THIS weekend, the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup kicks off in the Gulf state of Qatar, amid myriad controversies, from the appalling treatment of migrant workers who constructed the stadiums to the criminalisation of same-sex relations; not to mention the disruption to European football seasons and allegations of corruption in the bidding process.

Thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar in the last decade and, while the organising committee argues that “only” 37 who were working on World Cup projects have perished, Amnesty International highlights conditions of forced labour as a widespread concern. Welsh LGBT fans, despite their side qualifying for its first World Cup since 1958, have admirably taken a stand by boycotting the event. With such controversies, even Fifa’s former President Sepp Blatter now admits hosting the event in Qatar was a mistake.

Of course, this issue creates a challenge for those associated with the World Cup. While Qatar and Fifa press on with the event, questions are raised for sponsors of the event, who are paying to be linked to this human rights catastrophe. Broadcasters, too, have a difficult line to walk, after repeated events in other authoritarian countries failed to bring about a hoped-for improvement in democracy and human rights. The summer Olympics in Beijing 2008 was vaunted as an opportunity to improve human rights in China; however, Human Rights Watch argues that – if anything – it was a catalyst for further abuses.

In this context, broadcasters have suggested that the solution is to talk about the problem in the broadcast. Gary Lineker, speaking on Global’s News Agents podcast last week, talked about the importance of educating yourself, adding that there are “massive issues”; while Gary Neville suggested, when hosting the BBC’s Have I Got News For You show, that “You either highlight the issues and challenges in these countries and speak about them, or you basically don't say anything, and stay back home and don't go”. As Ian Hislop rightly pointed out, it’s not going to be in the commentary, raising the question of how many will actually pay attention.

The phenomenon of using sports events to distract from human rights violations has come to be known as “sportswashing”. While the term itself is relatively new, scholars have traced its history in practice back to ancient times, be it Athenian chariot racing to project strength, or Roman gladiatorial combat to distract the population from domestic issues.

Many argue the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin under Nazi rule are an early example of sportswashing. The idea has gained new impetus on the back of recent events in authoritarian countries, particularly the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and now the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. Alongside these high-profile examples, there have been a plethora of smaller-scale events, including the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, F1 races in Gulf states including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and high-profile boxing fights in Saudi Arabia.

Sportswashing is often understood as a state trying to use soft power, to demonstrate its positive qualities to an international audience; distracting from human rights issues through a celebration of sport. However, it is important to note that international viewers are not the only audience for sportswashing.

As the geographer Sven Daniel Wolfe has written about Sochi 2014, we can see the demonstration of power more through the lens of creating a sense of national unity for Russians, rather than creating attraction towards Russia from abroad.

In this case, sportswashing isn’t about convincing foreign governments and audiences – it’s about cementing power domestically. As political scientist Jules Boykoff notes, in these contexts sportswashing can be used to set the stage for military intervention, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea beginning mere days after the Sochi closing ceremony.

This distinction between international and domestic audiences is important for the upcoming World Cup. While the likes of China and Russia may be using these mega-events to project power to their domestic populations and cement their grip on power, what is happening in Qatar and other Gulf states is different.

Part of the impetus for their investments in this area stems from a desire to transition their economies away from overwhelming reliance on fossil fuel exports and develop tourism and event industries. For this, they need to convince international audiences that they are capable hosts and attractive destinations. In this context, “talking about it”, as Lineker and Neville suggest, does have the potential to make a difference, although Hislop’s question about whether people will actually listen remains pertinent.

Despite that, “talking about it” has already made a difference. The worst elements of Qatar’s Kafala system, by which migrant workers were not able to move jobs or leave the country without employers’ consent, have been changed. This comes with caveats: the laws were changed after many of the World Cup stadiums had been completed, and they need to be properly enforced over time to make a difference – and not changed back once the eyes of the world move on. While Fifa will try to claim the credit for creating the pressure for this change, it is groups like the International Labour Organisation, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch who have been pushing for this over the past decade.

However, Qatar isn’t an instructive lesson. Talking about it doesn’t always work. Western coverage of the Jeddah Grand Prix included an interview with the Saudi sports minister, asking softball questions surrounding human rights – but softball questions don’t create change. Human rights defenders and hard criticism can create pressure for change, in the right circumstances. But this also needs to be sustained over the long term.

Often there is criticism in the lead-up to mega-events like the World Cup, but it melts away once the event begins as the media focuses exclusively on the sport, before moving on to the next event and ignoring the problems the event leaves in its wake. Whether Qatar will follow a different path remains to be seen.

Dr Adam Talbot is a lecturer in Events Management at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on mega-events, human rights and civil society