Soares on Keys, 'The Ideals of Global Sport: From Peace to Human Rights'

Barbara J. Keys, ed.
John Soares

Barbara J. Keys, ed. The Ideals of Global Sport: From Peace to Human Rights. Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. 248 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-5150-0.

Reviewed by John Soares (Notre Dame University) Published on H-Diplo (October, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Before every match at the 2014 men’s soccer World Cup, an announcement was read proclaiming that “Brazil, the United Nations, and FIFA wish to share a message of peace, tolerance and respect for human rights” (p. 201). There is no logical reason why FIFA (the international governing body of soccer), the World Cup, or any international sports “mega-event” should have a definitional connection to human rights (p. 11). In fact, one might expect the opposite. These mega-events, especially the Olympics, involve representatives of repressive regimes and often glorify those regimes, and host cities have been known to abuse their own residents while prettying up for the big occasion. Nevertheless, as the contributors to The Ideals of Global Sport demonstrate, rhetoric about human rights appears today whenever these sports mega-events occur.

The essays in this excellent collection, edited by Barbara J. Keys, help readers make sense of this incongruity. (Disclosure: I have been on several conference panels with Keys but was not involved in the writing or editing of the book under review.) These essays consider a variety of topics, including the historical progression by proponents of international sport from making vague pronouncements about promoting mutual understanding to making even vaguer pronouncements about human rights, the related symbiosis between the UN and International Olympic Committee (IOC) that helped two organizations that were hemorrhaging moral credibility in the late twentieth century maintain their international position, the fact that even democratic regimes undermine their own human rights bona fides when hosting mega-events, and the language and rhetoric used to discuss human rights and moral improvement through international sport.

Those with even a cursory knowledge of sport history understand why sport generates optimism that it will enhance understanding across national and political boundaries. Consider, for example, the “ping-pong diplomacy” that smoothed the diplomatic opening between the United States and the People’s Republic of China; the Cold War-era cultural diplomacy of touring Olympic athletes, like US runner Wilma Rudolph, Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, and East German figure skater Katarina Witt; or the unlikely friendships forged among American and Soviet ice hockey players at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960. And yet sport—the field of human endeavor George Orwell memorably called “war without the shooting” (p. 2)—also has a record of producing the opposite effect. This was evident in such episodes as the “blood in the water” Soviet-Hungarian water polo match at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the bitter recriminations over the end of the 1972 gold medal basketball game at Munich, or the fistfights at Squaw Valley during hockey games between the West Germans and Soviets and between Canada and Sweden. As those familiar with the political dimensions of international sport know from books like Nicholas Evan Sarantakes’s Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War (2011), and prior anthologies, ranging from the 2007 collection East Plays West: Sport and the Cold War, edited by Stephen Wagg and David L. Andrews to the more recent collection  Defending the American Way of Life: Sport, Culture, and the Cold War, edited by Toby C. Rider and Kevin B. Witherspoon (2018), sport and its political meaning has often been hotly contested.

As these essays show, the dark side often wins out. Keys and Roland Burke write in the conclusion that the book’s contributors “have suggested that the moral claims” for sport “are vastly inflated” (p. 224). Indeed. Joon Seok Hong’s chapter on the 1988 Seoul Olympics demonstrates that despite the claims that hosting those Games triggered the democratization of South Korea, in reality “the political changes that the country” saw in the late 1980s were “decades in the making.” In fact, with the centralization of government control needed to make the Olympics successful, Hong convincingly argues that “South Korea democratized not because of the Olympics but in spite of them” (p. 70, emphases added). Contributions by Keys and Dmitry Dubrovskiy show that in Beijing in 2008 and Moscow in 1980, leaders’ desire to turn those cities into Potemkin Villages (my words, not theirs) for the duration of those Games meant that staging the Olympics generated even more “repression” in already repressive dictatorships (pp. 126, 136). João Roriz and Renata Nagamine look at events in Brazil, which hosted the sports one-two punch—the 2014 World Cup followed by the 2016 Summer Olympics—and found “human rights is a virtuous language that sport mega-event organizers can mobilize in part to conceal a lack of genuine change” (p. 200).

As is often the case when elite-level international sport is under consideration, inconsistencies and opportunism are easy to find. Sports officials simultaneously argue both that sport should remain independent from politics and that sports mega-events can promote political reform by repressive regimes. In 1980, Soviet officials bragged that the USSR had “earned the right to hold the Olympics in recognition of its peaceful international policies,” yet after their invasion of Afghanistan raised serious doubts about their peaceful international policies Soviet officials turned around and argued against an Olympic boycott on the grounds that sport and politics should be separate (p. 137). In considering the relevance of human rights to one of Beijing’s bids to host the Olympics, a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement—whose supporters convinced the IOC to expel South Africa on human rights grounds in the 1960s—argued “that no country in the world fully respected human rights” and professed that he was “personally saddened to see China singled out for this kind of treatment” (pp. 194-95).

