarch's families," The Guardian quoted Ms. Ismayilova as saying.

Amid fewer democratically run cities willing to dole out the kind of monies international sports associations like the IOC and FIFA demand for glitzy, unsustainable infrastructure and facilities, municipalities in country's desperate for an image face lift are moving to the forefront. As a result, Beijing and Almaty are the only two cities left bidding for the 2020 winter Olympics after Oslo decided to bow out.

"Democratic governments and their pinched voters are realising that although the public benefits of hosting these events are vague, the outlays--and losses--are high and rising," The Economist quipped in an editorial.

In his book, sports economist Mr. Zimbalist argues that an obsession of sports associations for glitzy new facilities coupled with the fact that groups like the IOC and FIFA profit the most from the huge proceeds of broadcasting rights pushes them towards potential host cities that have the money to splash and need to do so to service a crony economy and attempt to launder their nation's reputations. By design or by default, they become pillars of autocracy.

Mr. Zimbalist's book follows on a study by Dutch architecture, research and urbanism studio XML commissioned in 2012 by the Dutch government that concluded that democratic nations would not be able to host the Olympics in future due to increasing tensions between the public interests of democracies and the commercial interests of the games. "It could be possible that the Olympic Games will only take place in upcoming, non-democratic countries who simply have the centralised power and money to organise them, but that would very much distance the Olympic Games from how it started," the report said.

That trend juxtaposes with the IOC's recent rediscovery of human rights under the leadership of Thomas Bach and FIFA's forced recognition of the issue as a result of widespread criticism of Qatar's labour regime. Mr. Bach has made rights a criteria for the future awarding of tournaments and appointed a point man for human rights while Qatar is under pressure to significantly reform, if not abolish, its kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

Sheikh Nasser bin Abdulrahman bin Nasser Al-Thani, a member of Qatar's ruling family, predicted this week that the number of migrant workers in the Gulf state, a majority of the population, would double to 2.5 million in advance of the 2022 World Cup.

Ironically, Qatar potentially could prove the exception to the fact that the legacy of sports mega events as demonstrated by Mr. Zimbalist rather than contributing to economic enhancement and growth and social and political change leave behind white elephants and huge, unwarranted bills.

To be sure, Qatar is an exception among hosts because it can easily afford the cost of mega events and stages them as much to project an image of a global sports hub and cutting edge 21st century society as it does to increase its soft power. The cost of building that soft power, a pillar of the tiny country's defence and security policy, is justified by the fact that Qatar has no realistic hope of defending itself with military hardware. It has to embed itself empathetically into the international community so that it can rely on foreign help in a time of crisis.

The awarding of the World Cup has already prompted change in Qatar, making the Gulf state a rare example of a mega-event having a positive legacy. Nonetheless, to achieve its goal and avert any risk of being deprived of the right to host the World Cup, Qatar will have to follow through on its promises to significantly improve workers' working and living conditions.

The battle currently being fought is not whether the World Cup will spark change but how far-reaching that change will be. Qatar is hoping that significantly improved material conditions will allow it to fend off demands by human rights groups and trade unions that it not simply tinker with the kafala system but totally abolish it and grant workers' political rights, including the right to form independent unions and bargain collectively. That Qatar and other Gulf states fear would open up a Pandora's Box. "Today, they don't ask for political rights, but what about in a decade or two?" wrote Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi earlier this year.

In another irony, fans make it easier for international sports association to succumb to the seduction of glitz and profit that ultimately works in favour of autocrats rather than effectively stand up for human rights. Fans have welcomed autocratic Middle Eastern owners of major European soccer clubs in full realization of their repressive policies at home.

Activist Richard Berry noted already in 2013 that more extreme supporters of Manchester City defended the fact that the wealthy owner of their club, a senior member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, was using it to launder his country's tarnished image. "They're the best owners in the world, so I don't give a toss if they're killing a thousand dissenters a day in their own country," Mr. Berry quoted a fan as saying. "I think a progressive state by Middle Eastern standards like Abu Dhabi taking a hard line approach to dickheads preaching regressive Islam should be applauded," said another.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.