When Russia invaded Ukraine a few weeks ago, the world responded pretty quickly to isolate Russia and exclude Russians around the world from various things. A major Russian conductor was dropped for concerts at Carnegie Hall because of his close ties to Putin and unwillingness to criticize the invasion (a similar result came with an famed opera singer a little while later). Bars stopped serving Russian vodka. Hell, even rapacious companies like BP decided that being in business with Russia was a no-go.
Soccer was one of the first parts of the sporting world to respond. UEFA, the European federation, announced that it was moving the Champions League final, the capstone of its most important club competition, from St. Petersburg to Paris. In the wake of that, several countries – notably Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic – announced they would not play Russia under any condition. That was important, as they were all involved with Russia in the same playoff round of World Cup qualifying and so were, potentially, forfeiting a chance to make this year’s World Cup Finals (other federations with less skin in the game, including the US Soccer Federation, made similar statements). Eventually, FIFA stepped in and banned Russia from further competition, leaving the Swedes, Poles, and Czechs to fight it out for World Cup berth with clean hands.
It was a shock, to say the least, when Qatar beat out Australia, Japan and others to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup (in the same process that awarded the 2018 World Cup to . . . Russia). The Qatari heat would require the tournament to take place in November and December, rather than in the middle of the summer. Beyond that, of course, Qatar is not a democracy and has a shady human rights record.
But specifically, the numerous new stadiums the nation needed to build for the World Cup, are killing workers at an alarming rate, up to 6500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, and surrounding areas alone. A minimum wage for those workers only came into effect in 2021. A good idea of what laboring to build the stadiums is like can be found here. So not only are there ethical questions about the host nation for the World Cup in general, but specifically linked to the competition itself.
So what should the countries that have qualified do about it? The invasion of a sovereign nation by a neighbor, in a way that wrecks the equilibrium of modern Europe, may be sui generis. After all, the nations who initially stepped up to say that wouldn’t play Russia could find themselves in Putin’s crosshairs sooner rather than later. Lots of the other countries, including the United States, are doing everything they can to stop the war without it blowing up into World War III.
What’s gone on in Qatar isn’t that, but it isn’t good. More and more, repressive regimes are using sports to try and launder their reputations. Called “sportswashing,” it’s probably a driving force behind the fact that there are now things like a Formula 1 race in Saudi Arabia and the recent Winter Olympics (and current Paralympics) in China. Letting Qatar host the World Cup is more of the same.
But it’s very likely that they are going to host, so what to do about it? Is the reaction of the sporting world to Russia’s aggression the beginning of a new era in sports activism? Or is it so beyond the pale of the modern world that it won’t impact anything else? I wish I knew, because I struggle with what to do about the World Cup, too. I watched almost every game of the 2018 version in Russia and the Americans didn’t even qualify. If we make it this time? You bet I’ll be paying attention, but won’t feel good about it.
Let me address the elephant in the room – if global sports is going to develop a conscience about things like human rights and violating international law, won’t that standard mean excluding the United States from certain things? Maybe. People asking “what about Iraq?” have a very good point. There are differences between the two situations, but I’m not sure they make a difference. Nor is invading Iraq without cause our country’s only sin when it comes to international relations. If that means we get punished for it, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
For most of us, sports are a distraction, a fun way to spend free time and we try to keep that frame even when we’re engaging with multi-billion dollar competitions that span the globe. We want them to an escape from the regular world, from the conflicts that rage in “real” life. But they’re part of our world, in all its pain and joy, and that means inextricably entwined with world affairs.