In 2019, then-International Ski Federation President Gian Franco Kasper told a German newspaper that the Olympics are “easier in dictatorships”. The honorary International Olympic Committee member was referring to awarding the 2022 Winter Olympics to China. “Dictators can organize events such as this without asking the people’s permission”, Kasper said. He walked back his comments under pressure, but he had already said out loud what many sport federation leaders think in private.
The Beijing Winter Olympics open in a month and the FIFA World Cup kicks off in November in Qatar. With the world’s two biggest sporting events being hosted by major human rights abusers, this year is forcing an overdue reckoning for powerful sports bodies that for years have sidelined their formal commitments to human rights.
The Olympics and the World Cup each have audiences of more than 3 billion people worldwide — almost half the global population — which is why China and Qatar so badly want to refashion their images as glamorous sporting hosts in good standing in the world. And why they are effectively “sportswashing” their abysmal human rights records.
Sportswashing is not new. Russia used hosting to spin its image with the 1980 Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. In 2008, the Beijing Summer Olympics were advertised as “a force for good” but instead featured journalist arrests, migrant labor abuses and the repression of civil society. Chinese and Qatari authorities have spent vast sums on public relations to win over fans.
The IOC failed to punish Chinese leaders for breaking their empty Olympic promises — and in 2015 awarded Beijing the 2022 Winter Games. Since then, President Xi Jinping’s government has arrested journalists, women’s rights activists and lawyers; dismantled freedoms in Hong Kong; and committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, including mass detentions, torture, sexual abuse and cultural persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Crimes against humanity are among the gravest human rights abuses under international law, making the Chinese government the wrong host for an event the IOC claims will “celebrate humanity”. The IOC has uttered not a word about these abuses.
In Qatar, eight new or renovated stadiums will host 32 teams for the FIFA World Cup. Human Rights Watch has documented that the infrastructure for World Cup events has been built via the abusive kafala labor sponsorship system, leading to hundreds and possibly thousands of preventable worker deaths. In some cases, labor practices may amount to modern slavery.
Qatar is the world’s richest nation per capita, but 2 million migrant workers have little power to bring complaints or escape abuse when employers control their exit from the country, residency and ability to change jobs. Many employers exploit this control by confiscating workers’ passports, forcing them to work excessive hours and denying them wages. Reporting on labor abuses is hard in Qatar, a country without press freedom. LGBTQ rights do not exist, and Qatar also has a Saudi Arabia-like male guardianship system that severely curtails basic rights for women and girls.
The case of three-time Chinese Olympian Peng Shuai focused the world’s attention on the conflict between the rights of citizens, including world-class athletes, and the claimed privileges of autocratic governments to escape accountability. Chinese authorities silenced the tennis star after she accused a former top official of sexual abuse. In response, the Women’s Tennis Association called off its tournaments in China. In contrast, IOC officials are effectively collaborating with Beijing’s coverup.
But the IOC and FIFA find themselves in a new world in 2022, when there will be costs to coddling dictators. In December, the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and Japan, the last Olympic host, announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
In this new era of close scrutiny of corporate social responsibility, Olympic corporate sponsors including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Intel, Visa, and Airbnb have been called to the U.S. Congress to explain their funding of sportswashing.
This sport annus horribilis may ultimately prove how necessary human rights are to staging megaevents. The IOC and FIFA should reverse course and back athletes and human rights over profits. If they keep covering up for China and Qatar, their brands will be at great risk. If they acknowledge they can no longer sell games to the highest authoritarian bidder, they might survive 2022 by promising future games will be awarded on the basis of basic human rights and the values that athletes and fans expect them to share.
Minky Worden is director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch and editor of “China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights”.