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Opinion: the myopic outlook on sportswashing

Jan 12, 2023

The twenty-second World Cup has concluded in the oft-mispronounced gulf state of Qatar. Critics claim the peninsular emirate is the most controversial world cup organizer in history, a fitting title, if only the previous host, Russia, weren’t an imperialist regime busy invading its neighbors and threatening a nuclear war. 

It has been 12 years since Qatar bought—or, as they claim, won—the hosting rights to the World Cup. The country is known for its human rights abuses, non-inclusive laws, and corruption. Yet in more ways than not, criticism of their hosting of this year’s World Cup has been rather unprecedented. 

The decision to host the world’s biggest sporting event in the small Middle Eastern country has been controversial to say the least. Qatar has become the epitome of “sportswashing”—the propagandistic use of sporting events to reinvent a country’s tarnished reputation. 

The overwhelming number of protests against Qatar’s hosting of the quadrennial event has ushered in the rancorous debate on whether criticism for the first Middle Eastern host is unjust, hypocritical, and rooted in orientalism. 

Let me be absolutely clear that I am in no way defending Qatar’s record; its human rights abuses and quid pro quo dealings are well documented, and the country deserves the widespread scrutiny and criticism it has received. 

That said, the previous host, Russia did not receive nearly as much criticism, despite having illegally annexed Crimea just years before it hosted the World Cup. Where was the world’s indignation then?

The fact that now, four years later, we’ve collectively decided that Qatar’s hosting of the Cup is a greater threat to our Western shared principles is a stark illustration of a double standard. Russia may be an oppressive regime guilty of many human rights abuses (many of which mired in its illicit war), but its more superficially Western culture seems to have blinded the world to the fact that Russia’s bid to improve its public image was every bit as calculated as Qatar’s. 

Such is an example of the world’s shared ignorance towards sportswashing and our failure to acknowledge its precedence in an alarmingly politicized World Cup. 

Sportswashing itself is not a relatively new concept; in fact, it has been in practice for decades, dating back to the 1936 Summer Olympic Games by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Despite its pre-existence, the media’s narrative disproportionately blames Qatar, a country that should not be titled a more controversial host than predecessors like Putin’s Russia, Mussolini’s fascist Italy, and Argentina’s Junta.

Insensitive comments and ethnic biases have pushed forward a rhetoric that fails to recognize sportswashing as the decades long moral quandary it is. 

In the era of TikTok and Instagram, social media has only helped to reinforce such social biases. Personalized algorithms have allowed disinformation campaigners and extremists the platform to exploit confirmation bias, the tendency of providing information in a way that reaffirms one’s prior beliefs. 

But what is entirely more concerning is what researchers call the “popularity bias”. This is the idea that we are biased on the basis of what is trending. The tendency to promote, associate or believe in what is popular may not only have adverse effects on the overall quality of the information but essentially limit our perception to diverse perspectives. 

Reinforcing what seems to be popular, entirely irrespective of its accuracy, quality or coherence has led the way for a myopic outlook on sportswashing. Perhaps in a way reimagining this scandalous event as the most controversial tournament of the century. 

HHS has not been a space exclusive to such a prevalent opinion. With a rise in recent soccer viewership, many students have grown accustomed to the fact that Qatar is an outlier in a long line of “traditional World Cups.”. 

As our society becomes increasingly dependent on the digital townspace, a realization must be made; popular opinion is not impartial. In a world still very much embedded with racism and misogyny, we must hold ourselves accountable to being self conscious rather than joining the bandwagon. 

This is not to say that Qatar’s criticism is solely racially motivated. It is this unprecedented and disproportionate intolerance against this host that is hypocritical. 

Although it’s a problem that only Qatar is catching heat for sportswashing, there is a silver lining. If nothing else, the condemnation against Qatar offers hope that unified protests do have the ability to undermine sportswashing efforts. 

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