2022 has played host to some of the world’s largest sporting mega-events, from February’s Beijing Olympics to the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Despite the desire of global sporting institutions to separate sport from politics, these competitions are far from an apolitical game.
International sporting competitions are intrinsically embedded within the socio-political context in which they operate and thus can become an important platform for diplomacy. So, what happens when governments abuse sport for political or economic gain? Amnesty International coined the term “sportswashing” in 2018 to refer to a nation’s use of prestigious sporting events or investments in sports clubs to rehabilitate their image and sanitise their human rights violations. It is a diversionary practice that regimes have employed for years to airbrush their public image, whether it be the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany or Saudi Arabia’s new LIV Super Golf League.
Sportswashing at the 2022 Beijing Olympics
In a calculated and politically loaded move, a Uyghur athlete was chosen as a torchbearer to light the Olympic cauldron at this year’s Winter Games, an honour traditionally given to an individual who symbolises the host nation and its vision. China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority, including their forced internment in “re-education camps,” are well documented. Moreover, whilst several nations including Australia, the UK, and the U.S.A. enacted diplomatic boycotts in the lead-up to the Beijing Games in recognition of these abuses, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) remained silent, arguing that it was not within their remit to be involved in “political issues.” This statement itself is problematic – it is evident that the forced internment of a million Uyghurs is not merely a political issue, but rather a gross violation of human rights that constitutes crimes against humanity, if not genocide. By choosing to remain silent, the IOC and their myriad of international sponsors have succumbed to Beijing’s sportswashing attempts and indeed become complicit in their human rights abuses. Considering that the Olympic Charter aims to promote “a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” rather than turning a blind eye, the Olympic Games should serve as a prime opportunity to build international pressure upon governments who violate international law.
The IOC’s Russian Hypocrisy
Following a spate of doping scandals, Russia’s involvement in international sporting competitions such as the Olympics has been questionable at the best of times. Now, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, numerous sports organisations such as World Rugby, Formula 1, and the Union of European Football Associations have enacted sanctions upon Russian athletes and teams. This time, the IOC has decided not to remain silent, imposing a ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in international sporting competitions. Whilst the IOC’s ruling is commendable, there is a certain hypocrisy that stems from their decision – why are violations of international law committed in Xinjiang seemingly allowable, but those in Ukraine deemed unacceptable? Russia has committed similar crimes before – consider the 2008 invasion of Georgia, or the annexation of Crimea that took place during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, where the IOC remained silent. Perhaps, the IOC has finally decided to bow to the public pressure of hundreds of Olympians and Paralympians calling on the body for action on Ukraine. Other critics have labelled the move as a “merely opportunistic” decision to align the IOC with global public opinion. Regardless, rather than taking a “pick and choose” approach, this situation has revealed the urgent need for the IOC to adopt a comprehensive human rights framework across its activities and accept responsibility for mitigating the harms it has contributed to.
Looking Towards the FIFA World Cup
A similar story of sportswashing is unfolding in Qatar in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup in November. Over the past decade, Qatar has come under significant criticism from human rights bodies for its exploitation of migrant labourers, including unpaid wages, failure to enforce labour laws, and unsafe working conditions. Some 6500 workers have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the 2022 World Cup in 2011. Indeed, the World Cup would not be possible without the work of these labourers, who have built the stadiums, roads, and accommodation needed to host an event of this size. Despite the Qatar government signing an agreement with the International Labour Organisation in 2017 that promised to address worker exploitation, and the introduction of several reforms to the “kalafa” system of sponsored employment, workers are still legally bound to their employers who have the right to cancel their residence permits. Similarly, despite the introduction of a wage protection system that ruled wages must be paid electronically, the system has remained ineffective and payments are often delayed. By ignoring these abuses, FIFA has become complicit in the exploitation of workers involved in World Cup projects. As such, human rights groups are calling for FIFA to fund a US $440 million remediation programme for abused workers, an amount equivalent to the World Cup prize money. Undoubtedly, providing this compensation would demonstrate FIFA’s genuine commitment to upholding human rights and remedying abuses it has contributed to.
Ultimately much of the responsibility for addressing sportswashing lies not with individual athletes or governments, but with peak sporting bodies themselves. Boycotts, diplomatic or otherwise, whilst effective at drawing public attention, have done little in the past to change behaviour. Looking towards the future, having set a precedent regarding Ukraine, the IOC can no longer claim to be “apolitical” on human rights issues. It must urgently adopt an organisation-wide Human Rights Framework in accordance with UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights that can identify, mitigate, and address violations accordingly. Similarly, international sporting bodies such as FIFA would be wise to strengthen their existing human rights policies in line with the Guiding Principles to ensure due diligence and that structures in place to remedy those harmed.
Emily Shelley is a current intern at AIIA NSW and a fourth-year student at the University of New South Wales, studying a Bachelor of International Studies and a Bachelor of Media (Communications & Journalism). Emily has a passion for using digital and social media to educate youth about international affairs and currently holds a role as a Digital Communications Officer at Young Australians in International Affairs. She has previously interned at the Diplomacy Training Program and in Federal Parliament for the Shadow Minister for International Development & the Pacific. These experiences have fostered Emily’s interest in Indo-Pacific politics, sustainable development policy, and humanitarian affairs.
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