Contemporary sport is a key component of modern nation state-building and a cornerstone of international diplomacy and image building; it is not limited to the sport in question and its effects. As a social activity, sport is a key tool to foster a sense of collective national identity through the discourse and action of “us versus them” in a healthy way. Sport in the 21st century offers a prime opportunity for flag waving and national anthems, the most visible and powerful symbols of nationalism and displays of national sentiment. Although some sports have been played for centuries, the growth of sport in the 21st century represents a stage for international politics and competition between nation states. It is through sport that nations embody and exhibit their national values, visions, strengths and capacity.
It is within this context that we can understand the politics of sport’s international governing bodies such as the International Olympic Committee or the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), made up of national representatives. These institutions represent the political and cultural ideological underpinnings of modern sport in international affairs. They represent the institutionalisation of sport as a means of diplomacy, soft power influence and international competition.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who established the modern Olympics in 1896, highlighted the commitment to internationalism and promotion of nation states through sport with the claim that it would “bring the world together”. However, far from bringing the world together, international sporting events have served as a testing ground for the nation state or a particular political system.
Having said that, no analysis or understanding of international sporting events is complete without contextualising the imperialist and colonial legacies of modern sport. Its invention is linked with Britain, especially the English within the UK. Sport provided a cultural strategy for Britain’s expansionist ambitions in the second half of the 19th century. As a result, the global spread of sport is linked to the imperial exploits of the British, which introduced cricket and rugby union, for example, across the British Empire. Football’s global spread is also linked to British involvement evident in the English spelling of club names such as Athletic Bilbao and AC Milan. The very essence of modern sport represents the cultural legacies of colonial states. Indeed, the establishment of international sporting institutions is a form of neo-colonialism, Western cultural hegemony and power hierarchy.
Such colonial-cultural connections based around the Western model of political thought and the nation state, leads us to question global sporting events such as the Olympics and FIFA World Cup and their claims to promote social change, human rights and inter-cultural understanding. How can the whole structure of modern sport and its institutions that are based on systems of socio-cultural, economic and political exploitation and the abuse of colonies ever claim to promote social change?What does “social change” really mean in this context? The real change may start with questioning and reconsidering the whole concept of international sporting events, and deconstructing them before reforming their visions in line with more complex, diverse world histories and cultures.
It is both interesting and surprising that despite the background and controversial scandals linked to FIFA and the Olympics, international human rights institutions expect these organisations and events to be a major player in host countries. Human rights institutions themselves operate within their own agendas and politics, and should not be viewed solely through the lens of human rights. Western narratives are problematic and filled with double standards of power politics vis-à-vis sport-cum-social change in human rights as being played out with regard to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
Ever since Qatar was awarded the right to host this year’s international football tournament — the first Arab, Muslim country to do so — the international discourse has been negative to the point of trying to have the 2022 FIFA World Cup taken from Qatar and hosted elsewhere. Starting with coverage of controversial news about bribery and corruption, the narrative was that Qatar only won the right to host the tournament by illegal means. Although nothing has been proven to this effect, the international media failed to situate the narrative within the longer history of FIFA corruption and the arrest of football officials in the West on corruption charges.
Similarly, the media and political focus on the treatment of migrant workers has been pursued through an orientalist and Eurocentric lens, with the West claiming the moral high ground. It screams of double standards. Yes, the situation of migrant workers in the region needs serious reform, but the media narrative focused on human rights not only promotes a discourse that the regional mistreatment of migrant workers is unique, but also fails to situate it within the global issue of the exploitation of labour, abuse and worker’s rights in the context of the border and immigration policies of the modern nation state system. This narrative provides a very narrow understanding of the “kafala” (sponsorship) system as a monolithic means of oppression with an overarching and misleading category of citizen and non-citizen.
As a result, the pressure for “social change” leads to tokenism in a complex issue that needs intensive research and gradual reform. More importantly, it brushes conveniently over the history of structural violence within and by modern state institutions, the impact of colonialism and imperial legacies that facilitated and even imposed certain racialised immigration and citizenship policies in the Gulf which have led to the current demographic realities in the region. A prime example of this is the concept of “racialised labour” for which Qatar is being criticised, even though research shows us that this concept was introduced into the Gulf by imperial policy makers, as were the foundations of the kafala system. Moreover, racialised wage structures are a serious issue in Europe today, something that Amnesty International failed to mention in its report.Indeed, current reports highlight migrant workers’ voices selectively. This creates a homogeneous image of the group by presenting them as one category and thus further marginalising their intersectional identities and issues.
Other issues such as personal freedoms, sexual orientation and women’s rights are being framed within the context of the safety and security of visiting international fans in Qatar. These issues were highlighted as part of the neo-orientalist justification for why the small Gulf state is not “culturally, intellectually and legally” ready to host the FIFA World Cup 2022. This claim completely ignores the fact that other countries where the tournament has been held previously have, in addition to their violent history of colonial exploitation, seen a steady rise in Islamophobia, white supremacist politics, racist and racially-motivated crimes and the mistreatment of refugees, all of which compromise the safety and security of minority groups.
The paradox is more about promoting and imposing Western standards and values on to other cultures, rather than really building bridges for inter-cultural understanding.
International human rights institutions and the organisers of global sporting events should reassess their approach to the role of sport in bringing about social change. Such temporary, token and Western-centric emphasis on deep contextual local issues may add to existing structures of oppression and create more inter-cultural misunderstanding around the world.
If the real purpose is to bring the world together, then we should consider a more multicultural approach towards sport governance, policy and vision. Then maybe the question asked will not be how the FIFA World Cup 2022 has changed Qatar, but how Qatar has changed FIFA and its tournaments in the future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.