Debunking the myth of 'de-politicizing' sports
Ahead of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, calls to de-politicize sports seem ridiculous and senseless upon examining the inseparable historical connection between sports and politics.
A few days before the 2022 Qatar World Cup, French President Emmanuel said that sport should not be politicized.
"I think we must not politicize sport," said Macron, whose national team is defending the title it won in Russia in 2018.
Macron, who will go to Qatar if the French team reaches the semifinals, said it was "a very bad idea to politicize sport," noting that France will host the Olympic Games in 2024.
This comes amid a wave of criticism that Qatar is being subjected to over reports that many migrant workers -- predominantly from South Asia and South-East Asia and Africa -- have suffered from exploitation and widespread labor abuses while working on the Gulf country's World Cup projects.
Doha is also accused of allegedly paying bribes to some football federations in exchange for winning the right to host the FIFA World Cup on its territory.
It seems that the French President is contradicting himself and has apparently "forgotten" his interference and role in ensuring that French player Kylian Mbappe remains in France with his current team Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), as well as forcing coach Didier Deschamps to call Real Madrid player Karim Benzema to the French national team and participate in the 2020 European Championship, as per investigative journalist Romain Molina.
It also seems that Macron has forgotten that his country's football federation did politicize sport and was the first to call for the expulsion of the Russian national team from the 2022 World Cup following the start of the war in Ukraine, showing clear double standards and turning a blind eye on several other issues pertaining to human rights, such as Israeli occupation crimes against Palestinians for example.
Soon after the Ukraine war broke out, numerous sports governing bodies suspended Russia from international competitions. However, these bans coincided with unprecedented support for Ukraine despite these bodies banning any other form of political or religious expression on the field.
Solidarity with #Ukraine is being shown across stadiums worldwide, breaking the sports no-politics doctrine.— Al Mayadeen English (@MayadeenEnglish) February 28, 2022
On the other hand, athletes and football clubs were fined and even punished for showing support for #Palestine.
Who's politicizing the matter? #Russia pic.twitter.com/GVZ6Sxjyfl
A history lesson
Aside from the French President's shallow argument, let's not forget that, historically, sports have always been intertwined with politics and used as a theater to promote political ideology, voice political messages and criticism, shift diplomatic feuds to sports arenas, and whitewash human rights violations by political regimes – also known as sportswashing.
Several sports clubs around the world were even established on the basis of politics, were influenced by their founders who are usually into politics, and their fans follow certain political ideologies.
Felix Jakens, head of Priority Campaigns and Individuals at Risk at Amnesty International UK, defines sportswashing as “a process or moment where a country with a bad human rights record attempts to use sport as a way to create positive PR to clean up its image and deflect attention away from its human rights record.”
For example, when Italy was awarded the right to host the second FIFA World Cup in 1934, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini saw it as an opportunity to whitewash his regime's image in front of the international community, despite the heinous crimes committed at the time.
Similarly, Adolph Hitler used the 1936 Olympics held in Germany in an attempt to promote Nazism and prove the superiority of the Aryan-race athletes.
The same can be said about Argentina organizing the 1978 World Cup under the dictatorship of General Jorge Videla, where matches would be played a few meters away from where thousands of dissidents were being tortured.
On the other hand, the sports arena was also used, by athletes and fans, to protest injustice and show support for rightful causes.
In fact, when late boxing champion Muhammed Ali was drafted into the US Army to take part in the Vietnam war in 1966, the African-American athlete expressed his rejection of the decision, saying, "I will say directly, no, I will not go 10,000 miles to help kill innocent people."
As a result, Ali was stripped of his title and suspended from boxing before the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in June 1971.
In a related context, after receiving the gold and bronze medals for the men’s 200-meter race at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, African-American runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised a fist in a Black Power salute in protest of mistreatment and systematic racism in one of the most iconic images of 20th-century sports.
Despite being demonized by the press and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) later expelling the two from the Games, Smith said this act of activism "was a cry for freedom and for human rights" and that "we had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard."
Most recently, in continuation of Carlos and Smith's activism in the sports arena, several athletes all over the world "take a knee" before the start of games in protest of police brutality and systematic racism and in support of their victims, and multiple sports federations and clubs have endorsed this cause, especially after the death of African American George Floyd, who was brutally killed by a white police officer in the US city of Minneapolis.
When it comes to fandom, in late 2018, fans of the Raja Athletic Club of Casablanca (RCA), known for their endless support for the Palestinian cause, impressed the world with a new chant called "Fbladi Dalmouni," i.e. "In my country, I suffered from injustice."
The lyrics of the chant recount the suffering of the Moroccan youths and blame the country’s government for corruption, the economic situation, and oppressing freedom of expression.
RCA fans are only one example of the political messages and numerous causes that sports fans express during events in order to grab attention and make their voices heard against injustice and oppression.
Another example is notably Celtic F.C. fans, who have always openly declared their support for the Palestinian cause by abundantly raising Palestinian flags in their stadium, all whilst chanting pro-Palestinian anthems. FIFA usually fines the Scottish Football Association over Celtic fans' acts of solidarity with the Palestinian people, deeming it "not appropriate for a sports event."
In stark contrast, FIFA, along with other major sports bodies, allow themselves to practice double standards and violate their rules by hailing acts of solidarity with Ukraine.
As such, it becomes clear that amid such political activism in sports, as well as other similar acts, a call such as Macron's to de-politicize sports seems ridiculous and senseless upon examining the inseparable historical connection between sports and politics.
The French President’s call is also unjust and would deprive athletes and fans of a huge platform to voice their opinion and shed light on their causes in a world full of injustices.