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Russia Hosts The World Cup: Because We Can’t Escape Sports And Politics In 2018

Tickets still available, probably. (Spoiler alert: no one in Russia wants to go)

Last night, the Harriman Institute at Columbia and the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia held “Russia Hosts the World Cup: Sports and Politics in 2018,” detailing the relationships between global sporting events and, you guessed it, the politics of hosting them. Bwogger Isabel Sepúlveda, who knows a bit about politics and nothing about sports, attended in order to discover more about this connection and maybe, what the heck is happening with FIFA.

From North Korea and South Korea fielding a joint women’s hockey team at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang to Russia’s ban after the revelation of their large-scale doping program, there’s been a surprising amount sports in my political news. This seemed like the perfect place to get an explanation. I was expecting it to be either a lot of sports and not a lot of politics or a lot of politics and no sports, but the interdisciplinary panel assembled ensured that while some sections had more of one than the other, as each panelist gave an individual presentation for approximately 20 minutes, there was a nice balance between the two.

Dr. Natalie Koch was the first panelist to present. An Associate Professor in the department of Geography at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, she is “a political geographer focused on geopolitics, nationalism, and authoritarianism in the post-Soviet space and the Arabian Peninsula.” She tooks a more general approach to the topic at hand, talking about the geopolitics of sport in an illiberal world. The question that grounded her presentation was “why?” Why do authoritarian countries like Russia and Qatar, who will host the next World Cup in 2022, want to host these sorts of events?

She discussed the long historical trend of using these heavily-covered events to broadcast a particular image of a country, and herald their own modernity, as seen in the Nazi Olympic in Berlin 1936. More liberal countries are becoming wary of these event, after protests in the Vancouver and London Olympics, as well as the high costs that often aren’t paid off for years after the event itself. Authoritarian states are more than willing to step in so long as they have both the financial resources and see a political utility to hosting. She also talked about how smaller countries such as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan host smaller events in order to develop large scale projects and funnel patronage to large, international construction companies, pointing out that even in mega-events that are unprofitable for the host country, someone still profits. Ultimately, she left us with the message that the celebratory spectacle inherent in these large events cannot be divorced from the punitive spectacle, such as public displays of force and violence in which many of the aforementioned governments engage. Though at times her talk felt a little surface, given the huge scope she undertook, she set the stage well for the rest of the panel and provided a good foundation for the problem as a whole (with a really nice Powerpoint, which I always appreciate).

Jane Buchanan, the Associate Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, was the next to speak. Where Dr. Koch’s presentation dealt with a huge swath geographically, Ms. Buchanan’s covered a large amount of time as she detailed the Human Rights Watch work in relation to some of these specific mega-events. After detailing the organization’s methodology–interviewing victims and witnesses of rights violations, reviewing the relevant domestic and international laws, publishing reports, and working with governments and the governing bodies of sport–she went into detail with her division’s work in Russia during the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the upcoming World Cup. She talked about the discovery of violations of workers’ rights, including exploitation of migrant workers and unpaid wages as well as harassment of activists and journalists, and how HRW worked with both the International Olympic Committee (IOC), FIFA, and the Russian government.

She was honest about the mixed results their efforts in the realm of mega-events. Though FIFA has instituted monitoring of stadium building site, their system is flawed, lacking transparency and not covering the scope of everything it takes to build the stadiums. Investigations by the Russian government uncovered $8 million in unpaid wages to workers, far too late to do anything about it. However, she also mentioned a few key successes, such as a revised FIFA statute that explicitly mentions human rights and including human rights in the bidding process as of the 2026 World Cup. In 2014, IOC has also added human rights provisions to its contracts with host countries, first enshrined in its 2024 contract with Paris.

Finally, ESPN Senior Writer and Times Columnist Gabriele Marcotti talked more about the World Cup specifically, as Russia 2018 will be his sixth World Cup. He discussed how Russia and Qatar came to be hosting the upcoming World Cups, with 17 of 24 members of the FIFA executive committee that made the selection faced charges or accusations of corruption at some point either shortly before or not long after the selections were made. New elections were held after the fiasco, which rocked the organization which may lessen corruption in the organization. He also talked about the lack of enthusiasm in Russia for the World Cup as opposed to the Sochi Olympics, with sponsor slots still unfilled and the domestic broadcasting rights, usually a hot ticket item, only sold in the last months. He offered the doping scandal and a general governmental fatigue as possible reasons for this enthusiasm gap. Also, the Russian team sucks and frankly, doesn’t seem likely to make it past the first round, which doesn’t help. In general, he seemed to have a lot of insider knowledge and seemed like the presentation that tied everything we heard together, and put it into firmer context.

After, the moderator, Alexander Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute, asked for some clarifying explanations about the role FIFA plays in each of their areas of expertise before opening to the floor for a brief question and answer period. This part tended to have more sports jargon I was unfamiliar with, especially in discussion of the specifics of the FIFA scandal but generally, the questions were interesting ranging from the political role athletes can play (which is to say, not much as political demonstration on the field is banned by the IOC) to if Russia’s failure to do well at the Cup will ruin Putin’s attempts to craft his image through these sporting spectacles (probably not, because not even the Russians expect to do well). I left feeling like, even if I didn’t learn that much about sports in general, I knew a lot more about this particular historical moment, how we got here, the damage these events can cause and the political implications these sorts of huge sporting spectacles have for the world at large.

I guess it’s better than the new Dartmouth logo via Wikimedia Commons

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