Sepp Blatter, president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)
In her first international case as US Attorney General, Loretta Lynch this week blasted FIFA for systemic corruption and laid out indictments for a slew of top executives in the organization. Over a dozen officials, including FIFA Vice President Jeff Webb, are being indicted for over two decades of bribery and fraud. Despite the arrests, incumbent President Sepp Blatter’s campaign for reelection (he has been in office since 1998 and is seeking a fifth term) has stated that the election will continue as scheduled this Friday. Until a few days ago, many assumed he would easily win another term. These scandalous arrests, however, are the result of actions and crimes committed under his watch, meaning that opposition and anti-corruption candidate Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein might have a chance of unseating him.
In addition to the investigation into decades of corruption across the organization, a second investigation was launched specifically into the allocation of hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. FIFA has insisted that Russia and Qatar will still be the hosts of those respective games, despite the widespread corruption allegations leveled against both countries. In the case of Qatar — where average summer temperatures are so high that FIFA has recommended that the World Cup be played in the winter instead — cause for suspicion was particularly high.
International sporting events have always been ways for nations to show themselves off to the world. The Berlin Olympics of 1936, for example, was Hitler’s attempt to showcase the triumphs of both National Socialism and his Aryan “master race” (thankfully Jesse Owens and numerous other non-Aryan athletes were there to deflate his ego, if only for a while). The South African Rugby World Cup in 1995 was not just a great achievement for Mandela’s government to have successfully carried out, but was a way to show the world that his dream of a “rainbow nation” could really happen, starting with blacks and whites rooting for the Springboks. The Moscow Games of 1980 was the Kremlin’s highly orchestrated demonstration of Soviet organization and spirit — with the obvious Cold War undertone of “If this is what our athletes can do, you don’t want to be Afghanistan and see what our soldiers can do.” Even the London 2012 Olympics was the UK’s opportunity to assert continued relevancy in a world it no longer controls a quarter of.
But such events can also be used as a nation’s introduction or reintroduction to the world stage as a power player, and in recent years they have increasingly done so. Munich in 1972 was an attempt by Germany to expunge the memory of Berlin ’36, a chance to show the world it had moved on from the horrors of its past and could play fair again. What happened to the Israeli athletes at those games is why every single nation that has hosted them since has essentially placed their host cities under military supervision — when the eyes of the world are on you, any mistake is broadcast around the globe in seconds.
Even with those risks, countries with emerging economies are eager to showcase themselves. It is no coincidence that the so-called BRICS nations have all hosted or will all host one or more major international sporting event within the ten years from 2008 to 2018. China, Russia, and Brazil used or will use the Olympics to show that a new era has dawned for their countries, and that the world should come and see. South Africa used the 2010 World Cup to argue that their “rainbow nation” dream was coming true. And while India hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010, they will be looking for yet another event as soon as they feel they can host one.
There is another aspect to these events that deserves serious attention, perhaps even more so than the events themselves. Building the facilities for these games requires not only billions of dollars that could be spent on social services but also thousands of workers, many of whom are subject to horrible working conditions and minimal compensation. For the last World Cup in Brazil, dozens of protests erupted across the country in the run-up to the event, directed at everything from worker treatment to systemic corruption. This “burdensome” side of hosting is paired with the “privilege” side of hosting — and the fact that this privilege is often awarded to countries with histories of human rights abuses. And let’s not forget what happens to those marketing props when the athletes and tourists and fans leave — no matter how well intentioned, all those stadiums and gymnasiums are first and foremost for show. Within months, most of them become untended, decrepit husks, billions of dollars worth of urban blight.
In an ideal world, sports wouldn’t be political. The international community would hold to the ancient Greek principle of not fighting during the Olympics and other such events, and athletes wouldn’t be immediately identified as spokespeople and embodiments of everything their respective nations represent. But we live in this world, where politics is defined more by winners and losers than any sport ever will be. So, while one can hope that FIFA will actually change its operations going forward, and that nations will always treat their own workers with respect, one must remember that the competition to host these events is between countries, so it will remain political for the foreseeable future. Competing for the role of host nation is a game unto itself, and in the realm of international sports, all the world truly is a stage, and all the men and women (and countries) merely players.