Why and how authoritarian regimes stage mega sporting events

When Catherine the Great of Russia visited Crimea in 1787, her minister, lover and favorite Grigory Potemkin dressed villages on the imperial route to give the right impression. Its detractors inflated the anecdote by speaking of cardboard facades erected as a cache-misère. Since then, the “Potemkin village” has been used as a propaganda trompe-l’oeil often used by closed societies to fool foreign visitors by showing them false idyllic places masking widespread coercion or destitution.

The phrase is echoed in a recent scholarly article titled “International Sporting Events, Media Attention, and Autocratic Repression.”, published in the latest issue ofAmerican Political Science Review. “By producing a Potemkin village, the autocrats try to control the threats against their rule while reaping the fruits of international sporting events”, summarizes their text.

Authoritarian regimes now organize roughly four out of ten major international sports competitions (see box). The habit has deep roots, from the Olympics in Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, to the recent F1 Grand Prix and new golf tournament in Saudi Arabia, including the Rumble in the Jungle, the fabulous fight Ali against Foreman, Zaire, in 1974.

There is a belief that granting international competition to authoritarian regimes can encourage them to behave better.

“By organizing a competition, authoritarian regimes find themselves faced with a dilemma of advertising attention”, explains to the To have to Pearce Edwards, postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, joined in Pittsburgh. The American co-signs the study with the Germans Adam Scharpf and Christian Glässel. “The organizers really want to take advantage of the publicity generated by the tournament by presenting themselves as competent, well-managed and prosperous countries. At the same time, they fear that the bad reputation generated by their repressive practices will become more evident with international coverage. »

These levels of violence before, during and after a major global sports festival are in fact modulated in time and space. As the tournament approaches, political scientists posit that illiberal regimes are likely to step up repression in host cities, including to clear the streets of would-be dissidents. During the event itself, however, they largely refrained from using overt violence to convey the image of a tolerant and open regime. Afterwards, the repression seems to start again and return to its usual level.

Argentina, case in point

The World Cup hosted by Argentina in 1978 serves as a case in point. The country has been regularly ruled by a military dictatorship, the last time from 1976 to 1983. Its designation as host of the tournament was voted in London by FIFA in July 1966, a few weeks after another coup which established another junta military, which lasted this time until 1973. The “Proceso de Reorganización Nacional”, official name of the dictatorship established in 1976, made about 30,000 “disappeared” and 1.5 million exiled.

The Argentinian data allow us to understand in minute detail the great illusion concocted to fool the foreign media. For example, the junta has multiplied the parties (barbecues, visits to vineyards, receptions at the headquarters of the national police, etc.) for sports journalists who are overwhelmingly male, including by stuffing the press center with “beautiful, charming and affable” hostesses. [outgoing] », according to the envoy of a major European magazine of the time interviewed by the academics. “Foreign journalists saw the Potemkin village and believed in it,” summarizes Mr. Edwards.

The repressive adjustment was particularly pronounced in places near the 74 hotels reserved for foreign journalists. Targeting even made it possible to modify the repression according to the working hours of representatives of the international media.

The researchers calculated that 60% of repressive interventions occurred when reporters were covering matches. Before and after the tournament, about 30% of such police practices occurred at the same times.

This kind of observation is possible because Argentina set up after the dictatorship the National Commission on the Disappeared, considered the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the world, according to the principles of transitional justice. The published official report is full of data, for example on the names of the victims, the time and place of their abduction, which have now been used to establish the patterns of repression around the Potemkin villages erected near hotels for journalists.

“The data shows the regime’s fear of journalists becoming witnesses to the repression of dissidents,” said Edwards, who specializes in the study of state repressions, especially in Latin America. “So it’s not just the event itself that drives the regime’s response, but also the presence of the international media. This degree of transparency later adopted by Argentina does not exist in other repressive countries that organize tournaments. One can only extrapolate from this case. »

Beijing did not have to build a Potemkin village during the last Winter Olympics, in the midst of a pandemic. The movements of the thousands of reporters covering the events were limited to hotels and stadiums, very, very far from the concentration camps of the country.

“There is a belief that granting international competition to authoritarian regimes can encourage them to behave better,” says Mr. Edwards. This is certainly not what our research indicates. On the contrary, the organization of mega-events can even worsen the violation of human rights. This should be taken into account when deciding on allocations. »

The media obviously play a role in this complex game, as the Argentinian case sadly illustrates. Reports published for years have clearly highlighted the corruption within FIFA or the thousands of deaths on the construction sites of stadiums in Qatar. Coverage of the World Cup is now also used to whitewash the reputation of this country’s authoritarian regime…

The good company of Qatar…

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