The burden of the stratospheric costs that international sporting events entail unavoidably falls on the taxpayers in host cities.
When Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, human rights activists labelled the event the “Genocide Olympics” because of China’s alleged involvement in conducting the Darfur mass killings. Similarly, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to award the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing in July 2015 has witnessed clamorous opposition and continues to do so on account of China’s questionable human rights record. As we move closer to the 2022 Olympics, groups have intensified protests, urging a boycott that would draw attention to the accusations of Chinese atrocities against the Uyghurs, Tibetans and also the clampdown on political dissidents in Hong Kong. Interestingly, China’s closest rival candidate to host the 2022 Olympics was Kazakhstan, a country infamous for gross human rights violations as well. Notably, liberal democracies such as Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden pulled out of the race.
The remaining prospective hosts for the 2022 Olympics being China and Kazakhstan merits scrutiny of an observable phenomenon pertaining to the keenness of regimes with contentious human rights records to host a vast majority of mega-sporting events (MSEs). To perspectivise it, Azerbaijan hosted the 2015 European Games followed by the European Grand Prix in 2016, Russia played hosts to the 2014 Winter Olympics as well as the 2018 Football World Cup, while the 2022 World Cup is set to be held in Qatar and so on. This phenomenon was coined “sportswashing” by the Sports or Rights Campaign in 2015 and also found its place in the Oxford dictionary in 2018. Essentially, “sportswashing” revolves around authoritarian regimes utilising the prestige and grandeur of mega-sporting events as a means to improve their tarnished reputation within the international arena. The suffix “washing” is used to suggest deceptive and opportunistic appropriation of the popularity of sports by these regimes. While hosting these vastly popular events gives these countries a chance to steer global attention away from the controversial aspects of policy, governance and human rights , amplify soft power, enhance political legitimacy and reputation, it is the international sporting bodies’ overt preference for ‘less democracy’ that provides an impetus to this phenomenon. Preference for minimal democracy, coupled with lofty demands put forth by sports bodies and extortionate costs impacting the taxpayer have dissuaded liberal democracies, paving the way for authoritarian states to become recurrent hosts.
Despite the fairly recent coinage of the term, sportswashing is as old as sport itself. A cursory glance shows that for about a century, authoritarian regimes have endeavoured to employ sports, seemingly in an effort to legitimise their existence in the international sphere. Nevertheless, these regimes have inexorably faced incessant criticism for the same. The examples date back to the 1936 Berlin Olympics (infamously known as the Nazi Olympics), the 1978 FIFA World Cup under the military junta regime in Argentina (referred to as the dirtiest World Cup ever), the 1980 Summer Olympics of Moscow that was boycotted by a total of 65 nations in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1968 Olympics and the 1986 FIFA World Cup that witnessed largescale protests against the authoritarian Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) Regime in Mexico, and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. More recently, political and human rights concerns have come to the fore during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, 2014 Sochi Olympics as well as the World Cups in Brazil, Russia, and Qatar over a gamut of concerns.
In spite of MSEs’ tendency to continually draw tremendous criticism that intermittently resurrects the debate on the close nexus between sporting events and human rights violations, international sporting bodies have displayed an overwhelming preference for authoritarian regimes. In 2013, the then-FIFA Secretary General Jèrôme Valcke unsettlingly stated that “less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup.” He continued by saying that a strong head of state such as Vladimir Putin who can take independent decisions, makes it easier for organisers than a country like Germany where one has to negotiate at different levels. Along similar lines, in 2009, Bernie Ecclestone, the former Chief Executive of the Formula One group, shared his preference for totalitarian regimes over democracies by showing admiration for Adolf Hitler as someone who “got things done.”
