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Excellence and Expertise

When “sportswashing” a World Cup goes wrong

The power and propaganda of “sportswashing” reveals the social and cultural costs of exploiting global sport mega events for dubious geopolitical gains

Excellence and Expertise

When “sportswashing” a World Cup goes wrong

To say the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is mired in controversy is an understatement of global proportions. Protests over human rights violations in Qatar including the death of migrant workers, LGBTQ+ discrimination, and more continue to build, while FIFA also faces backlash over the corruption that led to a tournament hosted by a Middle Eastern nation with no significant soccer pedigree or infrastructure.

Hear Adam Beissel, an assistant professor of sport leadership and management, tell a story of corruption and bribery, power and propaganda, death and discrimination -- and about the geopolitical machinations of those who use global sport mega events like the World Cup for their own dubious gains.

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Read the transcript

James Loy: The views and opinions expressed in this podcast by the hosts and guests may or may not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Miami University.

This is Reframe the podcast about building a better society by embracing fresh perspectives and new ideas from the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. To say that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is mired in controversy is an understatement of global proportions. Ever since FIFA soccer's ruling body, awarded the tournament to Qatar back in 2010, there has been a steadily building crescendo of outcries, protests and honestly, a general bewilderment from the rest of the world. And it's not only because Qatar has no significant history with soccer whatsoever or a climate that's dangerously unsuited for summer sports. It also faces severe criticism over a number of human rights concerns, including LGBTQ rights, as well as the treatment of foreign workers.

Adam Beissel: More people have died building the stadia and infrastructure for the event itself than will actually play on the pitch in the soccer games. And so it's pretty stark in terms of the actual labor and human rights issues that are occurring. Just to put this event on in a country that was really a no place to hold the event in and of itself.

James Loy: That's Adam Beissel. He's an assistant professor of sport, leadership and management at Miami University. And he's here with a story about corruption and bribery, about power and propaganda, and about the geopolitical machinations of those who use global sport mega-events like the World Cup for their own sometimes dubious gains.

Adam Beissel: There's a term for when arguably cruel and horrendous political regimes use sport mega-events to effectively cleanse their image through associations with sport. And it's called sport washing.

James Loy: We'll talk more about sport washing, what it is, what it does, and about why Qatar was even chosen to host the World Cup in the first place and how the political landscape around global sport and mega-events may even change as a result.

Adam Beissel: So where do we start when it comes to a conversation about the upcoming World Cup? The very fact that the World Cup is being contested in November and December is an extraordinary once in a century event. Historically, the men's and the women's World Cups are always scheduled for the summer months. But very quickly after the tournament was awarded to Qatar in 2010, the organizers realized that it was likely going to be next to impossible to hold the event as per usual in June and July in the hot summer months of Qatar. And therefore they proposed moving it to the winter months in Qatar. And it's why we are sitting here speaking on the cusp of the World Cup that's about to get kicked off here in November. What that has done to the international soccer calendar, which is established multiple, multiple years in advance, has thrown it really into a state of catastrophe. It's extraordinary. Normally you've got multiple competitions, multiple leagues going on at any given time all the way from August until May. And what we now have is because they've moved the World Cup to November and December, the entire sports calendar has just stopped.

James Loy: And that's just among one of the points of discussion that people bring up when they talk about Qatar hosting the World Cup. It's just it's surrounded by controversy after controversy from so many angles. Can you talk about some of those other controversies that are surrounding this particular tournament in Qatar?

