Can sport help to engineer social change?


Looking for a winter resort with no extreme weather, imminent terror threats, stray dog problem or tragicomically poor accommodation? The search is over folks, look no further than Sochi, host of the Winter Olympics.

Much of the media build-up has focused on these banal practicalities, just as discussion about the 2022 World Cup in Qatar usually centres on the problem of its climate. In both cases, however, these are simply logistical problems. If Western sports organisations lowered their expectations of luxury accommodation a little, they would be entirely solvable. The real issue with both Sochi 2014 and Qatar 2022 is human rights.

Where to start? The exploitation and abuse of Nepalese labourers preparing for Qatar 2022 perhaps – forty four migrant workers died last summer? Or the mysterious disappearance of hundreds of Russian journalists since the 1990s? There are simply not enough pages in this newspaper to comprehensively deal with these countries’ human rights abuses.

Let’s focus, then, on one area: LGBT rights.

Neither Russia nor Qatar comes anywhere near the bottom of the pack when it comes to gay rights. Nonetheless, male homosexuality can land you a short stay in prison in Qatar, whilst the Kremlin recently passed a law banning gay ‘propaganda’. It is important not to let hysteria cloud the facts here. Russia, despite its evident homophobia problem, has no law against homosexuality itself; indeed, the new law recalls Thatcher’s notorious Section 28, repealed in Britain only fourteen years ago.

Armchair grumbling about Sochi and Qatar usually proceeds along the lines that “we should never have given them the games in the first place”. This is an important debate that must resurface when the next major sporting tournament hosts are to be decided. For now, however, we must focus on how to approach the tournaments while they are on.

Sensationalists enjoy speculating about the immediate implications of both nations’ intolerance. Will gay snowboarder Belle Brockhoff be allowed to proudly publicise her homosexuality during her stay in Sochi?

Considering the Kuwaiti Director of Public Health’s revelation of sinister future measures that will “help us detect gays who will then be barred from entering any of the GCC member states”, will gay fans or footballers even be allowed into Qatar in 2022?

These questions, however, are the wrong ones to be asking. In all likelihood – bearing in mind that countries primarily regard major sporting events as an opportunity to showcase their nation to the world – the events themselves will pass without controversy.

The point is thus though: their hypothetical leniency will only be a good thing, but we must not forget that to focus on the exceptions as some kind of victory would be a defeat in itself, a submission to these governments’ façade of tolerance.

Many argue that sport provides a haven in which people of all backgrounds, colours and sexual orientations can come together to compete for, or support their team.

Take the example of English football. Though homophobia remains, and the sport is by no means blind to race, it has nevertheless produced black role models for countless children, undermining hatred and prejudice.

Soundbite declarations of the power of sport, however, are dangerous if misused. For sport to have any power, changes on the pitch must act as a springboard for changes outside the sport; to have any wider societal significance, the importance of the game must transcend the pitch. Crucially, this will not happen in Sochi or Qatar. The inclusiveness will be forced and and, most importantly, will not last.

Both the Olympics and the World Cup are, for their host countries, publicity stunts above all. We must always remember that whatever tolerant gestures are made by our Russian and Qatari hosts, they are simply painting over the cracks. It is our duty to ensure we do not let such empty gestures conceal the reality


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