Monday, 10 February 2014

Sochi, Qatar, Beijing; stories of sports & human rights

"It is possible even as competitors to live together under one roof in harmony with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason."
Thomas Bach, President of the IOC

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are officially open for business. Since the start Twitter has been trending #sochiproblems and journalists, visitors and athletes have been sharing pictures of the somewhat questionable hotels and general conditions they have arrived to. 

This, in itself, is both part amusing and part disconcerting considering the record-breaking price tag put into hosting the games. Shared toilets (literally, multi-loos in a single cubicle), yellow un-safe water, unfinished hotel rooms, modems hanging out of walls, flooded corridors, reports of mass removal (interpret as you wish) of stray dogs and cats etc. Big bucks and years of prep and yet this appears to be the state of the city. 

Now, purely regarding this issue I can to some extent accept the existence of the response of 'you're lucky you're the chosen journalist to report from there, don't complain'. However, not only has Russia been very clear about their excellent ability to manage hosting such a significant event and all that comes with it (including sufficient accommodation for the athletes, journalists and visitors), but they spent a whopping $51 BILLION. Yet the hotels aren't finished? The conditions are this questionable? 

That brings us to issue no two, and perhaps the primary concern, also linking back to certain other host-selections. The human-rights violations, the countries stance on freedom of speech and equality, crackdown on civil activists and a (rumoured to be) corrupt government. 

Word on the street suggests that up to a third (!) of the games budget has been swallowed up by kickbacks and bribes (something Putin denies). And let's not forget about the equal human rights situation over there. While, granted, not as bad as many other places around the world things are still far from good or near progressive enough (in fact recent moves suggest steps backwards). 

A recent example involves last year new legislation resulting in a ban on 'gay propaganda', in particular when aimed at kids. Now, the foreign minister has pointed out it is no longer a criminal offence to be openly gay and insisted the law was aimed simply to ban aggressive promotion of their values and/or the imposing of such behaviour on kids. However, it is worth noting that coming out in the Russian public arena is still considered professional suicide and there have been multiple arrests, violence against protestors and issued fines since the law was established. 

The sexual equality issues aren't the only headaches Putin's been dealing with lately. There have also been on-going world-wide headlines concerning the treatment of the Pussy Riot ladies and, in particular, the letter published last fall in The Guardian (pre-release) where member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova details her prison conditions and reasons for commencing a hunger-strike. The horrifying read sheds light on both a backward prison system and cruel sentencing regulations, as well as renews the questions about freedom of speech. These particular members of the punk anti-Putin's-government band are now released on amnesty by the Russian parliament, however as one of the women pointed out the timing may seem a bit suspicious (ignoring pleas from the international community to ease the sentence earlier but ensuring the women were freed just before wrapping their original sentences/in time for the Olympics?). 

A big question during the build-up to Sochi has been whether there is a moral responsibility to boycott. Should we actively be turning the channel to emphasise our stance on human rights, gay rights, women's rights, freedom of speech, democracy, anti-corruption, etc? 

Then again, did we boycott the games in Beijing back in 2008? Freedom of speech when it came to the media was a particularly obvious question-mark, with the Chinese government prohibiting local press from reporting anything negative about the Olympics before they kicked-off. International journalists were also monitored and threatened to avoid critical stories. 

It has been suggested that a key difference between the two hosts are that the Chinese Freedom of Speech restrictions concerned the games-period while the Sochi restrictions are regulations that concern all of Russia at all times. But then again, what about the constant non-Olympic-related restriction of access to and censorship of select chunks of the Internet, the fact that traditional media publications are to be vetted and approved by the state before being made available to the public, the frequent human rights violations in Tibet and China, etc. Human Rights Watch states that 'the citizens have no say in the selection of their leaders, the government curbs freedom of expression, association and religion, and controls all judicial institutions. It censors the press and enforces highly repressive policies in ethinic minority areas. At the same time citizens are increasingly prepared to challenge authorities over these issues.' 

A tricky situation indeed. So let's move onto another sporting event, the 2022 FIFA World Cup awarded to Qatar. 

The human rights climate, according to HRW, remains problematic. While superficially appearing more stable than other parts of the region migrant workers continue to experience serious rights violations and there is a poor record of freedom of expression. It is reported that while efforts are made to ensure the appearance of a government working to uphold human rights reality involves a lack of democratic elections, government officials appointed by the Emir and serious lack of transparency in judicial and political affairs. ( On a random but relevant note, it is apparently also the only place the Taliban have opened an overseas office (who knew that was a thing?!)). 

In terms of public assembly, Law no 18 requires any organisers of such gatherings to obtain permission from the director of security at the Ministry of the Interior, resulting in very few demonstrations. Freedom of speech is also restricted by actions of the government rather than clear legislation. A famous more recent example (August 2013) involves a Nepalese teacher who was arrested and later (after international outcry) deported to Nepal for reacting to racist jibes. He responded by trying to draw the students' attention to the dangers of racial stereotyping but was instead accused of insulting Islam. 

