Sports stars can no longer plead ignorance. They have political power and must use it | Sports policy

Sthe port is politics. There is no doubt about it at the start of the year when the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing and the World Cup are being held in Qatar. You just have to open the newspaper these days. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Guardian, the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza and other quality media, which gather many voices to cover the world, cover on their sports pages the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics by the United States, Great Britain and other countries, the “quiet diplomacy” of the International Olympic Committee and workers’ rights in Qatar.

A news item received special attention around the world. Out of concern for the life of Peng Shuai, the former world No. 1 in doubles, the WTA has suspended all tournaments in China. In total, around 30% of the WTA’s revenue comes from China, with the annual finals in Shenzhen paying out the equivalent of around 12 million euros (£ 10 million), more than any other women’s tennis event. But the players are now saying: we’ll do without.

Taking a stand is a tradition in women’s tennis, whose history is marked by personalities. In the 1960s, WTA founder and multiple Grand Slam winner Billie Jean King campaigned for equal pay and pay for the sexes. Later, multiple Wimbledon winner Martina Navratilova campaigned for gay rights. The allegedly weak sex actually dominates the combat mode. The female athletes have made their federation an independent institution.

The consistent decisions of the WTA send a signal: you can say no in sport. Negotiations require interaction – getting closer, but also withdrawing from time to time. Countries where human rights are not universal also invest in football. These countries are part of world sport and offer so much money that many find it hard to refuse.

German television station ZDF recently carried out a hidden camera investigation. The reporter spoke to workers from Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh who are building stadiums and roads in Qatar. Eight of them lived in a room; they earn € 300 per month each but have been waiting for their salary for months.

The report also featured attractive match scenes from the 2021 Arab Cup and the eight new stadiums. In a country of 2.9 million people, there are now eight of the most modern, expensive and beautiful stadiums in the world, within an hour’s drive of each other. The ZDF report anticipated the dilemma facing the 2022 World Cup: People know the situation in Qatar but they like to watch the spectacular pictures and the top teams.

When the 1978 World Cup was held under the leadership of Argentina’s military regime, many players had no answers to human rights questions. Today the world can no longer be seen so naively. Everyone involved knows better than ever what is happening on distant continents. Most footballers also have more time to deal with these issues, due to advanced professionalization. Public figures like them are also expected to learn about subjects outside their bubble. Now that the world has become a village, everyone is familiar with the conditions in Qatar.

Bayern Munich’s Leon Goretzka is among the footballers to have spoken about the World Cup in Qatar. Photograph: DeFodi Images / Getty Images

Some footballers intervene and call for respect for human rights. “I think more attention will have to be paid to this sort of thing in the future when awarding contracts,” said Germany international Leon Goretzka. Finnish captain Tim Sparv wrote in a open letter: “We woke up too late, I woke up too late.” Sparv called on players, media and fans to speak out about working conditions in Qatar.

On a small scale, this argument is already bearing fruit. When a black player was insulted by a spectator during the third division game between MSV Duisburg and VfL Osnabrück in Germany in December, the teams forced the stop. All parties quickly agreed that they wanted to lead by example: the players, the two clubs, the referees, the association and the supporters of both camps.

The individual is not helpless; people can tell the difference. Small is where you start, large is where it can end. Greta Thunberg was 15 when she stood alone on a Stockholm street to call attention to climate change. Many have joined us, and Fridays for Future has since put the environment on the global agenda. It changed the policy. Football too: the 2024 European Championship in Germany can only be considered a success if it takes ecological aspects into account. Our preparations are underway.

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I consider myself lucky to be born into a democracy. It wasn’t that long ago that conditions in my home country were different. Three decades ago, Germany was divided, the eastern part was a dictatorship. Other nations in Europe were also going through a change. The 1964 European Championship was held in a fascist state and the Spanish team won their home tournament ahead of General Franco. He was still in power when the 1982 World Cup was awarded to Spain. At the time this took place, Spain was a democracy.

Major sporting events, especially in football, receive enormous attention. Today’s European Championships and World Cups demand that all who participate in them deal with working conditions and human rights. During Euro 2024 in Germany too, Europe will negotiate among itself the way in which we want to live together.

Philipp Lahm’s column appears regularly in the Guardian. It is produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit online, the German online magazine, and is published in several European countries.


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