It's Every Fan's Job to Police FIFA and the Olympics Committee

Neither World Cup nor Olympics authorities seem to mind Qatar's and Russia's human rights violations, so it's up to consumers, players, and sponsors to take action themselves.
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FIFA President Sepp Blatter, right, shakes hands with Sheik Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani, chairman of Qatar 2022 bid committee, at a recent press conference in Doha, Qatar. (AP / Osama Faisal)

Ever since FIFA, the global soccer governing body/alleged cesspool of corruption, appointed Qatar the host nation for the 2022 World Cup, the association has repeatedly found itself on the defensive: It has vociferously rejected widespread allegations of vote-buying by the Middle Eastern nation, and it has turned a blind eye to criticism of Qatar's antediluvian views on homosexuality. Most recently, the country revealed its planned "gay test" for players and fans during the World Cup, which reportedly could include a forced penile plethysmography test or forced anal examinations. But even more damning news came November 17, when Amnesty International released a report that's sobering, by any measure: The 2022 World Cup venue, it reveals, is being built with slave labor. 

The report details the country's widespread use of forced labor to build the glittering stadiums and related infrastructure that will host soccer's biggest tournament; looking primarily at the cases of Nepalese immigrants, Amnesty International found that contractors and subcontractors hired by the Qatari state have denied pay to hundreds of thousands of Asian workers, housed them in facilities not fit for farm animals, and worked them until, in some cases, they literally dropped dead. The human rights group could not estimate how many workers have been the victims of criminally negligent homicide thanks to Qatar's deplorable practices. But it is easy to believe that without an overwhelming response from either FIFA or the global community, tens of thousands of migrant workers will risk their lives so that the country and its contractors can build the World Cup infrastructure on the cheap.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter recently acknowledged that, at the very least, European heads of state pressured their FIFA delegates to vote for Qatar's bid because of their Middle Eastern economic interests. Those votes led to Qatar getting the World Cup, which led to its massive and ambitious $4 billion infrastructure project, which led to a need for cheap labor to keep costs down, which led to the culture outlined in Amnesty International's report. 

Sadly, this is not only the only upcoming global sporting event to be held in a bastion of repression. The 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup will both be held in Russia, which has declared that Olympic visitors who advocate LGBT rights will be thrown in jail.

These are crises not like the sectarian strife that has gripped Brazil ahead of its 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics hosting duties—complaints of that nature, like construction delays, often come with hosting such a big event in any country with a large underclass. What's going on in Qatar and Russia is state-sanctioned repression and systemic denial of basic human rights, and it should not be tolerated. Now, if only FIFA would do something about it—or the world would force it to.

But even if FIFA's ethics committee rules that Qatar bribed its way to hosting the Cup, it cannot strip the country of its hosting privileges. Only FIFA's executive committee can do that, and it has shown no intention of doing so.  Amnesty's report makes clear that FIFA is uninterested in taking any real action to solve the problem it created. Blatter confirmed as much in statements made last month:

The workers' rights will be the responsibility for Qatar and the companies —many of them European companies—who work there. It is not FIFA's primary responsibility but we cannot turn a blind eye. Yet it is not a direct intervention from FIFA that can change things. [...] We have plenty of time concerning Qatar but it is 2022, it is in nine years.

(And even setting aside the human rights issues and the bribery, awarding a traditional June-July event to a country that has triple-digit temperatures for most of the summer is pragmatically ludicrous—a fact Blatter admitted when he suggested the '22 Cup be moved to November or December.)

In Russia, meanwhile, officials have adopted a similar stance: The country's top diplomat for human rights, Konstantin Dolgov, recently lashed out at a group of U.S. senators who publicly opposed Russia's law banning "gay propaganda" toward children, writing that the law "is not violating any of Russia's obligations in the international sphere."

Dolgov is technically correct. So is Blatter: The primary responsibility for protecting workers in Qatar lies with Qatar's government, but FIFA's inhuman practices are codified by the nation’s inadequate labor laws and backwards exit-passport system, which forces workers to spend additional resources to obtain documents to leave the country. Qatar and the companies it has hired, then, are the ones exploiting the desperate economic situation of workers, bringing them to the country and then taking away their basic human rights. ("Rather than protecting the rights of migrant workers, the government is adding to their exploitation," Amnesty International concluded.) 

Amnesty International ultimately found that FIFA's overall attitude towards the Qatar World Cup is a cause for concern:

FIFA's repeated assertions that it is not responsible and cannot change things suggests that the organization may believe that raising the issue with the state authorities is sufficient. Additionally, the President's comments that there is "plenty of time" before 2022 fails to recognize that abuses are happening already, and that hundreds of thousands of workers will be recruited into Qatar's construction sector in the next nine years. It is not enough to wait until the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is over before FIFA turns its attention to the human rights risks associated with the staging of the world cup construction work in Qatar.

Put simply, FIFA's attitude toward the situation reflects either great organizational incompetence or a cavalier attitude toward human suffering. 

But the Olympics and the World Cup stand alone among sporting events as global cultural celebrations that allow individual countries to show off for a worldwide audience. FIFA and the International Olympic Committee have a moral imperative to ensure that the countries awarded such an honor provide all of their citizens, immigrants, and visitors with basic human rights (including freedom of sexual orientation, which, incredibly, is not codified in the UN human rights doctrine). Both Qatar and Russia fail that test. 

So if FIFA and the IOC won't step up, then it's on us to force the changes—and by "us," I mean everyone who consumes or makes money off the World Cup or the Olympics. Star athletes like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Phelps, or Usain Bolt could send shock waves through the system by publicly protesting Russia's anti-gay policies or the lack of workers' rights in Qatar. Global corporations could starve the proverbial beast by refusing to pay for sponsorships or advertising. And while it’s true that making it everyone's problem could actually create more apathy, fútbol lovers across the world can make their own small difference by raising awareness about the issues in both countries and urging local leaders (such as the USOC) to demand that something be done. 

It's been more than 77 years since the 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin during the rise of Nazism. That summer, African-American sprinter Jesse Owens was credited with striking a blow for equality with his four-gold-medal performance as Hitler looked on. If the repressive regimes of the 21st century were stripped of the ability to host any more global sporting events, it would be an even greater victory.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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