Saturday, March 25, 2023

Autocracies and Sports Governing Bodies

An article in The Economist during the World Cup in Qatar pointed out that autocracies were organizing more sports events recently than in the past. The summer and winter Olypimic Games in China, and the winter Olympic Games and the soccer World Cup in Russia, together with the last one in Qatar, are examples of the trend. The piece was based on an academic article in the American Political Science Review.

The reason of this increasing trend is probably that democracies are more reluctant to organize these events, because now there is a solid academic literature showing that the social costs outweigh the social benefits for the taxpayers of the host cities or countries. Freedom of speech in democracies makes it inevitable that this knowledge is communicated to the taxpaying public opinion, which does not happen in autocracies. Still, most of the host cities or countries are democracies.

It has to be said that this is a relatively recent phenomenon, as the academic literature questioning these events has emerged only in the last two or three decades. Barcelona in 1992, for example, could not have been influenced by this then non-existent literature. Since then, it has increasingly become an example of how the academic research can influence public debate.

The trend will most probably continue, because autocracies are complementary of unreformed sports governing bodies. The global governing bodies of sport (like FIFA or the IOC) are unregulated global monopolies that accummulate power because of the popularity of the competitions they own –the Olympic Games and the World Cup. This power is increasing because the popularity of these events is increasing. This power is prone to corruption, and it prefers the lack of accountability of autocracies rather than the light of democracies.

What can be done to attract more democracies? If the reason for their reluctance to bid for big events is that costs are too high, anything that could be done to reduce costs would be a good idea, like having a permanent venue or a few of them that rotate. More directly, democratic jurisdictions and multinational sponsors could threaten to withdraw their support unless the governing bodies introduce a condition to bid for these events: the respect of basic human risghts.

Although Qatar probably doesn’t regret having organized the last World Cup, the open debate about the lack of some basic human rights there is probably something that didn’t make their rulers happy.

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