Goal! Dictators Score in International Sports

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We are encountering yet again one of the great clichés of public life: “There is no place for politics in the world of sports.” This ignoble refrain was first advanced prior to the 1936 Berlin Olympics—the Hitler Games.  It was repeated in the run-up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, an event that was widely boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And just a few years ago, we heard it in response to those who objected to Beijing’s hosting of the Summer Games in 2008, an occasion that led the Chinese authorities to step up repression, rather than improving human rights conditions as promised.

As these three examples demonstrate, it is preposterous to suggest that dictators, totalitarians, and aspiring authoritarians are capable of detaching their country’s role in international sports from their own political ambitions. Hitler made decisions on details ranging from ceremonial pageantry and stadium architecture to the proper display of Nazi uniforms and insignia. For the Soviets, hosting the Olympics was seen as a crucial stamp of international legitimacy for an increasingly decrepit system founded on censorship and the gulag. And for the Chinese Communist leadership, the games were a kind of coming-out party, marking the country’s emergence as a global economic power and touting a political order whose rigidity and coercive discipline supposedly produced results. In all three cases the host cities were cleansed of political dissidents and other disharmonious elements for the duration, and huge state resources were devoted to producing athletes who would add to the glory of the regime by bringing home the gold.

Until recently, it could at least be said that countries with objectionable political systems played host to major global sports competitions only occasionally. Forty-four years elapsed between the Berlin and Moscow Olympics, and it was another 28 years before the games were held in Beijing. Second-tier events in dictatorial states tended to be limited to low-profile sports like weightlifting and wrestling. But all that is changing fast. Some of the most prestigious international athletic competitions have recently been held, or are now set to be held, in countries that regularly make world headlines with their rigged elections, state-dominated media, repression of minorities, or full-bore retreat from democracy to authoritarianism.

Here are a few of the most notable examples:

Ukraine: Under President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine is quickly reversing the democratic gains associated with the 2004 Orange Revolution. It has suffered major declines in the Freedom in the World report over the past two years, falling from Free to Partly Free, and further deterioration can be expected if current trends continue. Yanukovych has come under intense international pressure for jailing former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko on charges that most observers regard as blatantly political. But the persecution of the political opposition is only the tip of the iceberg. Serious questions are being raised about Ukraine’s electoral process, judicial independence, and press freedom.

Despite these problems, Ukraine, along with democratic Poland, is serving as cohost of the European soccer championships later this summer. The event was meant to symbolize the strengthening of Ukraine’s ties with the European Union, a goal to which Yanukovych has repeatedly declared his commitment. Europe, however, has taken a tough stance on the imprisonment of Tymoshenko. German chancellor Angela Merkel has described Yanukovych as a “dictator,” and EU countries have openly mulled a boycott of the tournament by their political leaders.

Belarus: Alyaksandr Lukashenka was once dubbed the last dictator in Europe. His 18-year tenure has featured fraudulent elections, the smothering of independent media, the mysterious disappearance of political opponents, and one of the world’s longer rosters of political prisoners.


Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka

Under these circumstances, the fact that Belarus has been chosen to host the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship is a source of deep puzzlement. Responding to the threat of a boycott, Lukashenka said, “We won’t die or anything, and we’ll have all the hotels and arenas to ourselves.” As of now, unfortunately, it seems as if Lukashenka needn’t worry, as the International Ice Hockey Federation has reaffirmed its choice of Belarus, despite  criticism by political figures like Senator John McCain and Senator Dick Durbin.  Those interested in the boycott movement can contact Freebelarusnow.org.

Russia:  A charm offensive by Vladimir Putin sealed the deal for Russia to host to the 2014 Winter Olympics. If the International Olympic Committee has decided that democracy is irrelevant, it should at least have given thought to the tenuous security environment of Sochi, the Russian resort town chosen as the site for the games. It is adjacent to Abkhazia, a breakaway republic whose independence from Georgia is recognized only by Russia and a handful of other countries, and that was drawn into a war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. A bit farther east are violently unstable Russian republics like Ingushetiya and Chechnya, where rebels and terrorists continue to battle the authorities. Sochi residents are already feeling the impact of their authoritarian Olympics, as grandiose redevelopment projects have forced many from their homes.

As if the Olympics were not enough, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the organization that administers international soccer, chose two authoritarian states to host upcoming World Cup tournaments: Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Once again it was Putin who championed Russia’s bid, which included a pledge to spend some $10 billion on stadiums and other amenities. Russia defeated bids by the Netherlands and Belgium, Portugal and Spain, and England. FIFA president Sepp Blatter played an insidious role in facilitating the victory of both Russia and Qatar, an absolute monarchy that has remained untouched by the recent Arab democracy movement. Blatter is said to have had aspirations for the Nobel Peace Prize, and possibly thought that pushing the World Cup into new territory would enhance his image as a promoter of global harmony. The FIFA hierarchy may also have been impressed by Russia’s somnolent political environment in 2010, when the decision was made. Conditions have changed, however. Russian civil society has reacted angrily to Putin’s cynical decision, announced last September, to return to the presidency by switching places with his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. One can imagine how the public might react if Putin were to seek a fourth term in 2018.

Equatorial Guinea:  During the 33-year rule of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, this country has regularly been included in Freedom House’s list of the world’s most repressive regimes. Nonetheless, Equatorial Guinea—known for its monumental corruption, neglect of grinding poverty, and brutal prisons—was selected as one of the hosts of the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s premier soccer championship, which took place earlier this year. Obiang described the tournament as an opportunity to “sell the country’s image.” Included in the image-enhancement campaign was the rounding up of immigrants and undesirables on the streets of the capital city, a tactic that has remained a constant among sporting dictators since 1936.

                                                                                                                                                                            
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo
Photo Credit | Department of State            

Bahrain: In April, a major Formula 1 racing event went ahead as scheduled in Bahrain, despite the Arab kingdom’s ongoing repression of a pro-democracy protest movement. The crackdown, abetted by troops and security officials from Saudi Arabia, has drawn widespread global criticism.


The 2012 Grand Prix in Bahrain
Photo Credit: Ryan Bayona

When forced to acknowledge a link between sporting events and political conditions in authoritarian settings, those who defend selecting such venues often argue that the honor of hosting a major competition may encourage repressive regimes to make reforms. Thus far, however, it seems to have had the opposite effect. The increased attention associated with sporting events gives despots a pretext to silence dissent and an opportunity to display their power, which is precisely why they pursue the hosting rights so doggedly. The truth is, these countries deserve the world’s attention, but only if it is informed and motivated by the grievances and interests of their disenfranchised people. As long as international sporting officials blinker themselves on political matters, dictators will continue to rack up points.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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