A Controversial World Cup

Helen Lenskyj, Professor Emerita at University of Toronto, works as a researcher, writer, public speaker and community activist. She is a well-recognized Olympic Industry critic and, having published several books on the subject, is perfectly placed to provide comment about the potential pitfalls of the upcoming World Cup tournament.

Any country that hosts a World Cup or Olympic Games can expect a kind of reverse ‘Midas touch’ effect.  From a social justice perspective, everything a sport mega-event touches turns out badly.

Among the first to expose these problems was investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, whose research since the 1990s uncovered bribery and corruption in the IOC and FIFA.

The trend continued as sport sociologists and historians developed critical analyses of every aspect of the Olympics and World Cup and, with many academics taking on the role of public intellectual, their work has had an impact in raising general awareness of the pitfalls of hosting these events.

Yet, if we were to believe the western mainstream media, it’s always ‘other’ countries, and rarely ‘our own’, that experience these problems: human rights abuses, corrupt bidding processes, worker exploitation, political opportunism, budget overruns … the list goes on.

In the current geopolitical climate, Russia is an easy target for criticism as the country prepares to host the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup. It has all the elements guaranteed to generate controversy: escalating racist and homophobic football hooliganism, terrorist threats, labour abuses and deaths, anti-gay discrimination enshrined in law – all this with a man widely viewed as a dangerous dictator at the helm.

Add to this the fact that Russia is persona non grata in the world of sport because of alleged state-sponsored doping dating back to 2011, on a scale that hasn’t been seen since East Germany’s 1970s program. Meanwhile, the global anti-doping campaign is a dismal failure, and countries that take the moral high ground regarding Russia routinely find their own athletes embroiled in doping scandals.

Countries are on equally shaky ground when they moralize about homophobia in Russia. As critics pointed out during the 2018 Commonwealth Games, widely commended as ‘the inclusive games’, 70% of its member countries criminalize homosexuality. Globally, gay relationships are illegal in 76 countries, and same-sex marriage is permitted in only 25 countries. When Australia held a plebiscite on the issue in 2017, close to 40% voted to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. In other words, Russia is not exactly an outlier.

While the world media are demonizing Russia, FIFA and the IOC – the institutions that have recently made a practice of awarding these events to totalitarian regimes – often escape scrutiny. In 2007, the IOC selected Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and in the next few years FIFA followed their bad example, awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. These decisions sent a clear message: prioritizing brand recognition and sponsors’ marketing targets over ethics and values, the IOC and FIFA welcome bids from countries that persecute LGBTQ people and brutally suppress anti-government dissent, countries with no protection for migrant construction workers, and flagrant disregard for the environment. In fact, it’s easier to host a sport mega-event in a dictatorship than in a democracy – fewer pesky roadblocks like free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, environmental protections, and unionized workers.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ is a warning that bid committees, organizers, journalists, and taxpayers would do well to heed. Is it really so difficult to remember events of the past 20 years? A few examples: IOC’s and FIFA’s bribery and corruption scandals; ongoing incidents of bribery and quid pro quo deals years after IOC’s ‘reform’ efforts; displacement of poor and homeless people in every Olympic and World Cup host city/region; and crackdowns on free speech and freedom of assembly, even in western democracies like Australia and Canada. In the race to host sport meg-events, winners are usually losers.

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