If corruption of the best gives rise to the worst, as the saying goes, then the global village has some serious questions to ask about international sports. With the ever-growing popularity of worldwide sporting events, nations wishing to host them spend millions of dollars preparing bids to stage a glamorous and well-organized event. International competitions—like the Olympics—draw attention and participation of almost every nation in the world. Hosting is an honor, and countries use these events to showcase themselves as capable, and therefore, important nations. For emerging economies and global powers, the message is clear—they are important actors on the global stage.
Hosting privileges for the two largest mega sporting events—the Olympics and the World Cup Finals—regularly draws the fiercest competition among nations. These events can increase national pride, supposedly support infrastructural development, and potentially offer an economic boost. When selecting a host nation, the international governing bodies in sports are supposed to consider a bidding nation’s ability and commitment to successfully organize and prioritize the sporting event. However, recent news reports have shown that level playing fields are being replaced by fourth-quarter backroom deals.
Die Zeit reported on June 5 that Germany agreed to ship rocket-propelled grenades to Saudi Arabia in exchange for its vote to host the 2006 World Cup, a vote in which Germany beat South Africa 12-11. Just days before the vote, the German government lifted a ban on such transfers, making the deal a possibility. While the media has focused on FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s resignation and the extent to which FIFA General-Secretary Jerome Valcke knew about or was even involved in such backroom deals, the allegation involving Saudi and the Germans points to the increasingly significant role that global sporting events are playing in international relations.
As sporting events have become more international, the governing bodies of global sports organization having increasingly taken to tampering with domestic politics and exerting leverage over hosting nations. These interventions range from influencing the labor laws that govern the construction of stadiums to media regulations that protect freedom of and access to information. Without accountability to anyone but their executive committees, these governing bodies determine and pursue these actions as they see fit.
Unlike intergovernmental organizations formed by nations, FIFA, for example, is a self-governing organization, operating independently of states and, occasionally, wielding the power to tell them what to do. This distinction is important. Sporting organizations like FIFA are not responsible to any one nation or group of countries. Rather, they report only to the executive committee of the organization itself. They are, in a sense, their own sovereign actors.
What is serious with regard to the recent allegations is that these organizations are in a position to influence and undermine global norms and are influencing states’ foreign policy decisions. If the claims regarding the Germany vote are true, the integrity of the international governance system gets called into question. It also suggests that investigations into what other deals have been made in the past to secure hosting an event are in order. Have other governments made arms deals, changed their votes in international forums like the United Nations, or simply provided bilateral support in order to secure hosting rights for a global sporting event?
While FIFA has long claimed its independence from global politics and is currently promising major reforms, policymakers should consider the leverage that global sporting organizations have over nations’ seeking to host events, and how that will influence these nations’ multilateral and bilateral foreign policy decisions.
Alex Lord received an MA in International Relations from the City College of New York, where he focused his research on the connections between mega-sporting events, illiberal regimes, and liberalization. He previously served for twenty-seven months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexOLord.