2022 will begin and end with two major sporting events: the Beijing Winter Olympics and the World Cup in Qatar.
The year 2022 should be a momentous one for sports fans – or really anyone interested in the future of democratic politics. Two major international sporting events will bookend the year – the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November and December. These events will be spectacular not just for the games themselves, but for the increasing fusion of debates about the geopolitics of authoritarianism and the geopolitics of sport.
The geopolitics of sport can be confusing today because it doesn’t fit into simple categories like it did during the Cold War, when the Soviet-led communist camp was easily imagined to be competing in a kind of sports war for medals and political validation against the U.S.-led capitalist camp. Cold War geopolitics was much more complicated than this imagined divide, of course, but it influenced how many people across the world understood the geopolitical relevance of sport. The end of the Cold War was heralded as a great victory in the West, but this did not mean the end of this kind of binary thinking about geopolitics. Rather, it has slowly given way to a now-dominant vision of post-triumphalist geopolitics, defined by a supposed contest between “democratic” and “authoritarian” states. Now, authoritarianism is imagined to be neatly compartmentalized within an authoritarian state’s borders, and democracy is imagined to begin when a democratic state’s border begins.
But in the sporting world today, there are so many flows between authoritarian and democratic countries that this territorial way of thinking about geopolitics is not very helpful. The flows of globalized sport link athletes, fans, sports institutions, governing bodies, media and financing across borders, caring little for the moral maps of democracy and authoritarianism that are often applied to geopolitics in the media and policy spheres. So even if policymakers, journalists, and sports fans alike readily acknowledge the extraordinary scope of these flows, they continue to be remarkably comfortable with imagining the globe around a simple authoritarian-democratic axis.
In light of the sporting events set to take place in 2022, this geopolitical vision of a global map neatly divided between authoritarian and democratic states will be especially hard to sustain. Take for example, the December 2021 announcement of the U.S. government’s diplomatic boycott of the Olympic Games in China, quickly joined by Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It was a high-profile way for these governments to call attention to China’s ongoing human rights abuses and genocide against Uighur and other Muslim minority groups, but it also deflects attention from the low-profile ways that dozens of Western companies, including Coca-Cola and Nike, have earned their profits from the forced labor of interned minorities. In watching the Winter Olympics, it will be important to follow the extent to which these crucial questions about Western complicity in profiting from, neglecting, or bolstering authoritarian practices in China are confronted head-on – or if Western governments will be content to participate in the spectacle of caring about human rights while encouraging their athletes and corporations to take home the gold.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar presents a similar set of issues. When the country won the bid to host the tournament, it immediately began building new stadiums, hotels, and overhauling its entire transportation network, including building a new metro rail system in Doha. Ever since, Western media has seen a steady stream of reports about abusive labor practices in Qatar, including most recently a sensational Guardian report asserting that 6500 migrant workers have died in the country’s massive construction boom since 2010. In Qatar, the issue of labor exploitation is far more complicated than mainstream media and sports news outlets would let on – not least because it is rarely the Qatari government directly exploiting the workers but their fellow citizens who serve as brokers and manage their contracts in Qatar and at home. Further complicating the simplistic portrayal of Qatari authoritarianism, a huge number of Western companies have profited from lucrative deals in the run-up to the World Cup – ranging from consulting companies like McKinsey or BCG to architecture firms like Foster + Partners and technology conglomerates like Siemens. As in China, a major issue to watch with the World Cup will be whether Western-based companies will continue to escape any serious reproach for reaping financial rewards on the backs of exploited labor, or whether Western media and policymakers will be content to fix the blame on the governments.
Together with the major global events in 2022, we are sure to see broader discussions about how authoritarian regimes use sport to exert a form of “soft power” or engage in “sportswashing” to put a positive spin on their problematic rights records. Sport has long been used by authoritarian regimes to foster a positive images of themselves, but “soft power” and “sportswashing” are the favorite clichés of today’s commentators decrying the increasing role of authoritarian regimes and money in global sport. This is most common in Western commentaries about Gulf sports finance from observers who are outraged by what they frame as “dirty” money flowing from the Arabian Peninsula. This is especially obvious in the case of Saudi Arabia, where sports investments like the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s acquisition of Newcastle United being described as “Saudi Arabia’s Soft Power Play” or the country’s supposed sportswashing agenda in hosting its first Formula 1 race in Jeddah or lobbying major U.S. sports bodies. These interpretations are pushed by those who approach sport as a key platform to advance calls for democracy, freedom, and Western conceptions of human rights.
Such appeals for freedom and democracy are needed and important, of course, and the topic of sport is effective because it can reach a wide audience. Yet simplistic “critiques” about soft power and sportswashing consistently absolve Western sporting bodies, media companies, clubs, fans, and players of any kind of complicity – instead pinning authoritarianism and anti-democratic policies on governments alone. Sometimes FIFA or the IOC are shamed for their gross corruption and authoritarian practices. But as the Olympic boycott debates show, the state-defined way of thinking about the geopolitics of sport – of authoritarianism and democracy being an issue of territories and governments, not actors and institutions – means that the comforting sense of moral superiority continues to prevail among Western observers. Will 2022 finally give the lie to the equally comforting idea of territorial borders separating democracy from authoritarianism? The year’s sporting events may just have some surprises.