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Playing human rights

Where do political boycotts of sports events lead?

by: Lucy Macdonald

While the Covid-19 pandemic put a halt to several major sporting events over the last two years, 2022 is set to host a number of major events including the Football World Cup in Qatar and the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. However, despite the desperation to get international sport back up and running, such main events have entered the spotlight of human rights concerns.

The main question facing the international community now is when to draw the line between sport and politics.

Most recently, the international community has ruled that China has, in fact, committed genocide against the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang. Yet, with the Winter Olympics set to take place in Beijing this year, China is facing even more scrutiny than ever over its feeble human rights record.

Besides China, Qatar – also known for its human rights abuses – is set to host another major international sports event as well. Interviews regarding the 2022 Football World Cup are already overshadowed by questions surrounding human rights, liberty, and equality. Sport is cast out of mind when it should surely be at the forefront. Instead, in this contemporary sense, we see international sport as a scene of political expression whereby nations employ political statements and diplomatic boycotts.

Football Stadium in Qatar. Photo courtesy of Ben Koorengevel via Unsplash.

The United States has been the latest country to announce a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. While US athletes will still participate in the games in Beijing, the Biden administration will send no representative on behalf of the United States. This came after the United Kingdom and Canada announced similar diplomatic boycotts too.

However, how far does this diplomatic boycotting really go? There are a number of issues when considering boycotting sports and the politicisation of sport generally. Diplomatic boycotts are one thing, but what would international sport look like in the event of an athletes’ boycott? How would this impact the players or athletes if they have been training for years and this is their source of income, their means of acquiring and promoting sponsorships and global partnerships? This line between international sport and politics is to become ever faded in the scuffle over human rights with the question over equal opportunity at play. However, where is this line drawn? And how much change from boycotting single events would really take place?

Moreover, if human rights are really considered, what would the true impact on international sport be? Perhaps the Saudi Arabian Formula 1 circuit would also be no more. Saudi Arabia has also been criticised for its substantial investment in Newcastle United FC. Some have argued that this is a tactic of “sport washing” to cover up poor human rights records.

All the above beg the question: should human rights records be taken into account when applications or ballots for hosting events take place? Can any country hold an Olympics or a major sporting tournament? Should countries be excluded for their human rights record?

One cannot avoid the inevitable impact of social and political memory that will surround any such sporting event in a nation with a poor record on human rights or an infringed sense of liberty and equality for all. However, if an international body were to assume the right to control applications for hosting, what would the true impact on international sport be? Surely a one-way ticket to greater exclusivity.

Many fans call for sport to be free from politics, but is this really possible in today’s society?

The issue is that sports events have and likely will continue to be a propaganda tool used by future host nations.

There is a fine line that ponders the international community and its actions. There is a fine line between boycotting and a point at which it may do more harm than good and resurge a security dilemma between global north and global south. Indeed, it may serve to intensify and fuel the already tense relations with the West in both China and the Middle East masked by feuds over international sport.


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