In 2018, the FIFA World Cup will be headed to Russia. The Russians beat a bid from the English, as well as joint-bids by Spain and Portugal and the Netherlands and Belgium. Naturally, many people are upset about FIFA’s choice. Many find Russia to be too morally and politically unfit to host and would see the other bidding nations as much more legitimate candidates. Once again, Putin is facing criticism about Russia being a host nation, and it appears as if the Sochi debate is going to repeat itself.
The critics of Sochi complained that Russia was an authoritarian state that did not grant freedom to its own people and abused human rights. Some critics just had lingering Cold War attitudes; they held the view that Russia was simply not worthy to hold the Olympic Games. But amid all the backlash of the Sochi Olympics this year, the Russians managed to pull them off successfully. Putin had a daunting battle to fight, but he won. Now, however, with the World Cup, the story is different. Putin succeeded in Sochi, but he immediately destroyed what good image he had obtained. With his newfound glory he was emboldened to take back Crimea, which was righting a wrong for the Russians (or so many of them believe).
Now instead of congratulating Russia for a job well done, the West is preoccupied with finding ways to punish it, and sanctions have been imposed on those officials responsible. The question now is, should Russia be allowed to carry on as planned with the World Cup?
By taking Crimea, Russia has defied a norm that has been in place since the end of World War II. Putin blatantly violated international law, and it is feared that he will set a precedent for other states which might believe that they too can act on their own desires without rebuke. If Putin wants to be treated like a legitimate player in the global arena, then he needs to start acting the role. Behaving like a rogue state will not help his cause, and he should not be rewarded for his actions.
Many are calling for boycotts against the Russian World Cup. Various names, such as Andy Burnham, a British Labour Party politician, and the Canadian owner of the Ottawa Senators hockey team, have called for the games to be taken away from the Russians. A website, named “Boycott Putin Now,” has been created to cultivate such support. The Russians however, are no strangers to protests. Russia, then under the Soviet Union, had to deal with boycotts of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. President Jimmy Carter had attempted to reject these Games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He had trouble coming up with support however, and in the end the boycott was a failure.
Despite the fact that Putin’s Russia is not behaving as a great power should, the World Cup should focus on the game. Of course Putin should not be rewarded for bad behavior, but too often these world sporting events have become more about politics than the actual sport. They are meant to be a cultural exchange and promote understanding among athletes of different countries. In a FIFA statement on Russia, FIFA claimed that it is trusting that Russia will treat the spectators and athletes without discrimination. If Putin can promise that they will be treated under FIFA standards as it did with Sochi, then the games should continue as planned. Russia was able to put on a respectable show in the Olympics, and their land grab (albeit not right) will not prevent them from putting on another. These games should be about the sports, and using them for political purposes is only going to inhibit dialogue. As one IOC member stated during the 1980 Olympics, “Any boycott isn’t going to change the Soviets’ mind and isn’t going to get troops out of Afghanistan. I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but the patriotic thing to do is for us to send a team over there and whip their ass.” Putin will not be deterred by threats and boycotts, and using the World Cup as a political tool is not going to accomplish anyone’s goals.