The present Beijing Winter Olympics are widely seen as yet another chapter in what has become all-too-familiar story of governance disasters in megasport events like the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup: 2008, China; 2010, South Africa; 2014, Brazil; and Russia; 2016, Brazil . . . again; 2018, Russia . . . again. And now, China . . . again. But for the last decade, pressure has been building for change in how the organizers of these megasport events approach anticorruption and human rights policy. And at last, change has come—even if it’s not yet obvious to casual observers only looking at the current games.
The period between roughly 2014 and 2018 became a tipping point in megasport anti-corruption and human rights policy. Russia consecutively hosted the Sochi Winter Olympics and FIFA Men’s World Cup with dizzying human rights and corruption problems. Meanwhile, the only two bidders for the 2022 Winter Olympics were China and Kazakhstan. Something had to change.
And it did. Among many other reforms, in 2017 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) publicly revised its model host-city contract to include both a human rights clause (which requires the host to “protect and respect human rights . . . in a manner consistent with all internationally-recognised human rights standards and principles”) and an anticorruption clause, which requires the host to “refrain from any act involving fraud or corruption, in a manner consistent with … all internationally-recognised anti-corruption standards . . . including by establishing and maintaining effective reporting and compliance[.]” FIFA too has instituted a number of reforms (though its model host city contract is not public). Starting with the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, Olympic hosts will be contractually bound to implement meaningful anticorruption and human rights measures. China is the last Olympic host not bound to these clauses.
But this positive development has a troubling side effect. Following the 2022 Beijing Olympics and Qatar FIFA Men’s World Cup, almost all the IOC and FIFA megasports events scheduled so far—that is, the events whose hosts were selected after the recent policy changes—are in wealthy developed countries: The Summer Games will be in France (2024), the United States (2028), and Australia (2032); the 2026 Winter Games will be in Italy; the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup will be Australia and New Zealand (2023) and the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup will be in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Is this the remedy? Holding all events in Western Europe, North America, and Oceania? Taking the games back from such countries as Brazil, the first South American country to host the Olympics, or South Africa, the first African nation to host the FIFA Men’s World Cup, or Qatar, the first middle eastern country to do the same? I don’t think so.
We all agree the IOC and FIFA are right to insist on human rights and anticorruption commitments. The problem is that the organizers of these events now seem willing to trust only wealthy countries of the West/North to adhere to such commitments. But as I explain further in my book, A New Megasport Legacy: Host-Country Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Reforms (forthcoming next month with Oxford University Press), we are now in the midst of a transition. Megasports are moving away from systemic and seemingly intractable megasport governance abuses, toward a period in which they may actually leave a positive legacy of host-country reforms. And the first country to deliberately build such a legacy is not found in North America, Western Europe, or Oceania. It’s in the Islamic Middle East. It is Qatar, as I will explain in subsequent posts.