Major sports organizations are double-edged swords for hosts
James M. DORSEY
This photo depicts a general view of the Netanya Stadium in Israel. The stadium is one of the venues hosting the eight-team UEFA European Under-21 championship. AFP photoThere is a lesson to be learnt from this year’s Formula One public relations disaster in Bahrain, trade union pressure on Qatar and other events in the region: mega-events and campaigning for office in international sports associations empower activists and put nations at risk of reputational damage.
Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone acknowledged as much saying in April that Bahrain had been “stupid” to allow the Grand Prix to go ahead because it gave a platform to thousands demonstrating against perceived autocratic rule and lack of rights.
Ecclestone’s comment highlighted the fact that mega events and public office are double-edged swords. They potentially allow countries to showcase themselves, polish or improve a nation’s international and a government’s domestic image, serve as tools to enhance soft power and create commercial, economic and political opportunity. That is if host nations of mega-events and office holders and their home countries understand that winning the right to organize a major tournament or an association election puts on display not just their best side but also their warts. That empowers activists, highlights their demands amid intense media focus and gives them the moral high ground if a country fails to respond adequately in word and deed.
Formula One woes
Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, one of three reluctant Muslim nations that was forced to field for the first time female athletes at the Olympics, and Israel, the controversial host of the FIFA Under-21 finals, prove the point. Their responses have failed to allow them to gain the upper hand in popular perception and coverage in the media that are both dominated by activists highlighting their failure to adhere to international standards of human, labor and/or gender rights. Worse even, mega events and nominating officials for regional and international office has reinforced the negative perceptions they were trying to reverse. Their failure has strengthened calls for such rights to become key criteria in the awarding of future events.
For two years running, Bahrain’s Grand Prix backfired with protesters dominating news coverage. The image of protesting was not one of an island state that has put a squashed popular uprising in 2011 behind it, but one of a nation wracked by continued strife to which the government responds with force.
By the same token, the newly elected AFC president, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, head of the Bahrain Football Association, has been unable to put an end to persistent questions about his alleged failure to stand up for Bahraini national football team players who were arrested, publicly denounced, tortured and charged for taking part in anti-government demonstrations two years ago during a popular uprising that was brutally squashed. The charges were later dropped under pressure from FIFA.
Similarly, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia has succeeded in turning the tide of public opinion or at least establishing a degree of equity in perception. To be fair, Saudi Arabia, which grudgingly allowed a few underperforming expatriate Saudi women to represent it at the 2012 London Olympics, left the field to its critics by effectively refraining from engagement in the debate about severe restrictions imposed on women in the kingdom.
By the same token, a video on You Tube features Palestinian youth in a village near the wall separating Israel from the West Bank tearing off their FC Barcelona jerseys, hanging them over razor wire the Israeli military erected around the village and setting them on fire. The protest was part of a campaign protesting Israel’s hosting in June of the U-21 championship finals intended to counter Israel’s increasingly tarnished image as the obstacle to settling its long-standing dispute with the Palestinians, growing objections to Israeli policies perceived as intentionally making daily life difficult for West Bank residents and its ever greater integration into European football. Israel is part of UEFA rather than Asia because of the Arab refusal to play Israeli teams as long as a peace settlement has not been achieved.
Most important event
The U-21 is the most important tournament Israel has ever hosted and comes at a time when Israel has lost significant ground in the global battle for hearts and minds. A hunger strike last year by a Palestinian national football team player who was suspected of association with a militant group, Islamic Jihad, but never charged, proved to be costly in the global football world. The player was released under pressure from FIFA, UEFA and FIFPro, the global players’ organization, amid fears that he would die as a result of his hunger strike.
Even Qatar, the nation that has gone the furthest in seeking to address criticism and engage with its critics, has so far been unable to shift the epicenter of international public opinion and perception. Its major issue is a lack of adherence to international labor standards and labor conditions that have been denounced by trade unions and human rights groups as modern-day slavery rather than expected Islamic restrictions on fan behavior during the 2022 World Cup, persistent allegations of wrongdoing in its bidding campaign and worry about a lack of a football tradition and extreme temperatures.
In the end, the message for host countries is: mega events constitute a platform for showcasing both a country’s positive aspects and their problems. The question potential hosts have to ask themselves is what price are they willing to pay in terms of reputational risk if they are not willing or able to address their vulnerabilities.
For activists, the message is one of empowerment but empowerment that comes with the responsibility to employ it effectively. The trade union’s battle with Qatar over labor rights is likely to become a case study. With nine years to go, the question is whether ITUC played its trump card too early by already asking FIFA to deprive Qatar of the World Cup.