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“Sportswashing & Greenwashing”: Ex-Soccer Player Jules Boykoff on Qatar Hosting World Cup

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We speak with author Jules Boykoff about the climate and political implications of the 2022 World Cup. The soccer tournament is being played in the winter for the first time due to Qatar’s extreme summer temperatures. Boykoff says Qatar and FIFA have greenwashed the event by erroneously claiming the World Cup is “fully carbon neutral” despite blocking an independent review of the games. Boykoff also says Qatar is participating in “sportswashing” by using the games to deflect attention from labor abuses. Boykoff’s article in Scientific American is “The World Cup in Qatar Is a Climate Catastrophe.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to cover the 2022 FIFA World Cup underway in Qatar, where the soccer tournament is taking place in the winter for the first time due to Qatar’s extreme summer temperatures. Qatar claims this will be a “fully carbon neutral” World Cup, based on offsetting emissions, but many have refuted that.

This is Lancaster University professor Mike Berners-Lee, whose research predicts this year’s World Cup will actually emit 10 million tons of carbon. He spoke on BBC Sport.

MIKE BERNERS-LEE: The idea that they’ve somehow made it green by cheap, nasty so-called offsets that just don’t undo the damage from the emissions at all, you know, to become carbon neutral, that just — that doesn’t stack up at all.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now from Portland, Oregon, by the former pro soccer player and author Jules Boykoff, whose latest article in Scientific American is headlined “The World Cup in Qatar Is a Climate Catastrophe.” He also published a piece in the open-access SSJ journal headlined “Toward a Theory of Sportswashing: Mega-Events, Soft Power, and Political Conflict.”

What do you think is most important, Jules — I mean, you’re a former athlete, a soccer player, football player — to understand and for people to take away from this World Cup?

JULES BOYKOFF: Well, I would say there’s two things that we should be thinking about even during the tournament, and that is what you mentioned at the outset: sportswashing and greenwashing. We’re seeing both in Technicolor here with the Qatar World Cup.

We’re definitely seeing sportswashing, where political leaders are using the sports event to try to deflect attention from human rights woes at home and chronic social problems at home, while trying to burnish their reputation on the world stage, thereby setting a path forward for political and economic advancement.

But we’re also seeing greenwashing. FIFA claiming that this is a carbon neutral type of event makes a mockery of the concept of sustainability. Carbon Market Watch, a nonprofit group, did an analysis of the stadiums and their carbon footprint in terms of what FIFA said, and they found that FIFA underestimated the carbon footprint of the stadiums by eightfold.

It doesn’t stop there, Amy. It goes further. Every day, going in and out of Qatar, you see 1,300 flights. This obviously adds to the emissions. It’s not just humans that are flying in and out of Qatar, as well. The actual grass seed that was used to make the fields, both the 130-plus practice fields but also the eight pitches that are hosting these games, that grass seed came over from North America on climate-controlled flights. And these things don’t just water themselves, these fields. Actually, they require tons of water, some 50,000 liters of desalinated water every single day in the summer. And I mention it’s desalinated, again, a carbon-intensive process. And so, there’s a whole lot to talk about when it comes to the greenwash that we’re seeing here, as well as the sportswash of this event.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about QatarEnergy being one of the sponsors of this event?

JULES BOYKOFF: Absolutely. This is especially ridiculous coming out of the COP27 meetings that we just had in Egypt, where everybody around the world is jumping up and down saying, “We need to take urgent action when it comes to global heating.” And then you have QatarEnergy, this company that has become a sponsor with FIFA, that is a big purveyor of liquefied natural gas. And they claim to be a bridge fuel between carbon fossil fuels and to the greener future of wind power, for example. But in reality, it can delay the actual move to wind power. So, in this moment, post-COP27, there’s no space for the kind of petrocompany sponsorships on these big platforms. It is just a pure greenwash through and through.

AMY GOODMAN: Can any one of these giant sports events, Jules, whether we’re talking about the Olympics, the World Cup, the European Games, actually ever be carbon neutral?

JULES BOYKOFF: That’s a really good question, Amy. And it’s difficult to make one of these events carbon neutral, whether it’s the World Cup of soccer or the Olympics, simply because of the size of these events. And rather than think about making the events smaller, listen to what FIFA is doing next. They’re talking about making the World Cup field even bigger, having 48 teams instead of 32, as we have this year. We can expect that FIFA will host a 48-team World Cup in 2026 when the men’s World Cup comes to North America.

So, if you are going to get serious about creating a carbon-neutral event, you would also bring on independent monitors who could do audits of these numbers and offer best practices moving forward. Unfortunately, FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, and the International Olympic Committee, the group that oversees the Olympic Games, are moving in the opposite direction, getting more secretive while at the same time amplifying their green claims without letting other people who are independent take a look at them.

AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of sportswashing, Jules, you talk — your subtitle of your piece, mega-political — what is it? “Mega-Events, Soft Power, and Political Conflict”?

