Qatar “sportswashing” of its image runs into higher world standards

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As the soccer World Cup kicks off this week in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, it has come in for widespread criticism as a triumph of “sportswashing” – the use of a high-profile sports event to launder a government’s poor human rights image.

Qatar is notorious for its exploitation of foreign migrant workers, its restrictions of women’s rights, and its ban on LGBTQ relationships. But the controversy surrounding these issues in the run-up to the tournament suggests that sportswashing is increasingly likely to backfire: It is more likely to attract worldwide attention to the very things that the government would rather not talk about.

Why We Wrote This

Qatar stands accused of using the soccer World Cup to launder its poor human rights image. But such “sportswashing” is increasingly ineffectual as potential sporting hosts are judged by ever-higher standards.

World Cup organizer FIFA, which made Moscow the host of the 2018 tournament, is showing signs that it recognizes the need to address criticism of sportswashing. It put human rights questions to the finalists vying for the right to host the next World Cup, for example.

Qataris complain that their country, as the first Middle Eastern and Muslim host country, has been subject to unusually harsh criticism – much worse than Moscow suffered.

They are right. But the lesson of Qatar’s World Cup is that this may not be a result of double standards.

It is because the standards themselves have begun to change.

It’s the most widely watched sporting competition on the planet. Yet as the soccer World Cup kicks off this week in the Gulf Arab emirate of Qatar, the tournament is being denounced by critics as a triumph of “sportwashing” – using the glitter and glamor of high-profile sports events to launder a government’s denial of basic human freedoms.

That narrative may ring true over the next four weeks as hundreds of millions of fans worldwide turn their attention away from questions of human rights toward the fortunes of their own national teams.

But in the longer term, Qatar 2022 could well tell a different story.

Why We Wrote This

Qatar stands accused of using the soccer World Cup to launder its poor human rights image. But such “sportswashing” is increasingly ineffectual as potential sporting hosts are judged by ever-higher standards.

That’s because the swirl of political controversy in the run-up to this year’s competition has provided the latest sign of an important change.

Sportswashing is getting harder to pull off.

It’s increasingly likely, instead, to attract worldwide attention to the very issues the host countries, and the governing bodies of international sports events, would prefer not to talk about.

The change has been coming slowly – too slowly for the human rights activists who have been at the forefront of a yearslong campaign to highlight the hypocrisy of sportswashing.



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