Has Qatar succeeded in 'sportswashing' its global image?

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The Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup should be used to provide a legacy for human rights in the Middle East, according to delegates at the Play the Game conference in Odense, Denmark. The event tackled some of the most pressing issues facing the world of sport.

Author and academic Jules Boykoff, who attended this week's conference, says 2022 could accurately be described as “the year of sportswashing”.

Earlier this year Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics, while in November Qatar will host football’s top event – the FIFA World Cup.

Boycoff says these and similar events are classic examples of so-called sportswashing – a term used to describe undemocratic regimes using sport to enhance their reputation and legitimacy.

Boycoff also pointed out that sportswashing is not a modern phenomenon.

In 1936, Western media fawned over the spectacular opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in Berlin, which was choreographed by the Nazi regime.

“The games burnished Hitler’s reputation at home and abroad and can be seen as a step on the road to war,” he said.

Furthermore, he pointed out, Vladimir Putin’s achieved unprecedented popularity in the wake of the successful 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which finished shortly before Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

It's all about the money

Speaking to RFI, investigative journalist Jens Weinrich said: “Let’s not fool ourselves.”

“Sport’s next rogue states are already in line. We all know that. Saudi Arabia in particular is filling the vacuum left by Russia. It is pumping billions into the sports sector.”

Some of the highest sports officials in the world, Weinrich pointed out, have recently met with Saudi heads of state.

In addition to a meeting with the IOC President, the heads of less popular Olympic sports such as handball, bobsleigh, equestrianism, canoeing, and modern pentathlon have also mingled with the Saudi elite.

“There is only one reason for these visits,” he said. “That is money.”

“Nothing has changed,” Weinrich added. “They talk about Olympic values but they constantly trample on them. This itself is an Olympic tradition spanning over a century. They were also talking about Olympic values in 1936.”

Human rights abuse

Over the last decade, human rights groups have repeatedly documented the widespread abuses workers face under Qatar’s kafala (sponsorship) system, which can give rise to forced labor.

This is despite labour reforms that Qatari authorities have introduced in recent years in response to a forced labour complaint before the International Labour Organisation.

As recently as March, Human Rights Watch documented wage theft for up to five months at a prominent Qatari trading and construction firm with FIFA-related projects.

Speakersat the conference in Denmark mentioned that media coverage of ongoing human rights abuses has led Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – which is responsible for the delivery of the tournament - down a defensive path rather than engaging in solving the problem.

Public relations more important than rights

Benjamin Best, a journalist who has done much to expose abuses of workers delivering the tournament, said that abuses exposed by former communications manager for the 2022 Qatar games, Abdullah Ibhais, has illustrated that the Supreme Committee considers PR spin more important than engaging with workers to sort out these issues.

A hot topic of debate was whether the media spotlight on Qatar was a sign of bias and bigotry, as other countries have also been guilty of "sportswashing".

Journalist James Dorsey told RFI that although sportswashing is nothing new, "one reason it is more prominent is that diplomacy has changed. Diplomacy is no longer diplomats, pinstripes and foreign ministries. It’s cultural. It’s public. It’s sports.”

In his opening speech, the international director of Play the Game, Jens Sejer Andersen said: “Personally, I suffered from the illusion that as soon as the problems of corruption, doping, and abuse were brought into the public domain, someone would start tackling them and they would soon dwindle.”

That, unfortunately, is not the case.

The "Play the Game" conference aims to strengthen the basic ethical values of sport and encourage democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in world sport.

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