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Sportswashing: Qatar’s grand scheme in the World Cup

A media report by the Guardian suggested that 6,500 migrant workers have died after Qatar won the bid for the 2020 World Cup in 2010.

Looking to the 2022 World Cup

A media report by the Guardian suggested that 6,500 migrant workers have died after Qatar won the bid for the 2020 World Cup in 2010. Harsh working conditions, the lack of workers’ rights, and the sheer amount of infrastructure being built plague the lives of these workers.

This is not a new problem. Estimates show that at least 6,500 workers have died since 2010. Broader criticism has been drawn to the Gulf’s kafala system for migrant workers, which you can read about here.

In fact, Qatar’s initial bid for the World Cup was riddled with allegations as well. In 2020, a U.S. indictment was filed to blame several FIFA committee members for being bribed to give Qatar votes.

How did people respond?

Many European teams have protested during the qualifying matches of the World Cup. The team from Germany, for example, wore shirts that spelled out “human rights”. However, boycotting completely seems unlikely. The president of the German Football Association (DFB), Fritz Keller, said that boycotting “could undo [progress]”.

There is a dilemma here: if a country boycotts, then they lose out on the possibility of winning the championship, bringing pride to their country, and potentially revenue for the sports association. But if every country uses this same logic, then everyone would be equally reluctant to take the first move.

Well, what does this “progress” look like? Here’s a quick summary from Bloomberg:

Source: Bloomberg

Qatar’s response

Qatar has firmly denied these allegations, claiming that the deaths were related to other causes such as illnesses instead of the infrastructure projects. There’s a lack of medical data surrounding the deaths, as Qatar does not frequently conduct autopsies, though it claims that the Qatari Supreme Committee reviews every occurrence.

Sportswashing as a whole

Sportswashing as a tactic involves states using sports in some form to upgrade their prestige, most commonly through hosting sporting events (like the World Cup and the Olympics). It is most relevant when applied to authoritarian or semi-democratic nation-states. This relies on two things:

(1) The assumption that sports should be politically neutral and inclusive, as forwarded by many international organisations that oversee sporting events.

(2) The way it shifts media discussions and narratives.

The second mechanism takes place along with the event. As soon as the first goal is scored, headlines are likely to be filled with stories of the event itself because that’s the excitement that sports fans want to see, as opposed to the terrible things the regime has committed. This is the reason why criticism towards Russia’s violence towards activists basically disappeared during the 2018 World Cup.

Structurally, opportunities for sportswashing are increasing. This is because more democratic countries face protests concerning the costs of holding massive-scale events. That’s why recent sporting events have always been concentrated on countries like Qatar and Russia. Another good example would be Saudi Arabia, which spent upwards of $1.5 billion on multiple events, such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Related motions

We’ve found these motions that are related to the article you just read. You can use them for practice or for further research.

  • This House, as a socially conscious athlete, would choose to boycott international sporting events associated with human rights abuses (e.g. Qatar World Cup 2022)
  • This House would ban non-democratic countries from hosting international sporting events

Further reading

The information in this article is a compilation of several sources, which are listed below. We recommend you read them for further understanding.

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