Beginning on June 14, billions of people around the world will be glued to their television sets as the World Cup kicks off in Russia. For the following four weeks, their attention will most likely be focused on storylines resulting from travails on the pitch, whether it be Germany’s attempt to repeat as champions, Brazil’s chance at redemption or France’s possible rise to the top. But beyond the roars of national enthusiasts from six continents and the dazzling displays of athletic artistry from Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo looms the darker backstory of the intersection of sports and politics that this year’s tournament represents.

Last Thursday, Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and New York University’s Jordan Center co-hosted a panel titled “Russia Hosts the World Cup: Sports and Politics in 2018” where a group of experts from the fields academia, human rights and sports media discussed and analyzed the state of global sporting events in today’s political climate.

Natalie Koch, a political geographer and professor at Syracuse University, said that events like the World Cup and the modern-day Olympics often serve clear political purposes for the host country. One of the most striking historical examples is the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany when Hitler ordered the construction of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.

“There is a really long tradition historically of using major sporting events to broadcast a particular image of the country,” Koch said. “And specifically an image of that country as particularly modern.”

While this tradition has taken root in both, as Koch described them, liberal and illiberal countries, there has been an increasing number of international sporting events hosted by authoritarian nations in recent years. As “liberal” countries are becoming increasingly wary of hosting these mega-events due to economic and social stresses, Koch said, authoritarian governments—though only those with the proper financial resources—are eager to step into the void.

The transition began in 2008 when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics. Subsequently, the Russian resort city Sochi held the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will, in turn, be hosted by Beijing in 2022. On the soccer side of things, Russia, of course, will host this year’s World Cup, while Qatar won the bidding for 2022.

Other countries ruled by authoritarian regimes have begun to gear themselves up to host large scale sporting events, as well, continued Koch. In 2015, Azerbaijan invested billions of dollars to spruce up Baku’s infrastructure for the inaugural European games. One of the great ambitions of the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is for his country to host the Olympics, and Turkmenistan built an enormous multi-sports complex in Ashbagat prior to hosting the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games with an eye on hosting the Olympics in the future.

While the regimes in Beijing, Moscow, Doha, Baku, Astana, and Ashbagat hope these sporting events create a positive image of their countries, Koch said, the celebratory aspect goes hand in hand with the punitive spectacle. In other words, bringing the discussion back to Russia, as Moscow emphasizes the good and the modern, it downplays the structural violence and inequalities that exist within its borders.

Another panelist, Jane Buchanan, the associate director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, said that her organization thoroughly investigates the punitive aspects of these mega sporting events. Their efforts ramped up in Beijing in 2008 and Sochi in 2014.

Photo: Moderator Alex Cooley, Jane Buchanan, Natalie Koch and Gabriele Marcotti discuss the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia (Tim O’Donnell)

In Sochi, Human Rights Watch documented exploitation of laborers working on the Olympic structures, forced evictions, harassment of activists and journalists and the anti-LGBT propaganda law passed by the Duma in 2013, months before the games commenced. They have found many of the same abuses leading up to the World Cup, and have reported 20 deaths resulting from construction on stadiums. Buchanan also said that the organization is very concerned about the potential for more detentions of peaceful protestors.

One of the ways Human RIghts Watch and other organizations are trying to foment change in situations like the 2018 World Cup is by bringing their research to those who have power, such as FIFA or the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

FIFA, an international organization notorious for corruption, scandal and operating exclusively behind closed doors (Koch, in fact, said that it is a good example of how authoritarian governance works), has recently been trying to change its mission and image. Gabriele Marcotti, a senior writer for ESPN and columnist for the British Times, who also served on the panel, said that FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino is determined to rid the organization of corruption and operate transparently.

According to Buchanan, FIFA incorporated human rights issues into its bidding process for the 2026 World Cup (the criteria does not apply to Russia or Qatar, as the agreement was signed after they had already won their bids) and has been monitoring labor conditions in Russia. But whether or not any change will result from these measures remains to be seen. Buchanan said that transparency remains an issue and there is little public information about the monitoring process or its discoveries.

“In order to be credible, you need to be much more transparent about all this,” Buchanan said.

The outlook for the tournament may seem bleak due to the sordid nature of the bidding process and stadium construction, recent FIFA scandals and episodes of violence and racism at other recent soccer tournaments (including Russian fans at the 2016 Euros in Marseilles) but Marcotti finished his presentation with some cautious optimism.

“First of all, there’s a long history of worrying before tournaments,” he said. “The other thing is the 2017 Confederations Cup (the tournament the World Cup host nation hosts the year prior to the larger tournament as a warmup). We were all looking out for issues of inefficiency, stadiums, hooligans, episodes of racism. But it didn’t happen.”

He cited possible reasons for the moderate success of the smaller tournament, including the fact that play was limited to just four cities—Sochi, Kazan, Moscow and St. Petersburg—while this summer’s World Cup will take place in eleven cities throughout the country. But, regardless, there were no major incidents.

This could very well hold true during the games in June and July. But the years before and after an event like the World Cup often leave the biggest mark, socially, culturally and politically. The panel largely agreed that an organization like FIFA needs to be held accountable for following through on its promise to ensure a smooth and safe global operation from start to finish in future tournaments.

Photo: Vladimir Putin holds the FIFA World Cup trophy at Luhzniki Stadium in Moscow. (2017) Source: Licensed under Creative Commons.

Posted by Tim O'Donnell

Tim O'Donnell is a Master's student in Journalism and European and Mediterranean Studies at New York University. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from Occidental College, where he wrote and edited for the college's newspaper, The Occidental Weekly. On Twitter he is @T_S_ODonnell.

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