Adam Beissel: So as we start thinking about Qatar and the 2022 World Cup, you know, when we start examining sport mega events, we really have to go back to how those bids were awarded, how they were contested. That at least takes us all the way back to 2010 when FIFA put the 2022 World Cup out for bid. What we do know now is that unequivocally there were bribes and there was a series of corruption that resulted in, at the time a series of FIFA executive council members being influenced in their vote and voting for Qatar as the host of 2022 instead of the United States, which was the other leading contender. We do know now, after years of indictments, criminal investigations, the Department of Justice getting involved, that of the 24 members of the executive council that voted to award the event to Qatar, 22 have been indicted in some form of bribery, corruption or racketeering and money laundering charges since the awarding of the event. So once the fall of house FIFA happened and around 2015, FIFA has really gone about trying to turn over a new leaf. And they introduced their current president, Gianni Infantino, who promised to be a reformist to bring about a more fiscally responsible, more transparent, more ethical leadership and organization to FIFA. Now, a lot of that has been through the release of a document called FIFA 2.0, which is its new strategic vision. Really, what FIFA has emphasized is protecting its bottom line, which has been under threat due to the criminal indictments, sponsors getting cold feet, and the blowback in public reaction to the corruption and bribery that resulted in not only Qatar hosting 2022, but also Russia hosting the men's World Cup in 2018. So we had two events awarded under the same guise of bribery, racketeering, money laundering. And since then, FIFA has gone about trying to demonstrate to the world that it should still remain the global organizer of professional football and professional soccer and trying to protect its image. And so a lot of what FIFA is working with now is both, on the one hand, trying to develop meaningful policies that take football into the future as a source for social good. But on the other hand, the critics would say, well, they're really just trying to consolidate their empire and protect what was under threat from not only, you know, the legal system, but also public backlash.

James Loy: I want to come back to that point on how soccer football can potentially be a source for social good. But first, can you explore more about what led FIFA down this road? How did they come to this place where they are facing such public backlash now? What led to that and where is the organization headed from here, perhaps, you know, after they weather this current storm in Qatar?

Adam Beissel: You know, one of the things that I think is worth mentioning is that the history of FIFA and the most recent really era of World Cups has been predominated by corruption and bribery. And if you look at the way that FIFA works as a political organization, the way that leaders assume to positions of power is by strapping votes together, having countries vote in unified blocs and as a quid pro quo under the previous administration of FIFA under Sepp Blatter, who from his very first involvement with FIFA in the 1970s was bought and paid for the way that he was able to retain power and to acquire power in 1998 and retain power. Election after election was by effectively. Promising countries or regions of the world that they would have the opportunity to host the men's World Cup. So, you know, places we can point out South Africa in 2010. Brazil hosting 2014 was the first time it had returned to South America in a really long time. Russia in 2018 and now Qatar in 2022. And the promise of delivering those World Cups in those locations was sold to the public as, Hey, look, we're penetrating new markets, we're delivering the global game to all these peripheral or semi peripheral or non-U.S. nations. But what was really happening was that those nations were pooling votes to support the political parties or political positions of that leadership. And so it's a bit of a quid pro quo, and that's how we get these events in countries over the past four or now men's World Cups that that were ultimately ill equipped to host these events. I would say that as we start shifting our focus to the next World Cup in 2026, this was the first World Cup awarded under the new leadership. After the scandal had taken down, many of the executive board members and FIFA itself had instituted a series of governance reforms. The next World Cup will be jointly hosted in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. In a country or are three countries with all of the already existing stadia, facilities and amenities to deliver a World Cup tomorrow if it had to. And so what we see is sort of Qatar as the end of this previous era, and they're moving toward an era in which existing stadia in countries that are already equipped to host the World Cup and present massive, massive commercial opportunities for FIFA to recover its financial losses from its scandal as being the next chapter in the evolution of FIFA.

James Loy: So this brings us to another key question. Why Qatar? Exactly. Well, FIFA clearly had its reasons, the main ones being money and power, getting more of the former and holding on to the latter. But what's in it for guitar? Why would a tiny Middle Eastern nation with no history or experience with soccer or a summer climate suited to the sport or even any existing stadiums or infrastructure to host such a mega event while also running the risk of shining a global spotlight on multiple human rights violations in the process. Why would they even want to have this event in the first place?

