by Garry Kasparov
Editor’s Note: With Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup, this is an op-ed on his native country from former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation and the author of ‘Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped’.
Sport can provoke human passion like nothing else, perhaps aside from true love. Every loss, every victory, can provoke heartbreak or exultation — and that’s only the fans. Sports fandom also has an unmatched ability to unite people across borders and boundaries of every kind. Young and old, rich and poor, all can be swept up together to celebrate excellence and competition that provides us an escape from the concerns of daily life.
Sports also creates bonds and memories that last a lifetime. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I learned to play chess, but I clearly remember the 1970 World Cup when I was 7. On our black-and-white TV in Baku, Azerbaijan, I watched Pele and the extraordinary Brazilian champions, the legendary semifinal between West Germany and Italy, and the controversial extra-time goal that eliminated the Soviet Union in the quarterfinals against Uruguay. (The ball was out!)
Forty-eight years later, the World Cup is taking place in Russia for the first time. I won’t be there to enjoy it, however, having left my country in 2013. While the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin — in my dictionary, the only accurate description when one man has been in total power unchallenged for 18 years — is not hospitable for dissidents or democrats, it is very welcoming to grand sporting spectacles like the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
Just four years ago, Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a subtropical resort that required the most expensive Olympics in history (summer or winter) to slap together venues and residences that were falling apart even before the torch went out. Fifty-one billion dollars doesn’t buy what it used to when so much of the money is funneled away. I joked at the time that most of the Sochi gold went to Switzerland, Panama, and the Cayman Islands even before the Games began.
Keep in mind that Russia is not a country with money to spare. The oligarchs buy English football teams and Miami condos, and oil and gas revenue can make for rosy GDP numbers, but most Russians are getting by on less than $500 a month. Even for wealthy countries with low levels of corruption — South Korea and Japan co-hosting the Cup in 2002 comes to mind — these events tend to be boondoggles. In a country like Putin’s Russia, one of the least free in the world, it’s a colorful distraction and a way to fulfill the kleptocratic mandate: privatize the profits, nationalize the costs.
The World Cup will be Sochi times 12, that being the number of host venues across the vast expanse of Russia. Stadium readiness has been a struggle despite the use of prison labor and immigrants from Central Asia and North Korea working in conditions that have resulted in dozens of deaths.
With the Russian economy collapsing, Putin will boast about how he can still bring these events to Russia. The tournament draw put Russia into the weakest group in World Cup history, and Putin will be quick to annex (ahem) any success by the Russian squad for himself, as he did in Sochi.
It’s just as clear why FIFA and the IOC like having their events hosted by autocratic regimes, despite their tired pabulum about ideals. In the wake of the Sepp Blatter-era corruption scandals, FIFA is moving to make the World Cup bidding process more transparent. This is laudable, although my personal experience battling the international chess federation, FIDE, taught that these transparency initiatives are often designed to buy time to find better ways to hide the money. International sports organizations often exploit a legal limbo between jurisdictions, a quasi-diplomatic status that is easily abused.
What is to be done? As a sportsman who represented my country for decades, the Soviet Union and then Russia — and yes, chess is sport if you’re doing it right — I have trouble with boycotts that unfairly punish athletes. Had a unified international response against Russia hosting the World Cup come early enough it might have been possible to relocate it. Qatar is still scheduled to host the Cup in 2022 despite numerous abuses and scandals, and after North Korea’s propaganda coup at the PyeongChang Winter Games this year, it’s clear that collective response is a lost cause.
Everyone moves on to the next event, the next crisis. Russia has already been forgiven for the worst doping scandal in history. FIFA’s massive 2015 corruption case is still in the courts.
In Sochi, activists used the international media presence to expose Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws, although Putin was quick to clamp down as soon as the Games were over. An environmental activist arrested during the Games was put in prison for two years for spray-painting a protest message on a fence.
But during the World Cup, the police might be relatively cautious in handling foreign visitors and journalists. The bold should exploit this to peek behind the curtain and report truthfully on the dire conditions in Russia.
We can support the beautiful game without supporting the world’s ugliest regimes.