‘Sportswashing’: Is the World Cup providing cover for Qatar?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The World Cup in Qatar is in full swing. But beyond the action on the pitch, one of the most significant storylines of the event has been controversy over the country that’s hosting it.

Qatar, a tiny nation of less than 3 million people on the Persian Gulf, has been the target of intense criticism ever since being awarded hosting rights. That decision by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, sparked years of investigations into allegations of corruption — including an inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice that accused Qatari representatives of bribing officials to secure their bid.

The oil-rich nation is estimated to have spent more than $220 billion to construct the venues, lodging and other infrastructure needed to accommodate the World Cup — dramatically more than any other previous host. Qatar has been accused of exploiting the migrant workers who built those projects, including withholding their passports, denying them wages and forcing them to endure unsafe working and living conditions. The country has been blamed for a high number of worker deaths over the past decade, but the exact figure is disputed.

Qatar has also come under fire for its repressive Islamic regime, which bans same-sex relationships and places strict restrictions on women and girls. Those policies have led to conflict in the early stages of the tournament, including a contentious back-and-forth over plans by several teams to wear rainbow armbands in support of LGBTQ rights, which were ultimately abandoned after FIFA threatened to punish any squad that did so.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of many critics, the World Cup represents the low point for international sports. They argue that it is indefensible for a country with such a poor human rights record to be hosting an event that’s intended to be a celebration of diversity and equality. Others have accused FIFA, advertisers and television networks of being complicit in Qatar’s “sportswashing” — a phrase used to describe the way in which sports can be used to distract from a country’s misdeeds.

Qatar’s defenders, however, say these accusations are infused with anti-Islamic sentiment that has allowed critics from Western countries to focus on Qatar’s abuses while ignoring the offenses committed by their own nations. Defenders also hope that the beauty of the competition itself will help achieve the ideals of the tournament despite all the controversy.

Others argue that all of the issues with the World Cup are a symptom of a much broader culture of corruption in which the world’s most powerful nations, including the United States, give support to autocratic regimes by buying their oil and selling them weapons.

What’s next

The U.S. will share hosting duties with Canada and Mexico for the next World Cup in 2026. Costs of hosting that tournament are expected to be substantially reduced by the fact that each of the 16-match venues has already been built.



It is incumbent on fans to ensure that Qatar’s “sportswashing” attempt fails

“The legacy of this World Cup shouldn’t be what Qatar wants to reveal about itself. It should be what Qatar actually is.” — Greg Bishop, Sports Illustrated

It’s critical that autocrats aren’t allowed to choke the beauty out of sports

“As every football fan knows, the World Cup is more than a tournament. It’s been compared to a global eclipse which strikes the entire planet for a month at a time. It’s a unique arena where nations can compete fiercely and then shake hands. It’s supposed to represent the best of us – our incredible diversity and our common humanity. It’s no wonder authoritarian powers want to take over these events for themselves. And that’s exactly why we can’t let them.” — Roger Bennett and Tommy Vietor, CNN

No major sporting event is beyond criticism, but Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup takes things to a new extreme

“A morally complex World Cup is not unprecedented in a way, any more than an Olympics is, even before you accept that no country is free of sin. … This is a World Cup that was built by corruption, politics, exploitation and repression, more than most, in a world shaped by all four. It’s an extreme, and the emptiness here is geographic and moral. It might be filled by soccer, at least partly, for a few weeks.” — Bruce Arthur, Toronto Star

The existence of corruption in other countries does not excuse Qatar’s abuses

“Money is unevenly distributed everywhere; labor, particularly by foreign workers, is exploited across the globe; bigotry is all-too-common a state policy. But the answer to it cannot be indifference, defeated by a puerile round of whataboutism.” — Eric Betts, Slate

Human rights must be defended on all fronts

“We must agitate for all oppressed workers and citizens in Qatar. We also must not fall into ethnocentric traps of thinking that the fault lies solely with Qatar, as if Western complicity is not critical to understanding how we got here.” — Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff, The Nation


Whatever happens on the pitch will be the enduring legacy of this World Cup

“The sport remains a source of popular passion and an affirmation of collective identity for countless people, on sports courts, grass pitches and dirt patches from Mexico to Mozambique — far from the billions of dollars swirling through the football industrial complex. … There’s something about football that capitalism just can’t kill.” — Belén Fernández, Al Jazeera

Western critics are unwilling to call out offenses committed by people who look like them

“Any country that plans to welcome people from around the world for a globally important affair should be subject to intense scrutiny. But what has played out over the past several years, and intensified in the final few months before the World Cup’s Sunday premiere, reveals the depths of Western prejudice, performative moral outrage and, perhaps most significantly, gross double standards.” — Ayman Mohyeldin, MSNBC

Arabs have a right to celebrate a World Cup being held in the Middle East

“Any pride Arabs may feel toward this World Cup is also not an endorsement of Qatar or its government. If you don't hear Arabs criticize what's happening in Qatar or other Arab countries, it's not because they agree with human rights violations but simply because they don't have the freedom to express their dissent.” — Dana Sumlaji, Deutsche Welle

Sporting events can only be as legitimate as the system in which they exist

“Underlying the shame of the World Cup in Qatar and the petrostate ownership of European soccer is this banal reality: These states are our diplomatic and commercial allies. We in the West not only accept their money for our sports teams, but we buy their fossil fuels and in return sell them arms. … To expect sports to act as some honorable exception while the rest of society is trying to make as much money as possible — regardless of the morality or long-term security of their countries — is ridiculous.” — Tom McTague, The Atlantic

Criticisms of Qatar would be much more effective if they were directed at bad actors in our own nations

“How useful … is it really to set up moral purity tests for ourselves when our efforts are compromised by own our governments and our own unexamined prejudices and double standards? … If the purpose is for some real pressure points to be squeezed so life perhaps gets better for migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people and women in Qatar, then our eyes and efforts would be better trained closer to home.” — Nesrine Malik, The Guardian

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images, Getty Images