JULES BOYKOFF: Absolutely. So, one of the things that comes up when we hear about sportswashing is: Does this thing work? And what people often have in the back of their minds there is: Does this work on an international audience in terms of deflecting our attention from some of the problems in the host country or city? But in reality, we also should be thinking about the domestic audiences.

Take for example a recent sportswashed event in Russia, the Sochi Winter Olympics. Ahead of those 2014 Olympics, Russia passed an anti-gay propaganda law that got all sorts of attention — and rightly so — around the world for being anti-LGBTQ. But inside the country, this actually helped Vladimir Putin, as he stood up to the West, the so-called decadent West, and his ratings during the Sochi Olympics went higher than ever. He actually had 86% approval ratings by the time that the Sochi Olympics concluded. And guess what: He used those high approval ratings to invade the Crimea between the Olympics and the Paralympics then in 2014.

And I think that points up two really important dimensions of sportswashing that are often pushed beneath the surface. And, one, that is that domestic audiences matter a lot when it comes to sportswashing. And, two, this isn’t just some mere branding exercise. This can actually be a conveyor belt of life and death.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the issue of labor. Ten years ago almost to the day, in 2012, we traveled to Qatar’s capital, Doha. We were there for the U.N. climate summit, interestingly, where we spoke with Nepalese labor journalist Devendra Dhungana about the plight of Qatar’s migrant workers.

DEVENDRA DHUNGANA: What we expect to see is, more people will die of working in the stadiums than the number of players playing in the Qatari stadiums. And can the Qatari government accept to live by that precedent, that more workers will die of the unsafe working conditions here than the number of players playing in the field?

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, the European Union Parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling on FIFA to compensate the families of migrant workers who were injured and killed in preparation for the World Cup. This is Dutch socialist lawmaker Lara Wolters.

LARA WOLTERS: No matter how much progress was made in Qatar — and progress was made — it 's not OK — and I'm going to state the obvious here — for people to die on building sites in their thousands. It’s not OK for people to be jailed for asking for their wages.

AMY GOODMAN: Jules Boykoff, what do you think are the chances?

JULES BOYKOFF: Well, for starters, what we’re seeing in Qatar is that sports are politics by other means. And FIFA didn’t expect all this pushback from the tournament being held in Qatar. But since we’re all talking about politics — and I very much think we should be — we should think seriously, and FIFA should act and put some of its money where its mouth is, and give some money to migrant workers and their families who haven’t been paid properly. Some of them have died, and they haven’t received proper compensation. So, if you win the World Cup, you get — your team gets $42 million. That should be the bare minimum that should be then thrown in the direction of these families who have suffered so greatly because of the World Cup, that is giving so many people around the world so much joy.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the protests that we’ve been seeing? I mean, you see the protester running across the field during one of the soccer games, football games, with a LGBTQ flag. He’s got a Superman T-shirt on. On the back of it, it says something like “We stand with Iranian woman,” and the front says “Save Ukraine.” Also the banning of the OneLove armbands. You had, I think, the British team wanted all to wear it. Can you talk about this?

JULES BOYKOFF: Sure. So, first, in terms of the athlete activism that we’ve been seeing in Qatar, you mentioned earlier that Iran stood in silence in their first match against England when their national anthem played. What an incredible act of courage, putting both themselves in danger, as well as their families who live in Iran still.

And then you can contrast that with what happened with the captains of numerous European teams, who had planned on wearing a OneLove armband to show solidarity with LGBTQ people in Qatar and around the world, but FIFA threatened to issue yellow cards to the captains, were they to where that armband, and collectively those European captains backed down. Now, I’m not saying FIFA was right in kind of putting that forth as a potential penalty, but it was interesting to see how quickly these teams folded.

You’re also seeing, as you mentioned, activists trying to piggy jack the event. Let’s not forget that 5 billion people are watching this World Cup in Qatar, an enormous audience for which you could put your cause forward and get them to think about it. And so, the activist that you mentioned running on the field tried to piggy jack off of that popularity, hijacking the World Cup for their own political purposes, raising a number of important issues.

And, you know, I think there’s enough space for politics in sports at the same time, and I’m actually happy to see that we’re seeing such robust discussions around politics even this far into the World Cup. In my experience following the soccer World Cups, both men and women, it’s really rare to see this continued conversation around politics even though the football, or soccer, has already started.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, we’re going to continue to cover this issue. It’s five weeks, this World Cup tournament. We’ll see how it all plays out. Jules Boykoff, former professional soccer player, we’ll link to your piece in Scientific American, “The World Cup in Qatar Is a Climate Catastrophe” as well as your piece “Toward a Theory of Sportswashing: Mega-Events, Soft Power, and Political Conflict.”

Next up, “'The Worst Abuser You Could Ever Have': Tracy McCarter did everything we tell survivors to do, but that did not protect her from the abuse she suffered at the hands of the state.” This is an amazing story of a woman who ended up killing her abuser, who had been violated for years. She ends up at Rikers Island. Stay with us.

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