Rich anthology about sports and human rights finds little support for idealistic views

Andreas Tullberg
Human Rights Studies, Lund University


Barbara J. Keys (red)
The Ideals of Global Sport: From Peace to Human Rights
237 pages, hardcover.
Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 2019
ISBN 978-0-8122-5150-0

Mega sports events like the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup draw interest from hundreds of millions of supporters worldwide. Modern media technology allows for extensive coverage of athletic performances, competition and matches. In a way, the mega sports events create an enormous stage of entertainment bringing large portions of the world’s population together in sharing a uniting experience of viewing the same play at the same time.

Large sports events therefore, it has been argued, provide the opportunity to promote cooperation, friendship, peace, respect and understanding (not just between athletes, but also among nations). In short, thus, a sort of idealistic and peaceful internationalism. This is for instance the essence of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) concept “Olympism.” International sporting events become an arena for nations to get to know and respect each other’s differences and thereby removing at least some possible causes for conflict.

However, the mega sports events also repeatedly evoke debates about their relations to questions about politics, ethics and human rights. Skepticism towards idealistic belief in sport’s capacity to achieve moral outcomes is the guiding principle for the contributions to The Ideals of Global Sport: From Peace to Human Rights edited by Barbara J. Keys, professor in US and International relations at the University of Melbourne. The contributors are mainly historians, political scientists and anthropologists.

The book is divided in two parts. The first part deals with the idealistic claims of sport and peace, friendship, cooperation and understanding trough historical case studies over four chapters. Keys convincingly sets the stage by arguing that there in fact exists little substantial research presenting evidence of the connection between international sports and peace. The case studies in part one confirms that view.

From the 1970s and onward international sporting events have increasingly been connected with debates on “the newest brand of idealism: human rights” (p. 7). Part two, containing another five chapters, consequently deals with the field of human rights and sports.

No contemporary large sporting event can avoid debates and discussions on the impact it might have on the rights of stakeholders affected by the games. The debate has primarily been framed around two positions: hosting a mega-event is either thought of as an inducement to positive reform, or something that most likely leads to increased repression. Either way, international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have learned to make use of the stage mega events creates in order to raise country-specific issues as well as more general human rights concerns.

Keys convincingly sets the stage by arguing that there in fact exists little substantial research presenting evidence of the connection between international sports and peace.

After having read the contributions, I have gained arguments for either position in the debate regarding the possibilities and dangers of hosting sports events. On the one hand it is obvious that oppression and human rights abuses follow mega sport events as shown for instance in the texts by Roriz and Nagamine (Brazil) or Dubrovski (Russia). On the other hand, as Keys shows in her contribution, organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have contributed to rhetorically linking human rights with IOC’s “universal fundamental ethical values” (p. 110). Thus, the IOC has moved from arguing a clear separation between ethical values (as a guiding principle of competition) and human rights (as active politics) toward greater acceptance of human rights as an overall guiding principle in itself. Likewise, since 2011 the UN Human Rights Council has decided on resolutions tying human rights to olympic ideals.

However, the debate on whether mega sport events presents opportunities for, or threats to, human rights is asymmetric. While mass arrests, house evictions or poor labor standards might be exposed as immediate consequences of hosting events, human rights progress is largely dependent on long-term discursive progress. Several contributions turns to history in order to examine this point. I find that Susan Brownell’s chapter on the Beijing Olympics in 2008 captures this argument particularly well.

China bid for the 2000 Olympic back in 1993 and then again in 2001 for the 2008 Olympics. The first bid was internally decided on in 1991, just two years after the massacres on Tiananmen Square. That showed China’s apparent unawareness of, or lack of interest in, human rights as connected to the application process. However, in 1993 the US and the EU expressed strong opposition to Beijing as a host, based on Chinas violation of human rights. This contributed to China losing the 2000 Olympics.

Brownell points to the fact that the western interpretation of human rights was incompatible with Chinese socialism. Human rights were “a slogan of the capitalist class” and unnecessary in a state controlled by a Communist Party. Human rights were a Marxist taboo (p. 182). China connected its perception of human rights to collective rights as a nation and therefore different from western individualism. Heated rights talk in international media was largely a non-issue for the common person in China. Likewise, was the western governments and NGOs for the most parts ignorant of the Chinese concept of rights.

China lost the vote in 1993 but its representatives were made aware of the importance of human rights, at least in rhetoric, in order to win in the future. Brownell shows that from 1993 and onwards the concept of human rights has made progress in China, the Marxist taboo has been lifted and international covenants have been signed.

China made a new bid in 2001 and was granted the 2008 Olympics. What was earlier considered a western phenomenon now had become more interconnected with Chinese traditions of rights. In negotiations between IOC and Chinese representatives before the Beijing games both parties could speak openly about human rights. That would have been impossible in the 1990s.

Brownell admits that on the surface and in the short-term very few human rights achievements were made in the years following the 2008 event, which of course is an important fact to consider in itself. However, Brownell concludes, “the Oympic bids and Games did have had an impact in the realm of vocabulary, discourse and the exchange of ideas” (p. 196). In short, it is still too early to tell whether the games had any long-term positive effects.

I cannot but agree with Key’s and Burke’s conclusion that any debate needs to be contextualized and historicized in order to bring any clarity. The contributions to the book are well written and credibly argued. I recommended the book for any student of politics, human rights and sports as well as for those interested in the realm of NGOs and large sports events.

Copyright © Andreas Tullberg 2020

Table of Content

Introduction. The Ideals of International Sport
Barbara Jean Keys

PART I. The Core Ideals

      1. Friendship and Mutual Understanding: Sport, Rhetoric, and Regional Relations in Southeast Asia
        Simon Creak
      2. Antidiscrimination: Racism and the Case of South Africa
        Robert Skinner
      3. Democracy and Democratization: The Ambiguous Legacy
        Joon Seok Hong
      4. Peace: The United Nations, the International Olympic Committee, and the Renovation of the Olympic Truce
        Roland Burke

PART II. The Rise of Human Rights

      1. Reframing Human Rights: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and International Sport
        Barbara Jean Keys
      2. The Moscow 1980 and Sochi 2014 Olympic Games: Dissent and Repression
        Dmitry Dubrovskiy
      3. Hosting the Olympic Games in Developed Countries: Debating the Human Rights Ideals of Sport
        Jules Boykoff
      4. The View from China: Two Olympic Bids, One Olympic Games, and China’s Changing Rights Consciousness
        Susan Brownell
      5. Competing for Rights?: Human Rights and Recent Sport Mega-Events in Brazil
        João Roriz and Renata Nagamine

Conclusion. The Future of Idealism in Sport
Barbara Jean Keys and Roland Burke

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