Last Word: Can publicity through sport bring justice?

The World Cup beginning in Qatar this month has been mired in controversy ever since the media picked up on the stories of the physical and contractual conditions of the workers (mostly from South Asia) who built the stadiums, roads and hotels for the tournament.

Bread-winners: Workers walk to the Lusail Stadium, one of the 2022 World Cup stadiums in Qatar. The Guardian calculated last year that 6,500 migrants had died in the cause of building the stadiums, roads and hotels for the tournament since 2010, when Qatar was chosen host.

Bread-winners: Workers walk to the Lusail Stadium, one of the 2022 World Cup stadiums in Qatar. The Guardian calculated last year that 6,500 migrants had died in the cause of building the stadiums, roads and hotels for the tournament since 2010, when Qatar was chosen host. | Photo Credit: AP

The World Cup beginning in Qatar this month has been mired in controversy ever since the media picked up on the stories of the physical and contractual conditions of the workers (mostly from South Asia) who built the stadiums, roads and hotels for the tournament.

Where sport arrives, it shines a light on human rights. This is more true of the Olympics and World Cup football than other events. The host country looks for legitimacy, protestors look to focus world attention on the human rights record. Italy hosted the 1934 World Cup to give Benito Mussolini a platform to showcase the virtues of Fascism to the world.

The build-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing highlighted human rights violations in that country. Life went on post-Olympics, as it always does. Is there a possibility that the publicity might lead to some kind of a resolution of the issues involved? Life is never that simple.

Ahead of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, a campaign was initiated in Paris and The Committee for the Boycott of the World Cup in Argentina was formed. The murderous military junta had taken charge two weeks earlier and had “disappeared” thousands of Argentines. The base of the goalposts were painted black during the tournament, a version of wearing black arm bands in protest.

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The World Cup beginning in Qatar this month has been mired in controversy ever since the media picked up on the stories of the physical and contractual conditions of the workers (mostly from South Asia) who built the stadiums, roads and hotels for the tournament. The Guardian calculated last year that 6,500 migrants had died in the cause since 2010, when Qatar was chosen host. Now Denmark has set out to both focus attention on this as well as raise funds for the families of affected migrants. The national team will wear faded jerseys including in black to honour those who died. Every goal scored in their country’s various tournaments in November will add $1.30 to the fund. There were 55,000 goals in the same month last year.

The Australian team highlighted Qatar’s human rights record in a video published recently that called for reform as a legacy of staging the World Cup. If some of the reactions sound like tokenism — the Danes will be travelling to Qatar without their families because “We don’t want to contribute to creating profits for Qatar,” as their media manager said — that might still be better than doing nothing and pretending all is well.

England’s captain Harry Kane will wear ‘One Love’ armbands to protest Qatar’s laws against same-sex relationships.

Do all these measures lead to anything? The protests come across as symbolic and even superficial rather than substantial. Like attempts to garner brownie points. Qatar’s regime has employed PR agencies to flick such irritants off the face of the tournament. It will be interesting to follow up on what happens to the families of those killed after everyone has had their say. According to reports they haven’t been compensated.

You don’t need to be a professional cynic to realise that despite all the publicity, in the end the excitement and commercial interests clinging to sport trump human rights. For all participating nations bar one, it is someone else’s problem.

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