With Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup, and now Beijing the Winter Olympics, 2022 is shaping up to be a defining test of international sport's commitment to human rights.
La Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are under increasing global scrutiny for their decisions to locate their showpiece events in countries governed by some of the world's most repressive regimes. The scandal of Qatar building the event's infrastructure on the deaths of hundreds of migrant workers has led to increasing calls for FIFA to relocate the tournament, and the IOC presumably awarded Beijing the games with full knowledge of what happened when the city hosted the Summer Olympics of 2008.
At that time, there was a sharp surge in human rights violations by the Chinese authorities around the times of the games, with thousands of people evicted from their homes, journalists silenced and dissidents rounded up and thrown in custody. It's unclear what guarantees the IOC elicited from the Chinese government - or what promises they sought - about human rights being respected this time.
It's not as if China has drastically improved its record since 2008. In the last few weeks the Chinese authorities have arrested hundreds of human rights lawyers, activists and family members. Some are still in custody. Many of the detained lawyers are believed to be associated with the Fengrui Law Firm, noted for representing politically sensitive clients. Wang Yu, a lawyer at the Fengrui Law Firm, was one of the first detained and is still being held at an undisclosed location.
Last week leading Chinese rights activists issued a petition addressed to the IOC, saying that rewarding Beijing with the games would be counter to the Olympics goal of "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."
World Cup and Olympic organizers, sponsors, spectators, athletes, advertisers and all those involved with staging these mega sporting events have a responsibility to publicly condemn the rights violations. It's not the job of international sporting bodies to police the world for human rights violations, but they should at least ensure that the event they're bringing to a country or city doesn't result in human rights violations.
After years of criticism about human rights violations around the Grand Prix in Bahrain, the Formula One Group this year agreed to issue a public "Statement of Commitment to Respect for Human Rights." While it doesn't guarantee the government won't continue to crack down on dissent voices around the event, it's a recognition that the organizers have a responsibility to human rights - the group declared it "is committed to respecting internationally-recognized human rights in its operations globally." It's a modest start, but the argument that sport and politics don't mix, or even that they can been separated, was lost a generation ago during the anti-apartheid struggle.
The negative publicity around Qatar is damaging FIFA's credibility the way that drugs scandals hurt the Tour de France. The IOC faces a similar crisis of international public confidence if its 2022 Winter Olympics is seen to cause a crackdown on rights. The Olympic brand can't afford much more association with the suffocation of rights, and it needs to stand up publicly, and immediately, to explain what safeguards it will be taking to protect people around the 2022 games.