Mega sports events: A double-edged sword

By James M. Dorsey

There is a lesson to be learnt from this year’s Formula One public relations disaster in Bahrain, trade union pressure on Qatar, controversy over Israel’s hosting of the FIFA Under-21  finals, last year’s successful International Olympic Committee (IOC) campaign that forced three reluctant Muslim nations to field for the first time women athletes at a global sporting event and the recent election of a Bahraini soccer executive as president of the troubled Asian Football Confederation : mega-events and campaigning for office in international sports associations empower activists and put nations at risk of reputational damage.

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone acknowledged as much saying in April that Bahrain had been “stupid” to allow the Grand Prix to go ahead because it gave a platform to thousands demonstrating against perceived autocratic rule and lack of rights. Mr. Ecclestone’s criticism didn’t stop him however from expressing willingness to extend his contract with Bahrain for another five years until 2021.

Nevertheless, Mr. Ecclestone’s comment highlighted the fact that mega events and public office are double-edged swords. They potentially allow countries to showcase themselves, polish or improve a nation’s international and a government’s domestic image, serve as tools to enhance soft power and create commercial, economic and political opportunity. That is if host nations of mega-events and office holders and their home countries understand that winning the right to organize a major tournament or an association election puts on display not just their best side but also their warts and at times even existential problems. 

That empowers activists, spotlights their demands amid intense media focus and gives them the moral high ground if a country fails to respond adequately in word and deed. The lesson learnt from recent experiences in the Middle East is that mega events and public office give not only countries and governments leverage but also their detractors.

Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Israel prove the point. Their responses have failed to allow them to gain the upper hand in popular perception and coverage in the media that are both dominated by activists highlighting their failure to adhere to international standards of human, labor and/or gender rights. Worse even, mega events and nominating officials for regional and international office has reinforced the negative perceptions they were trying to reverse. Their failure has strengthened calls for such rights to become key criteria in the awarding of future mega-events. It has also rendered the separation of sports and politics a fiction and focused attention on the need to develop systems that acknowledge the relationship but eliminate conflict of interest and ensure that it is not abused for partisan political interests on an individual, national, regional and international scale.

For two years running, Bahrain’s Grand Prix backfired with protesters dominating news coverage. The image that emerged in television pictures and independent reporting of thousands protesting was not one of an island state that has put a squashed popular uprising in 2011 behind it, but one of a nation wracked by continued strife to which the government responds with force.

By the same token, the newly elected AFC president, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, head of the Bahrain Football Association, has been unable to put an end to persistent questions about his alleged failure to stand up for Bahraini national soccer team players who were arrested, publicly denounced, tortured and charged for taking part in anti-government demonstrations two years ago during a popular uprising that was brutally squashed. The charges were later dropped under pressure from FIFA.

Sheikh Salman’s legalistic argument that football and politics are separate and that he had not violated FIFA or AFC rules rather than addressing the larger moral issues involved has resulted in persistent media questioning, activist calls for his disqualification and a reinforcement of the Bahraini government’s image as repressive and uncompromising. Rather than categorically refusing to address the issue, Bahrain and Sheikh Salman, although restricted by being a member of a royal family that is dominated by hard liners, would have been better served by allowing the government’s own inquiry into the suppression of the revolt that admitted to wrongdoing by security forces, including torture, to shape his response and deflate the criticism.

Similarly, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia have succeeded in turning the tide of public opinion or at least establishing a degree of equity in perception. To be fair, Saudi Arabia, which grudgingly allowed a few underperforming expatriate Saudi women to represent it at the 2012 London Olympics, left the field to its critics by effectively refraining from engagement in the debate about severe restrictions imposed on women in the kingdom. In doing so, it failed to leverage assets it could have deployed to moderate perceptions, including the economic clout of women in the kingdom as a result of rights enshrined in Islamic law, moves to authorize physical education in private schools, the re-emergence of women’s health clubs, plans to license for the first time women’s soccer clubs that currently operate in a legal nether land and last year’s unprecedented election of a commoner as head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation to replace an appointed royal. 

Similarly, a video on You Tube features Palestinian youth in a village near the wall separating Israel from the West Bank tearing off their FC Barcelona jerseys, hanging them over razor wire the Israeli military erected around the village and setting them on fire. The protest was part of a campaign protesting Israel’s hosting in June of the U-21 championship finals intended to counter Israel’s increasingly tarnished image as the obstacle to settling its long standing dispute with the Palestinians, growing objections to Israeli policies perceived as intentionally making daily life difficult for West Bank residents and its ever greater integration into European soccer. Israel is part of UEFA rather than Asia because of Arab refusal to play Israeli teams as long as a peace settlement has not been achieved.

The U-21 is the most important tournament Israel has ever hosted and comes at a time that Israel has lost significant ground in the global battle for hearts and minds. A hunger strike last year by a Palestinian national soccer team player who was suspected of association with a militant group, Islamic Jihad, but never charged proved to be costly in the global soccer world. The player was released under pressure from FIFA, UEFA and FIFPro, the global players’ organization amid fears that he would die as a result of his hunger strike. 

