Wrong Again: Why international sporting events should stop choosing Qatar

On November 18, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) voted to award the 2019 World Outdoor Track and Field Championships to Doha, Qatar. Doha was selected over Eugene, Oregon and Barcelona, Spain. The selection of Doha made history for the world track and field championships, as it will be the first world championship to be held in the Middle East. The IAAF’s selection follows the evolving controversy surrounding Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 Men’s FIFA World Cup. Qatar’s World Cup bid allegedly involved  bribing by prominent Qataris and human rights abuses of migrant construction workers. However, the IAAF selection committee missed a more important chance to make history: rejecting the allure of money and demonstrating a respect for basic human rights that is becoming less and less important to today’s sporting bourgeoisie.

During the construction of World Cup facilities from 2012 to 2013, nearly one thousand migrant workers (mostly from Nepal, Bangladesh, and India) died in deplorable conditions. In January of this year alone, twenty-four Indian migrant workers died in Qatar. To put this in perspective, Brazil, another emerging nation,  had eight worker deaths in the totality of its World Cup preparations. The death of eight workers is by no means excusable, but Qatar has seen three times that many deaths in a single month. This issue is clearly a problem for Qatar, where migrant workers comprise nearly 95% of the population. The migrant workers are mostly men coming from impoverished means. They uproot themselves from their lives at home in an attempt to create a better life for their families. However, once in Qatar these workers do not find conditions conducive to improving their lives, but instead they find brutal conditions and pittances for wages. Their conditions are easily equatable to those of slaves. These migrant workers are bound to contracts that they often do not understand, and are not afforded even a minutia of legal representation or tolerable living conditions. These migrant workers live twelve people to what is little more than a hut, without clean water or protection from the oppressive heat. Heat-induced heart attacks are a leading cause of death for migrants. Furthermore, upon arriving at job sites, migrant workers often have their passports and visas confiscated by their employers, effectively trapping them in their jobs and in Qatar.

The IAAF decision sends the wrong message at the wrong time. The IAAF selection committee members were almost certainly aware of abhorrent conditions and rampant deaths plaguing the World Cup construction, yet Qatar was still selected. It would be unsurprising for the IAAF to cloak their decision in the idea of “giving Qatar and opportunity to improve their record on migrant worker’s rights” or “spurring Qatar to improve their human rights record.” But this is a farce. The IAAF’s selection of Qatar demonstrates to repressive regimes around the world that international sporting organizations care more about their bottom line than the safety and human rights of the common person. Its decision normalizes giving nations with repugnant human rights records  a free pass.

I am all for having world events hosted in diverse locations across our planet. But at what cost? How many people should die so that a country can host a sporting event and make history? The IAAF had several ways to make history with their selection—Eugene hosting the world championships would have been a first for the United States—but instead the it chose to award the event to a country with a clear record of disregarding human life. The IAAF could have made more than history, it could have taken a stand for the rights of all humans.

Amnesty International’s UChicago Chapter is proud to present a column focused important human rights developments globally, nationally, and locally. If you are interested in contributing to this column, please contact rienayu@uchicago.edu.

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