By Joseph Wilkinson

Should sports stars boycott events in countries that have dodgy human rights records? This issue is one that was in the sporting world right back to 1936, when many in Europe and the US called for its nations to boycott the Berlin Olympics. There have been many more boycotts of events due to human rights abuses since 1936 with the England cricket team refusing to tour in Zimbabwe in 2009 and Andy Murray recently refusing to play in Saudi Arabia.


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There are currently calls for England’s football team to boycott the Qatar World Cup later this year and for F1 drivers to refuse to race in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But is this right? Will it work? Should those who refuse to boycott these events be punished.

The decision to boycott certain countries should lie primarily with sports teams and sporting bodies rather than squarely with sports stars.  Some might argue ‘It’s their countries and their laws so we should respect them’, but this perspective should be limited to more trivial laws such as alcohol bans and jaywalking.   When it comes to laws and practices that discriminate and dehumanise part of the population we should not just sit and obey them. Rather, these laws and practices must be stopped in any way possible.

The practice of boycotting sporting events that take place under governments who systematically abuse human rights helps raise awareness to those issues and thus should be supported. Sporting stars are often role models in today’s society and so when they raise an issue it often filters into the public’s consciousness. This can then lead to the public calling on its own lawmakers to pressure the  offending country to change their ways.  

A recent example of this happening is when Josh Cavallo, the first openly gay top flight footballer, has recently discussed not going to the Qatar World Cup due to its anti LGBTQ+ laws. This has led to mass public pressure where several Qatari officials have had to expressly assure people that LGBTQ+ people are welcome. This shows that stars using their influence to  threaten to not attend certain sporting events can have an impact on the offending country. 

The inverse of this situation can also occur as a boycott may be a tool with which a  government or many governments use to change the behaviour of another government. The boycott itself may not lead to direct change but it can be part of a wider strategy used to put political and economic pressure on a country to change their behaviour. 

An example of this was South Africa during apartheid. There were many sporting events cancelled in South Africa during this time and South Africa was excluded from a lot of international sporting events. This showed the South African government that many nations  were resilient in their pursuit to end apartheid. This resilience was a contributing factor to the eventual fall of apartheid in the country. 

Boycotting sporting events with dodgy human rights records is the right thing to do because it  also shows solidarity with certain communities. It is simply immoral and hypocritical for  countries that champion liberal values and tolerance to participate in events where the host discriminates against certain parts of society.

Boycotting also shows solidarity with those that are having their human rights abused. It shows that people all around the world think that this government’s behaviour is not acceptable. This drives the victims of the offending country to fight harder for their freedom as they know world opinion and morality is on their side. 

Sports men and women deserve praise if they stand up for what they believe in and do not attend events that they do not condone. However, those that do not should not be criticised. These people work their entire lives to be at the top level of sport and have had dreams to compete and win since they were small children. It is not their fault that some events are held in certain countries and they should not be punished for that.

This may be someone’s only year in Formula One, their only World Cup or Olympics and they should be able to attend without criticism. Going to sporting fixtures that they have dedicated their lives to does not mean they condone the actions of the countries that these events are taking place in. This means that people like Lewis Hamilton, who champions tolerance and equality, are not hypocrites for also competing in places that do not abide by these values. 

Lewis Hamilton continues to champion these values whilst competing to raise awareness for the millions of viewers that watch F1. He has spoken about human rights abuses in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi and on numerous occasions has called out F1 for racing in locations that seek to hide these abuses through sports washing. Hamilton quitting F1 is unlikely to stop the sport from racing in these locations, but the face of the sport openly criticising the sporting body may lead to change within the sporting body.

To conclude, boycotting sporting events can be a very powerful political tool if used correctly than can influence a state’s behaviour. Boycotting sporting events can be top down and come directly from governments or bottom up with spectators of a sport or inhabitants of a country forcing a state or sporting body to boycott a particular country. 

Using boycotts as a political tool is the right thing to do as it can lead to countries stopping their appalling human rights abuses. However, it is important to focus on who should be pressured into boycotting events. Sporting stars should not be pressured into not competing in competitions that they have worked their whole lives for. Sporting bodies such as Formula One, FIFA and the International Olympics Committee should be where political pressure and criticism is applied as these bodies have the power to change where competitions are held. 

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Last Update: February 23, 2022