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The argument ‘sports are not political’ is no longer valid

Recently, representatives of Amnesty International, the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) and researchers sat down together in an expert meeting to discuss human rights and sports. A modest historical milestone is what initiator and historian Paul Reef would like to call it. ‘For the KNVB to accept such an invitation would have been unthinkable five years ago.’

More than forty years ago, Freek de Jonge and Bram Vermeulen campaigned strongly against the participation of the Dutch national football team in the 1978 FIFA World Cup inFranse%20boycotposter%201978%20Argentini%c3%ab Argentina, a dictatorship. ‘We are going to Argentina, where murder is an everyday occurrence. But there is no time for that now, Rep has just scored’, they sang. The team went anyway. The KNVB did not think about responding to the activists. 'They were King Football and opponents were annoying activists', PhD student Paul Reef sums up. The KNVB was not alone in this. Until very recently, international sports organisations also set human rights aside as ‘political’ - and therefore outside of the domain of sports.

More pressure

At first glance, little seems to have changed. The FIFA World Cup will take place in Qatar in 2022, where thousands of migrant workers have now died in the construction of stadiums. China is preparing for the Winter Olympics in 2022, in the meantime locking up tens of thousands of Uyghurs in re-education camps. But change is taking place, says Reef. ‘Sports organisations feel the pressure to become more politically involved. Not only from organisations such as Amnesty International, but for the first time also from governments due to human rights violations. For example, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, recently called for a diplomatic boycott of the Games in China.’

Recently, Reef held an expert meeting together with sports history professor Marjet Derks in which sports researchers from the Netherlands and Belgium, sports journalists, people from the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) and Amnesty International sat around the table. ‘The focus is now mainly on the current protest in Qatar’, Reef says. ‘We thought it would be good to zoom out and explore developments in the relationship between sport and politics from an international and historical perspective. A lot has changed in the sports world over the past ten years. Human rights but also other social issues such as racism have become more important. Five years ago, it might have been unthinkable for the KNVB to accept an invitation like this at all.’

Sport IS political

It is now clear to sports organisations that they can no longer protect themselves using the argument ‘sports are not politics’. According to Reef, it is only a matter of time before someone successfully sues a FIFA or involved construction company in an international court of law. ‘They are afraid of that. From a legal point of view, however, determining who exactly bears responsibility for human rights violations related to sports turns out to be extremely complicated. It is easy to blame sports organisations, but there are a lot of stakeholders.'

FIFA and the IOC have meanwhile started to develop serious human rightsAmnestyShooting-770x1090%20-%20protestposter%20AI%20tegen%20Spelen%20Beijing%202008 policies. A Center for Sport and Human Rights has been located in Geneva since 2018. ‘The boards of sports organisations now also include people for whom the social role of sports matters’, says Reef. ‘In the 1980s and 1990s, Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch was president of the IOC. He was active during the Franco era and wanted to be addressed as His Eminence. Now there is a reform-minded German in charge who wants to tackle gender inequality within the IOC.’ Things are also changing within the KNVB. ‘The Netherlands is a major player in the football world and has provided many directors for UEFA. The KNVB is now trying to put human rights and discrimination on the agenda there. They are taking their social duties more seriously these days’, says Reef.

'It is easy to blame sports organisations, but there are a lot of stakeholders'

The changes are visible on paper, but it remains to be seen exactly how they will work out in practice. Reef: ‘For example, the IOC has decided to sign a contract with future host cities stating that the host country will observe international human rights treaties - in relation to the immediate event - as applicable there. That sounds very good, but in China it would mean that the genocide on the Uyghurs is not included, because it has nothing to do with the Games. And suppose Russia is the host country: that constitution states that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman, so that contract does not enforce respect for other relationships.'

Doubtful choices

Qatar or China were doubtful choices to begin with. Why then do sports organisations choose such host countries? Reef gives three reasons. The first is a symbolic one: sport belongs to the whole world and events cannot only be held in the West. The second is a commercial reason: countries use such a sporting event to showcase themselves and put a lot of money into it. In addition to sports organisations, IOC and FIFA are commercial institutions, so that and tapping into new markets is attractive to them. The third reason relates to that megalomania. ‘They can no longer go everywhere. Oslo initially wanted to host the 2022 Winter Games, until the people from the IOC came and said: we want private drivers, our own driving lanes. Then Norway said: we are not going to do that. Because these sporting events have become so big and come with such a set of requirements, the willingness to organise them has decreased sharply’, says Reef.

Who’s next?

The dark sides of such events are difficult for sports organisations to manage. IOC and FIFA’s biggest fear: would countries still want to be hosts when things get so complicated? ‘In the past ten years, there have been nearly 15 referendums, the outcome of which was against holding a major sporting event. When the IOC wentREEF6%20-%20Nolympics to designate the 2024 Summer Games, there was a negative referendum in Boston. In Hamburg too. In Budapest, a quarter of a million people signed an anti-Olympic petition. Los Angeles and Paris remained candidates and because the IOC was afraid not to find a host in 2028, they took the unique step of giving Paris the 2024 Games and already awarding LA the 2028 one’, says Reef.

According to Reef, two developments are possible in the future. The first is that sports organisations are increasingly moving to undemocratic non-Western countries, because the willingness to allocate billions for such an event is declining in the West. The other possibility is that tournaments will become smaller and spread across countries, as is already happening at the European Football Championship. ‘Because of all the protests, the IOC is trying to move away from what it calls ‘gigantism’ towards smaller Games with a more balanced social impact’, Reef says. Besides human rights, sustainability and climate change are future headaches.

Unions cannot go back

In any case, the gate between politics and sports has been opened - by the sports world itself - and can no longer be closed. Reef: ‘Now that the unions have embraced human rights, they cannot go back. The argument that ‘sports are not political’ is no longer valid. The question is no longer whether sport has anything to do with human rights, but how. This has turned it into a political discussion. The KNVB has gone from ignoring a boycott call from Freek de Jonge to sitting at the table with Amnesty International. That's already a huge change.’