Adam Beissel: It's called sportwashing.

James Loy: Adam Beissel: again.

Adam Beissel: Sport washing is the term that has kind of emerged within not only the academic discourse lately, but also the popular lexicon of why a country might turn to sport to launder a reputation and really signal an image to both international and external audiences. In 20 in 2021, the Norwegian Language Board even shows sport washing as its word of the year, despite being the word of the year. There's sort of an ambiguity to what it's known as, but I'm going to quote Jules Boykoff here, who just released a fantastic article a few weeks ago, kind of the defining research article on theorizing sport washing. And he writes, Sport washing is a phenomenon whereby political leaders use sports to appear important or legitimate on the world stage, while stoking notions of nationalism and deflecting attention from chronic social problems and human rights woes. And sports washers use mega-event. They use team ownership and events like the World Cup to try and create that signaling or that national prestige and convey economic and political advancement. It's a social relationship that entangles both internal and external audiences. So it's really about trying to manufacture consent for a political position of leadership within your country, but then also signal to the international community that really you're a real player.

James Loy: So it's like sports propaganda, basically. It signals success and power and that you've arrived on a global stage because you're able to, you know, associate yourself with such a popular global event. But at the same time, it also can provide an opportunity for people in power to deflect attention away from anything negative or harmful or bad by kind of sweeping that under the rug.

Adam Beissel: Yeah, and it's nothing new, to be honest with you. The earliest example of sports washing would be the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler used them as a political ploy to support and manufacture consent for his position of leadership. And there's an outcome driven approach to all of this sports washing, some of its commercial and some of it's political. If we look at what happened after the 2016 Sochi Olympics, you have within weeks of the conclusion of the Sochi Olympics, Vladimir Putin decided to invade the Crimean peninsula, clearly using the goodwill and soft power that he had sort of generated by hosting an international coming together of cultures and communities for his political and in this case, military purposes. But I do want to be clear that sport washing doesn't only happen with authoritarian and fascist regimes. It also happens to some degree with democratically elected countries as well. So we can point to what's been happening in recent times in North America. We look at the 1984 Olympic Games, which were known as the Mc Olympics, which is the first opportunity to fully commercialize and open up a sport mega-event to corporate capitalism. And it really spoke to the nature and the power and the economic import of what these events can have and how local customs and laws and ideologies infiltrate the delivery of these events. So it happens all around the world. And you can argue that sport washing happens in any sport mega events and even in any ownership of a professional soccer team. It just tends to be linked oftentimes with the Middle East and authoritarian regimes who it seems that have an explicit purpose of using it to curry favor and to create a positive image on the world stage.

James Loy: Does it work, do you think? I mean, there must be some success associated with it for it to be a strategy that political leaders and people in power have used for, I guess, you know, in various ways over the last century or so.

