On Sports and Human Rights: We Aren’t Turning a Blind Eye

in News


My major problem with focusing on the Sochi Olympics, or the FIFA World Cup, or any other similar event is that it is symptomatic of an approach to human rights that is both shallow and tokenistic. The way sexual, ethnic and other minorities are treated in Russia is abhorrent. Human rights violations demean the value of our common humanity and make our whole world that little bit worse. To conflate an issue of such magnitude with the location of what is ultimately a big skiing party seems to me to be a serious error of judgment.

Let me begin by clarifying that there definitely are cases when human rights concerns should trump sporting values and entertainment. The boycott of rugby and cricket teams during the apartheid regime in South Africa, as part of a wider set of measures, was completely justified. In cases where the event itself directly contributes to human rights abuses, such as the well-documented abuses of the rights of migrant workers who are building stadiums for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, there is a very strong case for cancelling the event.

However, if we are to make human rights concerns predominant when selecting sports events, we are essentially mandating that the World Cup and the Olympics are only really for Western countries and a handful of their friends. That is before you deal with the political brouhaha that would arise when the right of Western nations such as America or Israel to host events is inevitably criticized by the excluded countries. Once you let politics into sport it will consume its ethos of non-discrimination entirely.

I am against restricting where sporting events can be held for the same reason I am against academic boycotts of countries with poor human rights records. Sport, like academia, is only tangentially related to politics. Mixing sport and politics also just doesn’t work. The only major sporting events to be boycotted in recent years were the Olympics of 1980 (Moscow) and 1984 (Los Angeles). Initially the US boycotted in response to the invasion of Afghanistan, the USSR responded by leading a counter-boycott four years later.  What was achieved? The Olympics were worse and a lot of athletes’ careers turned out to be a bit of a waste of time.

It was the American boxer Rocky Balboa who, having just defeated Ivan Drago, declared to his newfound Soviet admirers, “If I can change, and you can change, maybe we can all change.” We should not throw away sports’ capacity to build bridges lightly given we live in a world where mutual understanding is in short supply.

It is also worth noting that it is only because of the Olympics that we are having a conversation about the position of minorities in Russia at all (which has to be one of the saddest aspects of this whole debate).

The key point is this; hosting a sporting event is not a prize given to nations for good behavior. It is an opportunity for people to be inspired by the hard-working and competitive spirit of ridiculously impressive athletes. There are many things we can, should and must do to support human rights in Russia, as well as around the world – none of them are even remotely related to curling.