The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing opened with a show of Chinese national unity. Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang lit the Olympic cauldron, and John Lennon’s “Imagine” — calling for “a brotherhood of man” and that “the world will live as one”— blared over the Bird’s Nest stadium loudspeakers. Chinese state media proclaimed that the “Olympic spirit” should reign over the games, and that political concerns should stay on the competition’s sidelines. Behind the pomp and glamor of the ceremonies, and beneath the paeans to unity, however, two unquestionably political actions sit at the center of China’s hosting of the games.
First, China created a tight bubble around foreign journalists and dignitaries. With the aid of security forces, health workers, and even robots, the host nation kept visitors in a “closed loop” that ostensibly sought to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Yet, China is no stranger to creating bubbles around sports mega-events. Foreign journalists during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics made similar observations. Across both Olympics, China had a common concern: keeping dissidents and potential troublemakers away from the pens and cameras of the press corps.
Second, the weeks and months preceding the opening ceremonies witnessed a crackdown on critics of the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship. In January 2022, under a designated “Olympic security period,” at least five high-profile activists faced arrest and detention. Police officers also stepped up visits to intimidate regime critics. Tightening restrictions spread online, too, as activists reported a loss of access to social media platforms and internet service. For these targets of regime repression, the message was clear: Hold back during the Olympics. Say and do nothing.
These two actions — a dictatorship carefully curating its national image during sports mega-events and clearing the streets beforehand — are not unique to China. During the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, the Nazi German regime briefly suspended its campaign against Jews and removed the smear sheet “Der Stürmer” from the city’s newsstands. Before the 1974 Foreman-Ali “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko ordered the mass detention of dissidents, killing some and releasing the rest as a warning to other would-be troublemakers. As dictatorships host an increasing share of mega-events in the 21st century, understanding these patterns of repression may help us understand how to hold the repressors accountable.
THE “SCRUTINY-PUBLICITY DILEMMA”
Our research offers an explanation for dictatorships’ behavior around mega-events. We argue dictatorships see hosting these events as a unique opportunity to generate positive publicity and repair their regimes’ potentially tarnished image on the world stage. By projecting a carefully curated image to billions of viewers and readers, dictators can depict themselves as capable rulers and show their societies as secure and peace-loving.
Would a boycott of sports mega-events with autocratic hosts stop regimes from clearing the streets and reduce human rights violations?
However, hosting sports mega-events comes with risks. The spectacle of a successful competition can fall apart in front of the assembled world press and dignitaries. The regime’s opponents may disrupt the proceedings. Curious journalists, venturing into the streets from hotels and competition venues, may encounter citizens seething with grievances and eager to place stories of human rights violations on the front pages of newspapers and websites around the world. Disruptions and public grievances during a mega-event would create a public-relations disaster for regimes, but so would any repression of disruptions caught on camera. We call this situation a “scrutiny-publicity dilemma” for dictatorships.
How do dictators resolve this dilemma? To answer the question, we turn to another sports mega-event: the 1978 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup hosted by Argentina. In 1976, after the country won its hosting bid, a military coup overthrew a civilian government and began a campaign against alleged “subversion” known as the Dirty War. The result? One of South America’s most brutal 20th century dictatorships, which killed and forcibly disappeared thousands of people. A growing transnational human rights movement pressured the military government over its suspected abuses, with Amnesty International asking foreign attendees at the World Cup to “investigate what was happening in Argentina.”
Under this pressure — and with the eyes of football fans around the world turning to the country in June 1978 — the regime sought to improve its tarnished image on the biggest stage in sport. Through a public relations campaign devised by the American firm Burson-Marsteller, a luxurious and packed social calendar for visiting journalists, a smoothly-administered tournament (minus grumblings about match-fixing), and endorsements from the likes of Henry Kissinger, the military dictatorship batted down critics and triumphed in the national team’s 3–1 victory over the Netherlands in the final.
Our analysis of data on repression from Argentina’s post-dictatorship truth commission reveals how the military government resolved the scrutiny-publicity dilemma. The truth commission consisted of legal experts and human rights activists who compiled evidence of the regime’s crimes in a famous report known as “Nunca Más.” The report contains the precise time and place of killings and forcible disappearances the military carried out.
We find that in the five host cities where matches would be played — Buenos Aires, Rosario, Córdoba, Mendoza, and Mar del Plata — the military ramped up repression in the months before the tournament. The repression silenced and intimidated activists who might try to speak out and discredit the dictatorship. The data do not show similar increases in repression outside of host cities, suggesting this repression was a targeted effort to clear the streets where journalists and dignitaries would soon walk and drive.
During the tournament, the military’s use of force in host cities decreased sharply. Moreover, repression in these cities during June was more covert than before: More people were repressed through bloodless kidnappings than killings, and kidnappings occurred disproportionately during the hours that foreign journalists were busy covering World Cup matches. These measures had their intended effect, at least for some observers. After the tournament, Berti Vogts, the West German men’s national team captain, noted that “Argentina is a country where order reigns, and I did not see a single political prisoner.” One longtime European sports correspondent we interviewed described the tournament atmosphere among foreign journalists as “relaxed.”
While data from Argentina’s truth commission are fine-grained — allowing us to examine repression around a sports mega-event at a unique level of resolution — we expect these patterns to recur across sports mega-events with dictatorial hosts. Media scrutiny and attention to human rights violations have increased in the 21st century, possibly driving dictatorships to clear the streets earlier than Argentina’s military did in 1978. Nonetheless, hosts like China still decree and enforce “security periods” in the weeks and months preceding the opening of mega-events.
IT MAY BE TIME FOR SOME BOYCOTTING….
Would a boycott of sports mega-events with autocratic hosts stop regimes from clearing the streets and reduce human rights violations? Opponents assert boycotts politicize sports and hurt international sports associations. Proponents argue these pressure campaigns hold hosts such as China accountable for repression. We agree: Boycotting sports mega-events in dictatorships could, in the long run, reduce repression in host countries. Deprived of VIP guests and international media attention, dictators will receive less of an image boost from hosting. With these events already being financial losers, little incentive would remain for dictatorships to submit bids.
Another promising strategy is pressuring officials in international sports associations such as FIFA and the International Olympics Committee (IOC). These officials argue that mega-events help host country populations — a claim belied by our findings from Argentina. Before the 2022 Winter Olympics, an international uproar led the IOC to hold calls with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who largely disappeared from public view after making sexual assault allegations against a senior government official. Similarly, heightened pressure around future events could push the IOC to take a firmer stance on autocratic hosts’ human rights records.
As the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar approaches, journalists, policymakers, and the public alike should be skeptical of any message that the country’s dictatorship broadcasts on the world stage. Recent reporting uncovered a multimillion-dollar influence campaign by the Qatari government to spread the message that the “World Cup in Qatar was good for business, brought together the Middle East and the West, and was good for the world.” Criticism of the host country’s human rights violations by the Danish men’s national team (and others) is a promising way to puncture such a misleading image of domestic peace and unity.
Pearce Edwards is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University.
Christian Gläβel is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin. His personal website is here.
Adam Scharpf is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, and an incoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen.