Qatar 2022 was a different World Cup: the tournament was ensnared in a web of geopolitical scandals that almost strangled the competition before it began. The aftermath will be just as scandalous, at least according to football fans, over 90% of whom believe future World Cups and Olympics will be international political events.
They are convinced the kind of controversy and polemic generated by Qatar will become the norm. Yet, there is a paradox: almost three-quarters believe this is a lamentable development. “Qatar is just the start and a blueprint for future events to be targeted for political and financial gain,” one research participant predicted.
Why are so many convinced the character of the World Cup and, by implication, the Olympics has changed, and why do so many believe this is bad? Basically, fans balance the benefits and intrinsic rewards offered by global tournaments against the hijacking of such events for partisan purposes.
At Qatar, the host’s abundant human rights issues and its questionable labor practices were roundly criticized. There were clichéd complaints of “sportswashing,” though, as one fan concluded: “Sportswashing is not really possible anymore. Attempts to pull the wool are cut off immediately by the billions of people on social media.”
Nowhere in the world is likely to be morally flawless in the mind of sports fans. They see sport as bringing climate change, human rights, bigotry and practically any other of the world’s bedeviling social problems into focus. Sports is, as one participant put it, “fair game,” meaning, if there is a problem that needs fixing, the methods are of secondary importance: only the result matters and sports is becoming an effective instrument.
Nearly 73% are convinced sport in the 21st century is politically weaponized and will be an effective force in changing society. Sports have a “galvanizing effect,” according to one fan: “Movements for change can use the associated momentum to kick off beneficial activity.”
Qatar has “lit a fire” under sport. “Any future host nations will come under more scrutiny,” suggested a fan, making a point shared by most. And another: “It is a myth that sports and politics are not intertwined. Sport can create positive change in society, and an open stance should be encouraged to drive this change.”
“Athletes like all of us have a right to free speech,” declared one fan, confirming that the role of the World Cup, like it or not, will be to spotlight inequities, injustices and discrimination.
Politics and the World Cup in Future — What fans think
88.6% Think World Cups and Olympics of the future will be controversial political events
72.3% Think sport has the potential to produce social and political change
73.4% Think political World Cups are a negative development
62.1% Don’t think athletes should get involved in nonsporting affairs, like wearing emblems or making gestures
51.8% Don’t think being involved in political activism is detrimental to competitive performance
34.1 % Think future World Cups should follow Qatar’s example and ban alcohol.
Sample: 1,200. Conducted: Dec. 19, 2022-Jan 19 2023. Teesside University, UK
Who Is In Charge of the Message?
But, while there is near-consensus on the moral destiny of the World Cup — and, according to most fans, the Olympics too — there is division over the desirability of sports becoming political in character. Nearly 74% don’t feel that politicization shouldn’t be encouraged. It is, they say, not sports’ responsibility to be a catalyst of change. Why then do so many think the politicization of sport is an unfavorable prospect?
The answers for this are not straightforward. Some fans believe the remonstrations witnessed over Qatar will soon be forgotten and will have achieved nothing. Sports only appear to be effective, but in the longer term are simply not.
Some fans reflected on how sport was often lauded in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. There was a widespread boycott and SA was alienated from world sport for much of the 1970s and 1980s.Yet there is little evidence that the boycott actually served more than a symbolic role.
“Who is in charge of the message?” asked one fan, raising another objection. Is it legitimate for one culture to criticize another because its customs and practices differ? One of the present authors has argued that much of the attack on Qatar bordered on Islamophobia and several participants in the research were concerned that moral absolutism (the belief in absolute principles in ethical, political or theological matters) could prevail.
As most fans recognize, there are few places in the world that are perfect enough to avoid some sort of reproval. (The next World Cup is to be held in Canada, USA and Mexico, which would seem to offer plenty of raw material for political protest.)
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