Qatar and the Question of Sports Diplomacy

Panel of experts examines controversy surrounding the World Cup
Sports Diplomacy

“There’s a British definition of football,” Dean Kyte said during her opening remarks for Monday evening’s Sports Diplomacy Conference. “Twenty-two people run around a turf pitch for ninety minutes chasing a ball, and then Germany wins.”

Dean Kyte’s joke proved to be an apt entrée into discussion, asking the audience to evaluate what soccer means to a country, to the athletes who play it, and to its fans. In celebration of FIFA’s Men’s World Cup, kicked off on November 20 in Qatar, Tara Sonenshine, the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice in Public Diplomacy, produced and moderated a multisectoral panel of journalists, academics, and Fletcher students, who discussed issues related to this year’s World Cup and to mega sporting events at large.

“For football to be a national sport in Qatar or in Uruguay or anywhere else for that matter means you have to delve into questions of national identity, of colonialism, of popular movements, and control, often authoritarian,” said Dean Kyte.

The media has scrutinized FIFA’s decision to award hosting privileges to Qatar, calling attention to the Gulf nation’s laws concerning women, homosexuality, and the treatment of migrant laborers who prepared the country for the games.

Natasha Iskander, professor of urban planning and public service at NYU, investigated working conditions at the stadium construction sites. Not only were the stadium designs inventive, the methods used to construct them were extremely innovative, necessitating a massive effort to train laborers who had migrated to Qatar from overseas. Through hundreds of hours of interviews with workers and supervisors, Iskander documented human rights violations, chronic wage theft, forced labor, injury, and death.

Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, broke down the financial expense to Qatar. Estimates of the country’s budget range from 177 to 250 billion dollars; the country’s annual GDP is 180 billion. And once the World Cup has concluded, Qatar will be left with multiple new stadiums without any apparent utility. Two will be dismantled and shipped elsewhere, begging questions about the event’s environmental cost. Multiple panelists raised concerns that FIFA’s claim that this event will be carbon neutral is false. Zimbalist criticized both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee’s tradition of awarding hosting privileges to different countries.

“How can we afford that in a world that’s on fire? How can we afford that unnecessary construction in the era of climate change?” Zimbalist asked. “Why can’t we have one country, whether it’s the United States or Germany or South Africa, that has the facilities and we go back there every four years? If this doesn’t help economically, if this creates environmental issues and social dislocation in the country where it’s happening, this is not a great privilege to host the games.”

The conversation made one thing clear: with the massive demand on infrastructure and development, mega sporting events can reveal fundamental problems within the host country.

Yet, as sportswriter and academic David Goldblatt noted, “One of the interesting things about this World Cup is how radically different the coverage is depending on where you look. The BBC, Telemundo, here in the States, and German television preface their coverage of the opening game with pretty extensive pieces on the problems of workers’ rights and LGBT rights, whereas Fox is completely and utterly silent, and in much of the Gulf, including Al Jazeera, it’s an overwhelmingly positive interpretation of events.”

As discussion unfolded, another thread emerged: the controversies surrounding the World Cup in Qatar are not unique to Qatar. Professor Chidi Anselm Odinkalu noted that every major sporting event casts a light on violations of human rights and rights of expression.

“These are not things that are Qatar specific,” Odinkalu said. “These are big sporting event specific. The question is, is the rationality of economics what we judge sports by. The coexistence benefits, the political benefits—you cannot compute in dollars and cents.”

Given the potential for sports to be a unifying force, and the soft power conferred upon the host nation, several essential questions emerged. How are sports used for diplomacy? Is that power being wielded appropriately and given to the right countries? How do the environmental and financial costs balance with the immaterial gains, especially for developing nations? Who should be the arbiters of these decisions?

Across time, many countries have used sports for their own political agenda. As Ambassador Derek Shearer noted, Germany hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to announce the rise of Nazi Germany. After World War II, the 1964 Olympics messaged that Japan was joining the world stage as a democratic power. Recent history provides some critical examples, as well.

“Russia made the 2018 World Cup into a digital Potemkin village,” said Goldblatt. “Our screens were filled with images of bacchanalian revelry in public space in Russia, which gave the appearance of a relatively normal country. While at the same time, Navalny and his allies were organizing some of the biggest protests we have seen, but all in non-World Cup cities.”

Though criticism has accompanied this year’s World Cup, Goldblatt noted relative silence in 2018 on Russia’s suppression of protests, use of North Korean forced labor, and anti-LGBT legislation.

“There is a touch of racism on the reporting on Qatar,” said Odinkalu. “Because it’s different, because as a society we don’t know, because they are other, we are reporting them from the north of the world in a way that sometimes can be offensive. I think it’s necessary for us to challenge the way we treat people who are different from us.”

In her closing remarks, Dean Kyte welcomed the continuation of these conversations.

“There’s a power to the beautiful game,” she said. “We have to separate FIFA from Qatar, and I think we should have a longer conversation about international sports governance and then talk about where in the world we put these tournaments.”