Then there is the issue of women who do not enjoy the same rights as their male counterparts. One of the more talked-about problems involves the lack of any legislation criminalising domestic violence (a big problem according to charitable organisations in the area). Family law and personal matters are dealt with in religious courts (rulings based solely on religious interpretation) with no right to seek alternative judgement based on civil legislation, resulting in overwhelming discrimination against women when it comes to divorce, custody of children and inheritance. Equally in comparison to, for example, Saudi Arabia women can enjoy freedoms such as the right to drive and vote (where elections occur). Small freedoms a lot of us ladies take for granted but a significant step when it comes to reforming/updating cultures that consider women to be of lesser worth than the men and are therefore treated accordingly. 

And of course, highly relevant to the World Cup due to the labour force utilised to build up the stadiums, the issue of migrant workers. According to the Human Rights Watch there needs to be some major reforms. They suggest that the employment force used to build the necessary infrastructure for Fifa's WC would face exploitation and misery while dealing with appalling living and working conditions as well as high death rates. Despite the criticism and promises of upholding standards little has been done or suggested by authorities to actually change the situation. 

All the above highly important controversial issues aside there is of course the separate discussion of how these events were awarded in the first place, in particular with FIFA's already somewhat tarnished reputation. Or the fact that the host-nation isn't actually even capable of hosting a summer sporting event in the scorching temperatures due to health risks for both athletes and the audience, forcing a worldwide shift in stable leagues and affecting both local and national team players as well as television networks and football associations in order to accommodate the first ever winter world cup. What was that about Blatter running for yet another term in 2015? 

So where does all this leave us as sports enthusiasts? 

In his speech at the Sochi opening ceremony Thomas Bach, the IOC President, emphasised the importance of tolerance and equality stating that the "Olympic Games are a sports festival embracing human diversity in great unity" and explaining the events aims to be "building bridges to bring people together, not erecting walls to keep them apart.".

During the ceremony we also saw some interesting outfit choices from the participants, including the German team in rainbow colours (speculation of the intention due to their reps comments on this being a 'fashionable not a statement' jacket...Well up to you) and Greece's rainbow gloves. Subtle protest perhaps? Then there's the argument that Russia themselves added in relevant themes with T.a.T.u performing and colourful volunteer clothing. But reality remained, arrests of protestors were made and the legislation still stands, one of a number of road blocks slowing down progress, democracy and equal human rights. 

Is there a theme when it comes to awarding big sporting events of late? Is it a conscious choice to pick hosts in places where international attention and debate is needed to change the current standard of human rights? If so, perhaps it might even be a reasonable idea. Or are we just deciding it doesn't matter, whoever offers the best pitch/biggest pay-off gets the vote? If the latter is the case we have a serious issue at hand. In fact, if that is the case are we by awarding these hosts any better than those realising legislation that persecutes certain preferences/thoughts/freedoms? 

The Sochi games have brought attention and awareness to relevant problems, and hopefully this continues after the journalists leave base-camp after the event wraps. Will it make a difference? In the short term probably not, but in the long term awareness, education and debate are potentially the most powerful tools we have. 

Will there be debate when it comes to the Qatar Winter World Cup? Will this social generation speak up and question a host nation that on the surface appears to be modernised and tourist friendly but the moment you scratch the dust reveals serious human rights issues? What about all that money flowing in, none of which the migrant labour force will be seeing (only one of the issues at hand)? What about the fact that we seem to have a tendency to turn the other cheek, ignore the problems and enjoy blissful unawareness while watching the screens and rooting away for our preferred teams? Will there be protests? Will anyone bother? Will a male dominated football crowd show support for the women's rights violation issues facing the region? Will the tourists enjoying the local hospitality pay attention to the rights of the foreign workers who built the hotels and the stadiums? Etc...

Sport should be enjoyed on an equal playing field, open to all regardless of background, colour, sexual preference, sex, where your pass-port gets stamped, your perspectives, thoughts, beliefs, etc all free to be expressed respectfully but openly. 

There's no easy answer, except that of course we should continue practicing and enjoying sports while equally safeguarding and talking (loudly!!) about everyones equal basic human rights. 

Something good can come out of what sport represents; a bond that goes far beyond politics. Pure enjoyment shared by people who connect over mutual interests. I, personally, remember meeting friends on the soccer field who didn't even share my language or, for that matter, cultural background. We wrote our names in the sand and played for hours, days, months even in some cases. We got to know each other through a mutual love for the same game. It was beautiful and inspiring and at the end of the day just kids playing together, without judgement or imposed beliefs. We didn't care about anything else, as long as we got to kick that ball around. So simple, yet in hindsight quite a powerful experience. 

Who knows, maybe that's the key? Perhaps if we can start a discussion and open people's eyes there is a power in sport that shouldn't be underestimated. Bringing people who enjoy similar interests together to compete on an equal arena. The same basic rules applied while using the same tools (a pair of skis, a football, your body's ability, etc). As people, doing something they love. 

Because at the end of the day getting to a place where everyone is considered equal, with the same basic human rights (without any limitations or restrictions whatsoever because of where you live, your skin, your sex, your preference, etc etc), concerns each and every last one of us. But the most dangerous thing we can do is to pretend there isn't a problem. No more blissful unawareness, no more ignoring it because it's a pain in the ass to take the discussion. Talk, educate, be open to all sides of the story, have opinions, and where possible enjoy the freedom to express these because unfortunately today it is still not a right to be taken for granted. 

Hopefully one day it will be. 


No comments:

Post a Comment