The debate over whether international sporting events should be cancelled or boycotted because of human rights abuses has been propelled back into the news by two recent developments. The first is the passage of a harsh anti-gay law in Russia this summer. While such a law would draw international condemnation regardless of where and when it was enacted, as host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia has been subjected to an even brighter spotlight than normal. As such, the Kremlin has faced withering criticism from the global community, including calls to boycott the Olympics. The second controversy has been Qatar’s abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in preparation for hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The use of modern-day slavery to build the $220 billion in infrastructure Qatar will need to host the tournament has produced torrents of approbation from around the world and re-kindled discussion on why Qatar was a poor choice to host the games.
While the situations in Russia and Qatar are appalling and worthy of criticism, the proposed responses — boycotts — are equally unenlightened. In an ideal world, global sporting events, which celebrate some of the greatest abilities of mankind, would not be awarded to countries that engage in widespread human rights abuses. But the reality is that for a sporting event to be global, it needs global participation, and the foundation of any successful global competition is the principle of equality; representatives from each participating country must be treated equally, otherwise the competition is rigged. This principle of fair play extends to the administration of the event itself. All states that are capable of hosting the event will expect an equal chance at winning the right to do so. Renege on this core tenet and you put the whole endeavor at risk.
There is also of course the simple fact that boycotts do not work. The U.S. and 64 other countries boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous winter. Yet despite this show of force, the Soviets remained in Afghanistan for nine more years. All the U.S. got out of its protest was a missed chance at showcasing American talent abroad and an irritated USSR that was only too happy to boycott the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles out of revenge.
Rather than boycott the Olympics in Sochi or the World Cup in Qatar, it’s best to view global sporting events like these in the same light as the UN. As the chief architect of the UN, the U.S. could have set up the institution in any way it desired. Ultimately, it chose to create an inclusive organization where any state that wants to participate is allowed, and the overall rules are relatively fair. Washington did this because it realized it was better to have every state within the UN, through which it could bind them to various commitments, cooperate on select issues, spread liberal norms, monitor their behavior, and communicate when necessary. In other words, it is much better to have them inside the UN and the international system it represents, than on the outside looking in. In this way, the U.S. can interact with and influence rival or enemy states in ways that would otherwise be very difficult to achieve outside the structure of the UN.
Global sporting events operate under a very similar set of beliefs. They’re not just an opportunity for friendly competition but are also diplomacy on a grand scale. As such, like in the UN, it’s better to participate than sit on the sidelines. You must play to be heard, and nothing will speak louder than a strong performance from America and other Western nations where gay rights and fair labor standards are upheld. As John Carlos, one of the famous track and field stars to give the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics said in a conversation with the website Grantland, "The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you. If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known. Don't let your message be buried and don't bury yourself. To be heard is to be greater than a boycott."
So, by all means, be critical of Russia and Qatar. They certainly deserve it. But boycotting the Olympics and World Cup will not only fail to produce any tangible results, but will also undermine one of the few mechanisms for positive engagement we have with the entire world. It’s not a perfect decision, and it certainly carries the risk of legitimizing awful regimes, but diplomacy is about finding the best possible outcome in a sea of unattractive options. And in this case, it’s much better to go than stay home.