A closer look at the demands made by bodies like the IOC and FIFA clearly explains their preference for authoritarian governments. Norway dropped out of the 2022 Olympics bid because the list of required accommodations that IOC members presented was deemed ridiculous. The list included a request for an extra lane on all streets used for Olympics business and reserved exclusively for the travel of IOC members. The IOC also demanded to meet the King prior to the Opening Ceremony, followed by a cocktail reception that shall be paid for by the Royal Palace or the Local Organising Committee. Building up to the World Cup in 2014, FIFA demanded the revocation of an alcohol ban in Brazilian stadiums, that had been put in place since 2003 in an effort to quell violence among rival fans and hooliganism. The FIFA demanded this because brewer Budweiser was one of the sponsors of the World Cup and President Dilma Rouseff signed this controversial bill into law that allowed the sale of beer in stadiums. Considering that these bodies have demands that require host countries to repeal or introduce laws and take controversial administrative decisions instantly at their whims, authoritarian regimes prove to be the more convenient and hassle-free alternative. This is because democratically elected representatives are bound to exercise accountability towards their citizens while catering to the bodies’ demands, which would entail a cumbersome process. Contrastingly, authoritarian leaders can make quick and independent decisions barred of excessive scrutiny, making things simpler for the sporting bodies.
Another compelling reason why liberal democracies do not wish to host MSEs is because of the sprawling costs and cost overruns that directly affect the taxpayers. Even submitting a bid to the IOC costs millions of dollars. Cities typically spend US$ 50 million to US$ 100 million in fees for consultants, event organisers, and travel related to hosting duties. The ginormous costs required for the Olympics have prevailed for decades and most host cities have ended up with massive debts after the games or have incurred mammoth losses. The city of Montreal that hosted the Olympics in 1976 was unable to pay off the debts until 2006 after it took US$ 1.4 billion to construct the Olympic stadium that was initially supposed to cost US$ 250 million. Brazil is believed to have spent US$ 13.1 billion on the 2016 Rio Olympics, London spent close to US$ 14.8 billion for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, while Beijing spent a whooping US$ 45 billion in 2008, only topped by Sochi at US$ 51 billion. Additionally, the average cost overrun for the Olympics is 156 percent (176 percent for Summer Games and 142 percent for Winter Games). Scarily enough, some games like the Montreal Olympics, 1980 Lake Placid and Barcelona 1992 had cost overruns by 720 percent, 324 percent, and 266 percent respectively. Moreover, these are only a few examples and no games since 1960 has come under budget.
The burden of the stratospheric costs that these games entail unavoidably falls on the taxpayers in host cities. London paid US$ 14.6 billion on the 2012 Olympics, out of which US$ 4.4 billion came from taxpayers. Athens spent US$ 15 billion hosting the 2004 Olympics and taxpayers in Athens will continue to be assessed payments of approximate US$ 56,635 annually, until the debt is paid in full. Sydney spent US$ 4.6 billion in 2000, out of which taxpayers covered US$ 11.4 million. Owing to the tax burden, public opinion has overwhelmingly been against hosting sporting events worldwide. The support for hosting the 2016 games dropped from 64 percent to 47 percent in Chicago after its mayor signed a document holding the city responsible for financial losses, while in Norway and Poland, 50 percent and 70 percent of the people opposed the 2022 Winter Olympics bid respectively. Even Switzerland backed off their 2022 bid upon realising that costs would be much higher than initially estimated. These numbers invoke the principles of accountability and transparency which are fundamental to liberal democracies, whereas authoritarian states are much more prone to disregarding public opinion. Since democratic governments are answerable to the taxpayers, this lack of public support naturally dissuades them from playing hosts because they have to justify how these costs help the people or the host city. On the contrary, authoritarian states view the events as an opportunity to reboot their reputation, albeit at a hefty cost to the taxpayer or the regime itself, making them suitable hosts.
Unless the conduction of these MSEs is restructured in a way that sporting bodies prefer human rights records over administrative convenience and there are ways devised to lower the exorbitant costs that have caused fiscal complications for host cities for decades sometimes, it is unlikely that liberal democracies will step up to host these events. Consequently, due to the lack of host alternatives, authoritarian states will keep receiving a set platform to try and ‘sportswash’ their reputation, irrespective of its effectiveness.
The author is a research intern at ORF.
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Saaransh Mishra was a Research Assistant with the ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. His research focuses on Russia and Eurasia.Read More +