This year is bookended by two high-profile and highly controversial megasports events: the Beijing Olympics, happening now, and the FIFA Men’s World Cup, to be held in Qatar in November and December. But while commentators often lump these two events together as depressing examples of how megasports events are all too often hosted by corrupt regimes with appalling human rights records, in fact they are quite different. As I argued in my last post, the Beijing Winter Games represents the end of an era—the last Olympics to be awarded before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insisted on human rights and anticorruption clauses in its contracts with host countries. But Qatar marks a transition to something entirely new, and much more encouraging.
You wouldn’t know that from most of the Western/Northern commentary on Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, which portrays this as yet another example of megasport abuse. That mischaracterization smacks of what Edward Said called “orientalism”: the tendency of the West/North to dismiss Eastern, and particularly Islamic, perspectives and experiences with an arrogance or hypocrisy that serves to reproduce neocolonial patterns of privilege and domination.
To wit, much of the Western narrative surrounding the Qatar World Cup proceeds from the assumption that the event was improperly awarded to Qatar due to bribery. Back in 2010, when FIFA concurrently awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar, bribery suspicions immediately flared. How could this tiny country, with a weak soccer (football) culture, little existing infrastructure, and a highly unconducive climate, win the rights to host the world’s biggest sporting event? The dual award with Russia seemed to corroborate the suspicions. Yet a 2014 report by an independent investigator (the Garcia Report) found no verifiable evidence of illegal bribery by Qatar or Russia. Despite this, FIFA expelled the Qatari president of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohammed Bin Hammam, for ethics violations … twice. (The first expulsion was reversed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but the second was not.) Then, in 2020, a US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation culminated in the indictment of three senior FIFA officials—Nicolas Leoz, Ricardo Teixiera, and Julio Grondona—for receiving bribes related to the Qatari bid. Because Leoz and Grondona have since passed away, and Teixiera has not been extradited, a trial has not occurred and probably won’t. Still, despite the findings of the Garcia Report, the bribery allegations are credible.
But let’s put this in perspective. This same DOJ investigation resulted in the indictment of two executives of a US media company for bribing FIFA officials. Indeed, the modern megasport bribery narrative actually begins with the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and both Japan and Germany have recently been accused of paying bribes to host, respectively, the Olympics and FIFA Men’s World Cup. Qatar is no less culpable for bribery, but also no more, than these countries of the global West and North. While we shouldn’t dismiss the serious concerns that bribery may have played a role in the award of the World Cup to Qatar, neither should we treat this as the sort of scandal that is particular to non-Western, high-corruption countries.
In fact, Qatar is not an especially corrupt country, or so the leading international indexes would indicate. When Qatar won the World Cup hosting rights back in 2010, its ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) was 19 out of 178. (That is, Qatar was perceived as being the 19th-least corrupt country out of the 178 countries that the CPI ranks.) That year, Germany’s rank was 15th, Japan’s was 17th, and the US rank was 22nd. Yet from much of the criticism of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, you wouldn’t know that its level of perceived corruption is roughly the same as that of Germany, Japan, and the United States.
In sum, the Qatar-FIFA bribery scandal is not a problem of systemic Qatari corruption characteristic of the Middle East. Rather, it is just another example in a pattern of an otherwise low-corruption country allegedly engaging in bribery in its interactions with select executives at international sporting federations like FIFA and the IOC. When, consciously or unconsciously, we regard Qatar as somehow different, we are hypocritically criticizing this Middle Eastern, Muslim nation for conduct the West in fact institutionalized.
We all want megasports to respect anticorruption and human rights norms. But the narrative surrounding the Qatar FIFA Men’s World Cup has devolved into a form of orientalism, or neocolonialism. And the consequence of these prejudices, as I suggested in my last post, may be to drive megasports back to wealthy Western countries, to the exclusion of the global South and East.