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Sports & Dictators: In 2014, A Match Made In Heaven

Conflicting ideals? President Vladimir Putin holds a lit Olympic torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay in Moscow late last year.
Conflicting ideals? President Vladimir Putin holds a lit Olympic torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay in Moscow late last year.

To some onlookers, it might have seemed strange that of the six Russian athletes to carry the Olympic torch during the opening ceremony of the Sochi Games last February, only two were actual representatives of winter sports.

Instead, the common denominator seemed to be support for President Vladimir Putin. Four of the torchbearers were State Duma deputies with Putin's ruling United Russia. And a fifth had just publicly backed the Russian leader and his controversial crackdown on gay and lesbian rights.

That display of political uniformity seemed entirely fitting in a year that demonstrated repeatedly the growing ties between big-budget sporting events and less-than-savory political regimes.

Russia, in addition to the Sochi Olympics, hosted a Formula One Grand Prix. Belarus staged the Men's World Ice Hockey Championships. Azerbaijan held the rhythmic gymnastics European Championships. And Turkmenistan, over 80 percent desert, welcomed the windsurfing World Cup.

Such ventures are pricey -- the Sochi Games, notoriously, broke all previous Olympic spending records with a massive outlay of $51 billion. But Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that, for autocrats, there's a valuable return on the investment -- attention and legitimacy on the world stage.

"Whereas world leaders might not necessarily want to stand next to a dictator on a dais, if it's a sporting event, they will have to do that," says Worden, who has led HRW's calls for reform at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other sporting bodies. "It allows leaders to burnish their reputations on the global stage, and it's often worth the financial strain of acting as a host country to do so."

Two-Way Street

The promotional value of major sporting events is hardly a novel concept. Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as an opportunity to showcase the rising strength of Nazi Germany three years before the start of World War II. And Argentina hosted the 1978 World Cup two years after its military coup and the disappearance and execution of thousands of civilians. (One notable exception is the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, which were seen by many as helping to unseat South Korea's authoritarian regime.)

But the issue of sports and dictatorships has taken on fresh impetus in recent years, with rights activists expressing rising concern about international sporting organization enabling, and even favoring, pariah regimes.

The decision, in 2010, to grant Russia and Qatar successive World Cups in 2018 and 2022 has proved particularly thorny. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, justified the decision as a form of outreach -- bringing the spectacle of the World Cup to two first-time hosts not yet known for their sporting infrastructure.

But the ruling was widely criticized, with media alleging that members of FIFA's executive board had sold their votes for millions of dollars in cash and other gifts, including a Picasso painting reportedly offered by the Russian side.

A number of FIFA executives left amid the controversy, although a controversial internal investigation by the governing body eventually cleared both Russia and Qatar of any wrongdoing.

Both Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarus's authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka have used ice hockey and other sports to burnish their image.
Both Vladimir Putin (right) and Belarus's authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka have used ice hockey and other sports to burnish their image.

It remains to be seen whether the negative publicity will ultimately outweigh what some observers -- and even FIFA itself -- suggest are the undeniable commercial and operational advantages of doing business with autocratic regimes. "I will say something crazy," said FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke last year amid chaotic preparations for this year's Brazil World Cup, in describing his eagerness to work with Putin. "Less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup."

"Obviously that comment made everyone stand up and take notice," says Owen Gibson, chief sports correspondent with "The Guardian" newspaper. "But actually there was some sense in what he was saying, purely from an operational point of view. If you're FIFA, it's easier to get things done if you've got the buy-in of somebody at the top of an autocracy. The stadiums get built and the operational plans get done."

Too Rich For Some

The flip side of deal-making with dictators, says Gibson, is the liability of being associated with both massive corruption and the human rights violations that may be caused by, or coincide with, the spectacle of the sporting event.

Both are issues of concern regarding Azerbaijan, which in June 2015 will become the first country to host the European Games, a kind of mini-Olympics featuring 6,000 athletes competing in 20 sports.

The country's entrenched leader, Ilham Aliyev, has ruthlessly cracked down on journalists and activists, many of whom have sought to expose rampant corruption within the regime. It is unclear whether either the European Games or a Formula One Grand Prix race -- slated to be held in Azerbaijan the following year -- will be used as leverage to press for political change.

Elsewhere, there are small signs of change. Under its new president, German former fencer Thomas Bach, the IOC on December 8 approved a package of wide-ranging reforms, including the addition of human rights provisions in future host city contracts and expanding the Olympic Charter to include the protection of sexual minorities.

Some observers suggest that FIFA is not likely to follow suit until it receives new leadership -- its 78-year-old president, Sepp Blatter, has held the post for 20 years and has announced his intention to run for a fifth term next year.

But the body may still begin to feel the sting of its questionable methods. Sony Corporation last month pulled out of its $279-million sponsorship deal, apparently as a result of the controversy over the Russia and Qatar bids.

Change will be incremental at best. With contracts already signed for 2018 and 2022, FIFA's first chance for codified reform will come only with the 2026 World Cup. And the IOC, which watched with distress as snow-loving Oslo abandoned its bid for the 2022 Winter Games, is left with an unsavory choice between two regimes with poor rights records, Beijing and Astana.

David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, says the IOC is now facing the true fallout of the Sochi Games. By allowing Russia to run up a staggering price tag -- much of which lined the pockets of Putin's cronies -- Olympic organizers created a situation that turned off a number of democratic countries considering a hosting bid.

"In terms of the legacy of Sochi from the point of view of the IOC, the worst possible thing that happened was that it cost them $50 billion, which was almost 500 percent more than the Vancouver Olympics had cost," he says.

"And although this was absurd, and was completely the result of corruption and infrastructure projects that really weren't needed, when other cities looked at this, they say, 'Wow, do we really want to spend $50 billion?'"

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