Apr 2, 2021 - Sports

Boycott threats loom over Qatar World Cup and Beijing Olympics

The German national team. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/Pool/Getty Images

The hosts of both of the two biggest global sporting events on the 2022 calendar are facing boycott threats, but they're handling the scrutiny much differently.

Driving the news: When European qualifying for the 2022 World Cup kicked off last week, players from three countries seized the opportunity to protest the human rights conditions in host nation Qatar.

  • Norway donned shirts that said "Human rights on and off the pitch."
  • Germany spelled out "human rights" on their shirts.
  • The Netherlands wore shirts that said, "Football supports change."

Background: Qatar has faced scrutiny over the poor conditions migrant workers are facing as they help build the infrastructure for the tournament.

  • The Gulf kingdom has introduced major reforms of its labor laws since being controversially awarded the World Cup, in a sign that this kind of public pressure can work.
  • But in late February, The Guardian reported that over 6,500 migrant workers had died in the last decade.
  • Top clubs in Norway recently called for a boycott, though that currently looks unlikely.

The big picture: There are also calls for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, but that pressure is coming mainly from human rights groups and politicians, rather than the athletes themselves.

  • It's hard to envision stars with the profile of Germany's top soccer players taking a similar stand against the mass detentions in Xinjiang, because so much money is at stake for the players and their clubs.

Flashback: After German soccer star Mesut Özil, then with English club Arsenal, condemned China's repression of Uyghur Muslims in a 2019 tweet, Chinese state TV canceled plans to air Arsenal's next game and later refused to refer to Özil by name on air. Özil is no longer with Arsenal.

  • That might sound familiar to NBA fans who recall the fallout in 2019 after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests.

What to watch: Sponsors of the 2022 Olympics are under pressure to pull out, or at least to speak out.

  • But China's blacklisting last month of H&M and other retailers who raised concerns about the use of forced labor to pick cotton in Xinjiang sent a clear message: Even the slightest criticism could see you cut off from China's massive market.
  • And while Qatar has promised reforms, China continues to deny that it is holding Uyghurs in detention camps, despite all evidence to the contrary.

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