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Sports: A battlefield for freedom of expression and political change

A battlefield for freedom

Athletes, executives and fans are turning sports in an era of defiance and dissent into a battleground for freedom of expression and political change, putting national and international sports associations that nominally adhere to human rights on the spot. Denunciations of repression in China’s troubled north-western province of Xinjiang and support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong by soccer celebrity Mesut Ozil, Houston Rockets basketball general manager Darryl Morey, and rugby superstar Sonny Bill Williams alongside soccer fans in regions like Morocco and Hong Kong, highlight the willingness of sports associations to sacrifice the values attributed to sports for commercial gain in their dealings with autocratic nations. They also by implication puncture the fiction of a separation of sports and politics that sports associations have long employed to justify their often-close ties to government and dealings with countries irrespective of their records in upholding basic rights. By distancing themselves from statements of Messrs. Morey and Ozil, despite the latter’s ties to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, English Premier League club Arsenal and the US National Basketball Association (NBA) have served to highlight the discrepancy between sports associations’ declared principles and their policies. So has China with its penalizing of the NBA and Mr. Ozil for their critical statements. The gap between professed principles and practice is even more yawning with the awarding of the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup to China despite Chinese president Xi Jinping’s crackdown in Xinjiang and his moves to turn the People’s Republic into a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state. FIFA awarded the hosting rights in a consultative rather than a transparent bidding process. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, FIFA justified its decision by insisting that the Chinese football association as well as China had committed “to respect human rights in their activities associated with the tournament in accordance with internationally recognised human rights standards and FIFA’s own Human Rights Policy.” It was not clear how human rights associated with the Club World Cup could be separated from the overall crackdown in China. Nnor was it clear why FIFA would help Mr. Xi take a step towards fulfilling his dream of China first qualifying for the World Cup, then winning the World Cup and ultimately hosting the tournament. The awarding casts doubt on FIFA’s campaign against racism in stadiums given that the crackdown in Xinjiang aims to force Turkic Muslims to violate principles of their faith and adopt Xi Jinping though as superseding Islam. The re-emergence of sports as a battleground is not limited to the plight of Xinjiang. Hong Kong fans recently took their struggle for greater democracy to a match in South Korea.

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