Adam Beissel: Does sport washing work? I think it remains to be seen. Indeed, sport washing has been around for a long time, probably not in this modern form, but you're certainly seeing a tremendous pushback on the approaches taken by sport washing, whether it be Formula One race is being hosted in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and some of the drivers expressing concern about that. And then also the World Cup here shines a light on some of the human rights abuses, the issues with LGBTQ rights in in Qatar. And so on the one hand, you have the opportunity for sport washing, but sometimes sport washing gives you. Our country, the limelight and people start then really focusing on the ideologies and the norms and the customs of that given country. And in some cases, there's a tremendous amount of pushback. So the answer is it does both. Both is an effective technique for countries who engage in sport washing, whilst at the same time drawing, critique and attention, rightfully so, to those regimes in power. I do think that with Qatar, there's a limit to how many things one is willing to put up with when it comes to sport washing. I think with Qatar, there are so many issues from the moving of the World Cup to what are going to be white elephant stadiums, to the human rights abuses, to the build a stadium out of shipping containers. There's no accommodation there, like no accommodations for fans who want to even attend the event. They've set them up in temporary shipping container, hostel looking things. They're charging exorbitant prices. They're just issue after issue after issue. That's gotten us to the point where it was too far down the line to move the World Cup to somewhere else, and FIFA just really had to go through with it. But I think everyone is going to forever remember this World Cup as being linked to both the corruption and bribery that awarded the World Cup to Qatar and the series of issues in Qatar. And for that, I think the legacy is going to be really the final chapter of Sepp Blatter's era as a leader of FIFA, and the moment in which I think the collective community, both in football and outside of football, acknowledges that hopefully we can close this chapter and move on to something better. But I think in the end, the hosting of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has launched the theory and really just the idea of sports washing into the vernacular and people are now aware of it. In the end, maybe the hosting of the World Cup in Qatar brings more light to the sports washing issue. But I'll go back to what I said earlier, and that is that sport washing happens in both autocracies and democracies. It's just a little bit more subtle. And so whether my professional soccer team gets bought by a personal investment fund of a royal family or a corporate hedge fund manager from the U.S., there are issues on both sides. And I think traditionally we've only really held accountable the personal investment fund. But we really haven't questioned the nature of corporate capitalism in the owning of professional sport teams for the explicit purpose of making profit.

James Loy: So now that sports washing has been introduced into the vernacular, now that more people are aware of the concept that may help diffuse some of its power to deflect attention away from various atrocities or to secure some quick global prestige. But that does still not change the fact that many of these atrocities, controversies and human rights concerns are still happening in places like Qatar, where the World Cup will still overshadow the fact that an estimated 6 to 7000 migrant workers have already died to extreme heat, unsafe working conditions, exhaustion, malnourishment. And this can all bring up many moral and ethical dilemmas for sports fans and casual viewers. And it's leading many people to wonder how should we as fans consume events like the World Cup after so many issues have come to light? Should we consume it anyway as if the bad things outside stadiums weren't even happening? Should we boycott it and refuse to engage at all? Or should we consume it even more and follow even more closely to identify and call attention to certain issues and use the World Cup as a springboard to make the world a better place? Perhaps even more importantly, what is the role of FIFA here and their responsibility, and what are the upper limits of soccer's responsibility in general? Sports Illustrated recently said that soccer is the most popular cultural mode that there has ever been in the history of the world. It's watched everywhere, it's played everywhere, and therefore it has a platform unlike any other to be a force for social good. So does FIFA and other similar powerful sport organizations have more of an innate and direct responsibility to be that force for positive change?

Adam Beissel: I think there'll be two different camps on that argument. The first would say, Well, look, sport is bread and circuses has always been since the ancient Romans, and there's no business in these sport leagues or organizations around the world, you know, caring about sport for the social good. It comes to everything from DNA initiatives in the NFL and protecting players from concussions to a point of trying to mitigate human suffering around the world by FIFA. But I think that point of view is quite narrow and doesn't really acknowledge the potential for good for some of these organizations. And they have their own missions and values. And so all we can do is hold them to the missions and values that they say they want to do and actually make sure that they're delivering on those promises. So it's one thing to say, oh, yeah, we care about gender equality, but it's another thing to actually deliver a women's World Cup or opportunities for women, footballers and women around the world to engage in play in the sport that they want to play in. So a lot of what FIFA does is marketing and branding and protecting its bottom line. And so it's really speaking truth to power that if these are your values and you're committed to them because we all think sport can be a possibility for the social good, then holding them to account for the promises that they make. And the literature tells us that both the IOC, the International Olympic Committee and FIFA have a dubious record when it comes to fulfilling all of the promises associated with sport mega-events. The sport mega-events, the World Cup and the Olympic Games are often heralded as these once in a generation opportunities to inspire the generation for participation and inclusion. And mostly they're delivered without any form of legacy planning or policies or outcomes that can be measurable. And what happens is as soon as they're over, we move on to the next one. And we don't really reflect on whether or not the IOC or FIFA delivered on their promises.