"Football is an effective vehicle for Israel to rehabilitate its image with the international community. A large sporting event is an ideal opportunity for Israel to present itself as a normal country," Tamir Sorek, a University of Florida expert on Israeli soccer told UAE newspaper, The National.

As a result, more than 60 prominent European players, including Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Arsenal's Abou Diaby and Paris Saint-Germain's Jeremy Menez, publicly warned that holding the U-21 in Israel would be “seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values.” Published last year as Israeli forces attacked Gaza, the players declared: "We, as European football players, express our solidarity with the people of Gaza who are living under siege and denied basic human dignity and freedom.”  UEFA, denying that it was mixing sports and politics, rebutted criticism of the awarding of the tournament to Israel by saying that it would bring ‘people’ – Israelis and Palestinians -- together

Even Qatar, the nation that has gone the furthest in seeking to address criticism and engage with its critics, has so far been unable to shift the epicenter of international public opinion and perception. Its major issue is lack of adherence to international labor standards and labor conditions denounced by trade unions and human rights groups as modern day slavery rather than expected Islamic restrictions on fan behavior during the 2022 World Cup, persistent unproven allegations of wrong doing in its campaign to win hosting rights and concern about lack of a soccer tradition and extreme summer temperatures.

Criticism of labor conditions, including the restrictive sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers, not only in Qatar but in the Gulf at large, is long standing. What has changed is that the hosting of the World Cup has shifted the playing field. The driver of pressure for change are no longer human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who have at best moral power and little ability to mass mobilize but an international trade union movement that potentially can activate 175 million members in 153 countries.

With foreign workers constituting a majority of the population and at least half a million more expected to swell their ranks to work on World Cup-related infrastructure projects, Qatar has moved to improve material working and living conditions and the 2022 organizing committee has issued a charter  of workers’ rights. The moves fall short of union demands for the creation of independent workers’ organizations and collective bargaining and despite talks with labor ministry officials has put the two on a collision course with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) demanding that world soccer body FIFA deprive Qatar of its hosting rights.

The jury is out as the battle unfolds. The outcome is likely to demonstrate the limits of the leverage of both parties and the price they risk paying. The unions could well succeed in reducing if not stopping the influx into Qatar of unionized labor but are unlikely to persuade millions of impoverished unskilled and semi-skilled Asian workers from seeking greener pastures and a better life for their loved ones. To project success, the ITUC has to win the buy in of its members, many of whom are preoccupied with resolving problems arising from the global economic crisis. By the same token, Qatar will likely have little problem retaining its hosting rights and attracting non-unionized labor, but will continue to suffer reputational damage, defeating one of the goals of its comprehensive sports strategy.

If reputational damage and failure to achieve a key goal is a host nation’s primary risk, activists may see achieving that as a moral victory. Similarly, they are likely to claim any progress such as an improvement of workers’ material labor and living condition as a success even if they were unable to meet their ultimate goal. 

Underlying their inability, however is the fact that in taking on Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel they were addressing issues perceived by government to effect national security if not their nation’s very existence. That inability highlights limitations to their power and the uphill battle of sparking a meaningful broad-based global campaign like the sports boycott of South Africa that ultimately was effective only because it exploited a willingness in the international community to confront apartheid. The international community has proven so far to have little appetite for paying more than lip service to workers’ rights in the Gulf, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia or Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.

At the bottom line, the message for host countries is: mega events constitute a platform for showcasing both a country’s positive aspects as well as its warts. The question potential hosts have to ask themselves is what price are they willing to pay in terms of reputational risk if they are not willing or able to address their vulnerabilities. That question is all the more acute as international sports bodies like FIFA are under pressure to make human, labor and women’s rights part of the criteria for awarding events. In doing so, they are likely to raise the barrier for a country’s chance of gaining the opportunity to host a major event.

For activists, the message is one of empowerment but empowerment that comes with the responsibility to employ it effectively. The trade union’s battle with Qatar over labor rights is likely to become a case study. With nine years to go until the World Cup, the question is whether ITUC played its trump card too early by already asking FIFA to deprive Qatar of the World Cup.

In doing, so the ITUC has gone out on a limb. Union officials concede privately that European unions are preoccupied with austerity measures and stark unemployment in the Eurozone, US unions confront slow recovery in North America and Asian unions with the exception of Japan have demonstrated little engagement.

“What happens to the workers if Qatar loses the World Cup? The ITUC loses its bargaining chip. Moreover, they are campaigning for taking away the World Cup even before the bids for construction of stadiums have been awarded. Qatar’s construction boom will continue with or without the World Cup. Even if they lose those workers, others will come. It’s the market’s push and pull factor. If the Nepalese don’t come, the Bangladeshis will. If the Bangladeshis don’t come, the Vietnamese will and if the Vietnamese don’t come, the Chinese will,” said an independent labor analyst.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog


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