Be it in China, Ukraine or Qatar, authoritarian leaders enjoy presenting their countries as hosts of major sporting events. They use the highly scripted shows as a welcome opportunity to promote their regimes.
Impressive opening ceremonies, modern stadiums, cheering crowds and international stars - the Olympic Games and global soccer tournaments are perfect opportunities for a country to present itself in the best possible light. The events boost tourism, and more often than not, high-level, international politicians honor the host country with a visit.
"Autocratic leaders are cultivating an image when they draw such glamorous events to their countries," said Wenzel Michalski, head of the German branch of Human Rights Watch.
International football championships and other such events serve regimes' propaganda machines, Michalski told DW. The hosts want to show the world and their own people that the country isn't as bad as opponents make it look; that people are happy, life is colorful and the whole world is visiting to pay tribute to the state and its government, he says.
"They give the people games so they won't dare rebel," Michalski said.
Crazy about sports
Events staged by states under authoritarian leadership are by no means a new phenomenon, according to Ansgar Molzberger, a sports historian at the German Sport University in Cologne (DSHS). The Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988 and the soccer World Cup in Argentina in 1978; the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 which preceded by a bloody crackdown on student protests all serve as examples of sporting events being award to countries with questionable political leadership.
But one event stands out, Molzberger said: the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
"The Nazi leadership used a major athletic event to detract from what was going on in Germany," Molzberger said.
He added that Ukraine was awarded the 2012 soccer championship five years ago, in 2007, when Viktor Yushchenko and now imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko led a country headed toward new horizons and the European Union.
The process of selecting a host city for major sports events gives as many countries as possible the opportunity to act as venues, Molzberger said. But candidates should be in a position to accept the challenge, which includes having enough sports stadiums and solid infrastructure. The selection process within the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the World Football Federation (FIFA) and its European branch, UEFA, is complex and not very transparent, he said. Rumors concerning rigged voting regularly make the rounds but there is rarely any proof.
Human rights angle
Sport builds bridges and can contribute to improving the human rights situation in the host country, the IOC and FIFA like to justify their selection of autocratic states. Human rights activist Wenzel Michalski said there is a positive effect.
"Major events help NGOs and critical international politicians draw attention to human rights abuses that would otherwise go relatively unnoticed." He said that could also help increase pressure on governments.
In Beijing, the 2008 Olympic Games gave the opposition a platform to draw attention to its causes - footage of protesting Tibetan monks went around the world. The same appears to be the case in Ukraine, currently co-hosting Euro 2012; here, pictures of an ailing Tymoshenko have made headlines. In both cases, they made a more lasting impression on people that pictures presented by the respective government.
As a rule, the opposition's heightened presence in the media hasn't led to democratization. With one exception: South Korea.
Here, Molzberger said, a process of democratization evolved from the moment Seoul was selected in 1981 to the beginning of the Games seven years later: the watchful eye of the international community was an important factor in the process. The Games in Beijing in 2008, Berlin in 1936 and the soccer World Cup in Argentina in 1978, however, did not have a similar effect, he said.
Lasting change is rare since the cameras leave with the athletes, Michalski said, adding that in few individual cases, political prisoners were set free as a result of international pressure. But overall, staging international sporting events has not enhanced authoritarian regimes' images abroad, the human rights activist said.
Author: Christina Ruta / db
Editor: Sean Sinico