James Loy: Gotcha. Okay. So what I was kind of saying, it's almost like with great power comes great responsibility to steal that Spider-Man quote. Like at a certain point you're so big that you kind of have a responsibility to be a force for good because you are able to do so. But what you're basically saying is that they've already promised to do a certain level of things in their mission statement. So at the very least, what we can do is hold them accountable to do what they said they were going to do anyway.

Adam Beissel: Yeah, it's a very low bar, but it's what we want from them. One of the things that's interesting to note about FIFA and when anyone criticizes FIFA for being super capitalistic and trying to be bottom line oriented, they'll say that our goal is to maximize commercial revenue from the men's and women's World Cup, because if we make as much money as humanly possible from these events, what that means is that there is more money for every one of the 211 member associations that they can then spend on development projects. So that's their logic, right? It's based on this trickle-down effect. Now, the question is, is that money actually trickling down? Probably not, because there are many countries around the world that if you're a that money does not reach them, their football federations skim it off the top or it just never trickles down or in some cases actually just sits in FIFA's bank account. Or in the other instance, it may reach some of those local communities in one of the 211 member associations. But the question is, is that is building a football stadium in a country? Syria, where there's high unemployment, food scarcity, really what that community needs. And so there are instances of these, you know, multimillion dollar soccer facilities and stadiums that are placed in countries where that's probably not a strategic priority or a vital need in the sustainability of different countries and cultures.

James Loy: Right. Okay. So they basically say our goal is to make money, which is ultimately going to be for the greater good. Now, whether that's true or not, I guess, you know, we can debate.

Adam Beissel: And here's a question I gave to my students the other day. I said, okay, let's just say you own a professional football team. You own an NFL team. In fact, the Washington commanders are up for sale right now. There are estimates that it might go for 6 to $7 billion, possibly to Jeff Bezos, who's expressed some sort of interest in that. What happens if Saudi Arabia comes in and says, yep, $12 billion right now, cash and you're one of the other 31 owners. What do you do? Because that just basically doubles the value of your franchise. So by approving and voting for Saudi Arabia to buy hypothetically the commanders, you're genuinely pocketing like two, three, $4 billion in how much your franchise is going to appreciate in value. And so do you do it? Do you say yes or no? Because if you say no, what happens the next time you need to sell your franchise and somebody with a dubious record comes to the equation, whether they're from the Middle East or whether they I don't know where a CEO of Wells Fargo who defrauded millions of Americans from their personal savings or they were a founding member of a cryptocurrency company that is now bankrupt. So those questions are interesting, and I don't have a perfect answer for them, but we're seeing them play out, particularly in sports ownership around the world. And it's going to come to North America sooner, if not later. And all the professional leagues in North America are going to have to decide, are we willing to essentially sell our franchises for the explicit purpose of pretty overt sports washing if they haven't already been done so already?

James Loy: And what do your students say? What side are they on generally?

Adam Beissel: Students usually take the money. Now I say that in jest. It's easy to hypothetically say this person does not meet our values. And so our students generally, for sake of argument, will mostly say, no, we're going to take the lesser, we're going to take the lesser deal from somebody who doesn't have questionable human rights and ethical issues. But it's easier said than done when you're in the classroom and there's not billions of dollars of personal wealth on the line for you to switch from no to yes and personally gain wealth from that equation, which ironically is what got FIFA into this predicament in the first place as the years and years of corruption and bribery and suitcases full of money and hotel rooms that led us to a World Cup in Qatar in November. In a truly unprecedented region of the world and under truly unique circumstances beyond most people's wild imagination.

James Loy: Adam Beissel is an assistant professor of sport, leadership and management at Miami University, where he studies the geopolitical economy of global sport. And this is the Reframe podcast. Thank you so much for listening. We have many more episodes available right now wherever podcasts are found.