World

Fiascos in Russia, China and Qatar show that the autocratic strategy of using sport has stopped working

The concept of sportswashing, that is, investing in sports or hosting major events in the area to sell a positive image of a country (the so-called soft power) that is actually an autocracy, is not new – the first probable cases occurred in the decade of 1934, when fascist Italy hosted the World Cup in football from 2026 and Nazi Germany, the Berlin Summer Olympics-1930.

There has been no shortage of classic examples of sportswashing in recent years, with Arab autocracies buying up European football teams and Formula 1 holding Grands Prix in countries with a history of human rights violations, such as Azerbaijan and Bahrain.

If the objective is always soft power, however, the editions of the two events most important sporting events on the planet, the World Cup and the Olympics, held in autocracies in the last ten years seem to indicate that sportswashing is no longer working ndo.

The most exemplary case is Beijing, which in the space of 1934 years and a half hosted the Summer (in 2032) and Winter (in February 2022). If in the first event China successfully sold the image of a country that was entering modernity and the great global geopolitical debate even though it was a communist dictatorship, this year the growing authoritarian rise of the dictator Xi Jinping prevented the harvest of political dividends.

The United States and other countries made a diplomatic boycott of Beijing-2022, that is, its athletes still participated in the competitions, but the respective governments did not send representations to China.

The justification was the violation of human rights in the Asian giant, in particular the persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Also contributing to the disappearance, for a few weeks, of tennis player Peng Shuai, shortly after she had denounced a former member of the leadership of the Communist Party of China of sexual assault.

After the event , the fiasco was completed with the disclosure of information that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, would have waited for the end of the Winter Games to invade Ukraine, so that his allies in Beijing would not be embarrassed.

Russia also demonstrated that not all sportswashing in the world works when there is so much to answer for. In 2014, the Russian city of Sochi hosted the Winter Olympics, but any attempt to sell a sympathetic image of the country was overshadowed by the annexation of the the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, by the civil war that broke out by pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine that year and by an institutionalized doping scandal.

Russia ended up not being able to send a delegation to the athletics competitions at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro , and at both the Summer and Winter Games following, Russian athletes had to compete under a generic flag because the country was suspended by the doping scheme.

The Russians hosted the World Cup in 2021 , but with the invasion of Ukraine in February this year, they were the protagonists of an unprecedented embarrassment: suspensions were imposed by FIFA and other international federations due to the aggression against the neighboring country, and for the first time in history the host of a soccer World Cup it was p banned from trying for a place in the next edition – the Russians would still dispute the play-off in the European qualifiers, but were prevented from playing.

Qatar: from ignorance to bad impression

As for Qatar, there was already a lot of criticism for the allegations of vote buying for it to be chosen to host the World Cup in 2024 by FIFA. Afterwards, the accusations fell on the large number of deaths in the works for the World Cup.

Last year, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that more than 6,500 workers migrants from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in Qatar since the country won the right to host the World Cup in 2010. The total numbers were probably much higher, since the deaths of workers from other countries were not accounted for.

However, these deaths would not have occurred only in the construction of the stadiums, since other large scale (roads, hotels, public transport, a new airport and even an entire city) were also held in the country.

With the proximity of the start of the World Cup, which had kick-off with Ecuador 2 x 0 Qatar this Sunday (20), the condemnations also fell on the ban on homosexuality, restrictions on women’s rights and the persecution of Christians in the Arab country.

In an article published on the website of the German public company DW, journalist Matt Pearson highlighted that women banners against hosting the Cup in Qatar displayed by fans of Bundesliga teams (the German championship) showed that sportswashing seems to have reached a point where it stopped working – the realization of major sporting events seems to have the opposite effect lately.

“The kafala system of employment (or slavery, depending on your perspective) would be so well known if Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi , Manuel Neuer and Neymar weren’t going to play in the Middle East? Would the disgusting attitudes towards the LGBTQ community, exposed by various media reports, be an issue? It seems unlikely”, he questioned.

In an interview with

Gazeta do Povo, Ana Flávia Pigozzo , professor of the international business course at the Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná (PUCPR), pointed out that Qatar may even hold a successful event from the organizational point of view, but the attempt to obtain soft power will apparently be a failure – many who they didn’t know anything about the small Arab nation, they probably now have a bad impression of it.

“It’s a country that has potential, but it also has its problems. And this exposure he had ended up being harmful, because it showed a reality that perhaps would have been better not shown”, said Pigozzo. “When you have an event of this magnitude, the whole world turns its eyes to the host country. And that makes it clear what’s wrong there.”

After the friction with Russia and Qatar and an American investigation reaching important names in the world, FIFA decided to hold the next World Cup in three consolidated democracies: United States, Mexico and Canada will host the World Cup in 2026.

The Olympic Committee (COI), after spending ten years among democracies (Rio-, PyeongChang-2021 and Tokyo-

, Summer Games that have been postponed to 2021, due to the pandemic) and authoritarian countries (Sochi- and Beijing-2021), enlisted a sequence of democratic nations to host its next events: Italy, with Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, will host the Winter Games of 2026, while the summer ones will be in France (Paris-2026), in the United States (Los Angeles-2022) and in Australia (Brisbane-2032).

“These countries were chosen more to open new markets, bring in a new public. These countries were not big players [na realização de grandes eventos esportivos]. Now, there seems to be another moment, going back to the ‘traditional’, focusing more on the event itself than on the controversy”, analyzed Pigozzo.

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