Sports Industry Legitimizes Authoritarian Governments
Sports tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics are often moments for international unity and celebration of sport. Historically, there are many examples of extremely authoritarian or aggressive governments being given host nation status at major tournaments, rarely with any positive results.
The most notable example was the 1936 Summer Olympics when the host nation was Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler took the Olympics as a chance to promote his genocidal and extremist views. Nazi media wrote that Jewish and Black people should not be allowed to participate in the Games and only changed their minds due to significant international pressure. As a direct result of becoming Olympic hosts, hundreds of Romani people were arrested and thrown into concentration camps in an attempt to "clean up" the host city of Berlin. The Nazi party attempted to tone down extreme racial rhetoric and awful treatment of minorities during the games, which allowed them to put on the mask of a normal nation. Several Jewish athletes could not compete. This tournament portrayed Germany as far more tolerant than it was. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels believed that sports were vital to winning the heart of the people, and it seems many other cruel world leaders have attempted to do the same thing Germany did. The upcoming Olympics in China is a perfect example of this. China is currently committing genocide against Uighur Muslims. For this reason, several countries are applying diplomatic boycotts to the events.
This has been a consistent issue within FIFA and UEFA in the past few years. Authoritarian nations like Russia, Qatar, Turkey, and Azerbaijan have all hosted some of the largest games in the sport of soccer in just the last five years. The previous World Cup and the upcoming one are generating the greatest controversy. The World Cup allows for a broader effect on the people of a country due to it being nationwide, compared to the Olympics, which is handed to a particular city. In late 2010, FIFA picked Russia to host the 2018 World Cup. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia's government was notorious for a lack of political freedom, with many opponents of Putin's government being imprisoned or even killed, along with suspicious election results. Their other conflicts in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea at the time led to calls to move the World Cup away from Russia, which FIFA refused. Russian soccer fans tend to be notoriously racist, leading to Ivory Coast star Yaya Toure calling for Black players to boycott the tournament potentially. There is also rampant homophobia within the country, which created significant concerns in the international community. Despite the concerns, nothing happened, and there were no controversial political moments at the tournament. This had an eerily similar effect as the Nazi Olympics. People were surprised that the tournament had gone so well and thought that maybe Russia wasn't as bad as it seemed.
Here we are today, Russia is invading Ukraine. Russia has even now put in a bid to host Euro 2028, despite their invasion of Ukraine. The upcoming World Cup in Qatar has similar issues. The voting process to find a host was undoubtedly corrupt. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, making it harder for all fans to show their love of the game. The building of stadiums has also been highly controversial, as many workers are being treated like slaves and have died.
These stadiums are only being built because FIFA decided to give the biggest tournament in soccer to a nation without enough stadiums. Many other Middle Eastern nations have also accused Qatar's government of supporting terrorism. Not only has FIFA given them the hosting rights, but they've made changes to the most crucial aspects of the tournament to fit Qatar, including moving the tournament to winter. Recently, Netherlands head coach Louis Van Gaal stated that FIFA only put the upcoming World Cup there for financial reasons.
He stated, "We will be playing in a country where FIFA say we are going to help develop football. That is bulls—. The tournament in Qatar is about money and commercial interest. That is what matters to FIFA.”
Authoritarian governments take these tournaments as opportunities to legitimize themselves. The NOVA SBE found a striking decrease in a change in leadership in the year after a mega-sport event. Citizens and outsiders connect their memories of the events with their voting behavior or general perceptions of the governments. The question then remains, why do these organizations still grant these nations hosting rights, and how can it be stopped? Some are calling to boycott the upcoming Olympics, which could lead to a major change, as difficult as it is to step away from major tournaments. Maybe these sports organizations should be held accountable. Whatever the solution is, the problem is an important one.