On Sports and Human Rights: We Cannot Turn a Blind Eye


Recently Human Rights Watch reported several cases of violence against the LGBT community in Russia. Instances of neo-Nazi mobs finding victims online, raiding their homes and assaulting them have multiplied. In one particularly gruesome case a gay man was held at gunpoint, forced to undress, tied up and forced to rape himself with a glass bottle.

When such attacks are reported to authorities they are dismissed because the complainants are gay. It is naïve to believe that this is about loony claims such as “banning gay propaganda” and “preventing ‘pedophilic’ homosexuals from having access to children.” The LGBT community is being scapegoated, systematically and brutally, in the country that is hosting the Olympic games, a celebration of tolerance and peace. Russia was never a beacon of democracy, and many harbored hopes of liberalization through the games, but the opposite is happening. How can the international community turn a blind eye to this? How do gay athletes or their friends and family members feel?

Large sports events have symbolic value; they award prestige to the countries which manage to attract them and to present themselves on the world stage. Understandably some leaders crave this opportunity, or they even need it to divert attention from domestic problems; money also flows accordingly. Unfortunately the World Cup host is determined by perhaps the most intransparent institution in the world, FIFA. The International Olympic Committee is not much better. The selection process is corrupted, and it is overdue that nations claim a stake, or at least take a stand, in this process. They cannot send athletes waving their flag whenever the possibility of televised patriotism presents itself, while simultaneously pretending to ignore the symbolic value of these events.

Many wanted the football World Cup awarded to England instead of Qatar, primarily because they cannot imagine football in boiling temperatures and without a nice, cold beer. But what infuriates me is that the tournament was awarded to a country where the LGBT community faces imprisonment and torture. By sending their best athletes to compete, nations are not just endorsing the event, but also the host. Whether this signals tacit approval or the hopes for improvements in the future, the nature of this gesture is perverted. In Qatar, foreign workers are invited to help with stadium construction. Upon arrival their passports are confiscated, they are forced to work as slaves and live in ghetto-like conditions. Several died from over-exhaustion and unsafe working standards. Is this the price of a football tournament?

These events should be held, and not just in rich countries with good infrastructure. However, these reports cannot be ignored either. We should not compromise when it comes to human rights, especially not in sports, where the costs of acting differently are minimal. What can one lose? Some medals? Perhaps there is the risk of strained relations with the embarrassed host nation, but if it disregards basic human rights, then the relations deserve to be strained. The US and Europe should stop awarding favors to criminal governments.

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