With the 2014 Winter Olympics looming, Americans of all stripes have called for boycotts and protests against Russia’s human rights abuses. But given the time they take to plan, change before the Games begin is an unreasonable goal. Instead, human rights advocates should look at another target: The Qatar World Cup in 2022.
Americans turned their eyes to Sochi in light of legislation passed by the Putin administration against “gay propaganda,” allegedly designed to “protect children.” The law has been used to target LGBT individuals and publications acknowledging that they exist. Putin has stated that he does not see cause for alarm, however, as his government will make sure gay athletes are “comfortable” at the Olympics. That assurance does not dissolve the impression that Putin is up to something when, at the Olympics themselves, journalists will be banned from using mobile phones and social media.
And then there’s the relationship with America. Aside from its own human rights abuses, Russia has gone out of its way to antagonize the United States during the ongoing Edward Snowden affair, attempting to flip the international spotlight around to America to continue its oppression unwatched.
Russia’s flagrant disregard for acceptable human rights norms and open disregard for the United States has united a chorus of unlikely allies in calling for using the Olympics as a platform to demand change. Sen. Lindsey Graham threatened to call for a boycott; even more ominously, Bob Costas threatened to give “commentaries” on Russian law during the Games. Many leaders in the LGBT community called for boycotts on Russian products, though gay athletes like Johnny Weir have argued that showing up before the law is a bigger statement than hiding away, and President Obama diffused the boycott idea.
Protests to prevent Russia’s crackdowns on free speech and LGBT rights in Sochi next year, however, may be too little too late. The momentum to have prevented Russia from reaping the benefits of hosting a global sporting event to use against its own citizens could have snowballed had the public been called to action sooner, however, and that’s where Qatar comes in.
Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup–perhaps the only sporting event big enough to rival the Olympics– was successful. According to FIFA (soccer’s biggest sanctioning body) Secretary General Jerome Valcke, one reason Qatar won was because “less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup.” With its stadium newly-built, the “better” part of this equation at the moment seems to be that the country used migrant workers as slaves to build it. According to a report by Amnesty International, the conditions amounting to this include “non-payment of wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions, and shocking standards of accommodation.”
And LGBT individuals have to contend with potential threats in the region not even emanating from Qatar itself. Now Kuwait has bizarrely claimed it has the technology to identify and repel LGBT people from the entire region, a system Qatar has said they are comfortable with using. The situation led to the head of FIFA Sepp Blatter “joking” that gay patrons of the World Cup “refrain from any sexual activities” while in Qatar or face consequences.
Blatter argues in the same clip that, since the World Cup is far in the future, in 2022, he sees hope that there will not be any discrimination because that region of the world will “open,” adding, “in football, we have no boundaries.” 2022 is too far away to tell whether Blatter is right, but one thing can guarantee he will definitely be wrong: the silence of those who are invested in seeing human rights abusers taken to task, and the lack of attention from organizations with the resources and people with the platforms to take Qatar to task before it is too late to change anything, before Doha becomes another Sochi, just as Sochi became another Beijing.