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Russia Hosts the World Cup: Sports and Politics in 2018



(From left to right): Alexander Cooley, Jane Buchanan, Natalie Koch, Gabriele Marcotti


DATE: February 1, 2018

SUBJECT: Russia Hosts the World Cup: Sports and Politics in 2018  | NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia



  • Natalie Koch said growing resistance to hosting large-scale sporting events in liberal democracies have allowed “illiberal states” such as Russia and Qatar to fill in the void. Authoritarian states with adequate financial resources see sporting events as an opportunity to boost their international image.

  • Jane Buchanan talked about Human Rights Watch’s work to publicize human rights abuses ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup. She expressed cautious optimism about the future of human rights in sporting events, noting that both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA have included the respect for human rights as a prerequisite to the hosting of future events.

  • Gabriele Marcotti said corruption scandals in FIFA, an inadequate number of sponsors, and the Russian doping scandal have dampened enthusiasm for the World Cup within Russia.


The event can be viewed here.


Date: February 1, 2018

Time: 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Location: 535 W 116th Street, New York, NY 10027



  • Alexander Cooley, Director, Harriman Institute, Columbia University

  • Natalie Koch, Associate Professor and O’Hanley Faculty Scholar, Department of Geography at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs

  • Jane Buchanan, Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch

  • Gabriele Marcotti, senior writer at ESPN



    As Russia prepares to host the 2018 World Cup, many are wondering about the role politics — particularly corruption and human rights — will play in what is one of the world’s most celebrated spectacles.

    Natalie Koch, an associate professor from Syracuse University who has studied the relationship between politics and sport, began by providing some historical context to the recent trend of hosting major sporting events in so-called “illiberal states.”

    While noting the long tradition of countries hosting sporting events to flaunt their modernity, Koch said growing public wariness of expensive sporting events in liberal democracies have allowed authoritarian states to assume that mantle.

    Having recognized sporting events as an opportunity to improve their image on the world stage, authoritarian states have invested heavily in building venues to accommodate a variety of competitions — from high-profile spectacles such as the Olympic Games and World Cup to “second-tier” events such as the Asian Games.

    Speaking about the 2018 World Cup from the perspective of a human rights activist, Jane Buchanan of Human Rights Watch said dismal labor conditions, arbitrary detentions of activists, and state-sanctioned homophobia marred the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. She added that HRW has documented similar human rights abuses ahead of the upcoming World Cup.

    Both the IOC and FIFA have listed respect for human rights as a prerequisite for countries aspiring to host future sporting events. Buchanan said these developments give her reason to be cautiously optimistic, though she said certain issues, notably the treatment of workers in construction sites, remain unresolved.

   Gabriele Marcotti of ESPN focused on FIFA’s role in the dampened enthusiasm for the upcoming World Cup. He said Russia and Qatar’s right to host the World Cup stems from the “legitimate desire” for countries outside of the West to host a competition typically dominated by Western countries. However, he also mentioned the role of vote-selling in FIFA that caused a shakeup within the organization.

   Marcotti said corruption in FIFA, lack of sponsors, the fallout from the Russian doping scandal, and Russia’s poor performance in the 2017 Confederations Cup have all reduced enthusiasm for the World Cup in Russia.


    A member of the audience asked how the poor performance of the Russian national team in the 2017 Confederations Cup may affect Russia’s efforts to enhance its image ahead of the World Cup.

    Koch said Russia, as an authoritarian state, can change the media narrative to downplay the perceived significance of the Confederations Cup to its national image; as such, many Russians are not likely to use the Confederations Cup as a means to judge their own country.

    When asked why FIFA hasn’t issued a “forceful” response to the corruption behind Russia and Qatar’s successful World Cup bids, Koch said she believes FIFA does not want to come under too much public scrutiny. Marcotti agreed, pointing to what he called a “culture of fear” in the world of sport that makes it difficult for officials to cooperate in corruption investigations.

    Another question concerned the political role of athletes in sports competitions, as well as the role citizens can play in promoting transparency within sports federations. Buchanan said she does not see boycotts of sports competitions as an effective way to hold authoritarian countries accountable for human rights abuses, suggesting that continued engagement with the IOC and FIFA are the best ways to bring about change. In view of the IOC’s prohibition of political statements by athletes in the Olympics, Buchanan said athletes do not bear human rights responsibilities that may put their careers at risk.



Report by: Jamin Chen, Event Reporter. Edited by Shengdun Hua.