More worrying for democracy’s proponents, Jules Boykoff’s chapter on Olympics held in the United States, Greece, Canada, and Britain points out that even democratic societies fall short of their proclaimed freedoms when hosting the Games. Atlanta’s disregard for its poor and homeless; the harassment of activist Christopher Shaw by VISU, a multi-party police unit created especially for the Vancouver Games; and the tribulations of the London protesters known by the deceptively comical name the “Custard 7,” all fail to meet the expectations of citizens in democracies (p. 169). In addition, Greece’s one-time minister of public order, George Floridis, calling the pricey “security architecture” for the 2004 Olympics “‘an investment for the future’” could be an ominous harbinger of Big Brother-type surveillance in the birthplace of democracy (p. 166).

Still, some readers may conclude Boykoff has overplayed his hand: Floridis’s expressed desire to improve the “professional” caliber of Greek police suggests he was aware of the damage done to human rights by politicized police forces. In addition, organizers of mega-events understandably want to avoid a debacle like the seizure of Israeli hostages at the Munich Games or even the smaller-scale bombing in Centennial Olympic Park during the Atlanta Games, so some security measures are necessary. Since September 11, 2001, the specter of terrorist attacks on a sports mega-event has increased the stakes for organizers. And some of the issues Boykoff raises are less ominous than he makes them out to be, like the ban on the “flaming torch breakfast baguette” during the 2012 Games in London (p. 168). Even the fate of a “military-grade medium-range acoustic device (MRAD)” purchased for crowd control at the Vancouver Games demonstrates that dissidents—in democracies—influence policy decisions: Boykoff points out that the MRAD was never used, in part because of “intense pressure from activists” (p. 167). Boykoff may overstate his case, but his chapter provides food for thought about the dilemmas and choices confronting any democracy hosting an international “mega” event in a post-9/11 world.

Lest anyone think sports are worthless when it comes to moral improvement, though, some contributors provide grounds for optimism. Robert Skinner’s chapter on the IOC expulsion of apartheid South Africa, while mostly unflattering to the IOC because of its slowness to act, still shows that international sport can be a force for good. Susan Brownell’s chapter on China offers at least the possibility of optimism about sport’s impact. After addressing the methodological difficulties of measuring human rights “progress,” Brownell explains the process by which Chinese officials began to embrace human rights rhetoric in connection with the 2008 Olympics. She points out “the entry of the concepts I have discussed into popular discourse has changed the nature of the conversation between the governed and those who govern and has provided society with new tools in its ongoing negotiations with the party state. How those negotiations will play out remains to be seen” (p. 197). There are legitimate reasons for skepticism, but this is a case where sport has helped changed the discussion in ways that might lead to improved protection for human rights.

This is an impressive collection of essays, on smartly chosen topics. Most chapters are well written and convincingly argued. Contributors rely on archival sources in a number of countries and languages. The size of the volume makes it well suited to classroom use, particularly for courses on the history of sport or international relations. Keys’s introduction smartly sets out the issues under consideration. The conclusion by Keys and Burke judiciously brings together the different chapters and the issues they raise. Some of the essays wrestle with the question for proponents of human rights who want to use mega-events to promote them: should they address rights specifically connected to those events, in other words, discrimination against athletes, mistreatment of workers constructing venues, and displacement of low-income residents; or should the larger human rights record of the regime be fair game? Simon Creak’s chapter on the history of regional sports festivals in Southeast Asia illuminates the political minefield international sport can be, even in a region where nations are not Olympic powers. Dubrovskiy’s chapter on the 1980 and 2014 Olympics reveals dismaying similarities in the politicization of sports mega-events in both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Keys’s chapter provides a useful discussion of the growing involvement of the international human rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in sports mega-events. Burke’s contribution on the IOC, the UN, and the “Renovation of the Olympic Truce” may occasionally be too harsh on its targets, but it is a stinging rebuke to those who think academic prose cannot be clear, lucid, compellingly argued, and a pleasure to read.

In their conclusion, Keys and Burke argue that “as commercialism, doping, corruption, and gigantism spread an ever larger pall over sport mega-events, the need for a countervailing set of moral claims that can justify and excuse the excesses grows in tandem” (p. 223). Significantly, they point out, “the paucity of evidence” that these moral “claims are grounded in fact have almost never acted as a brake on the impetus to make such claims.” They write, convincingly, that “our craving for meaning and moral value guarantees that we will continue to invest our most grandiose events with a capacity to do good that they have yet to earn.” And yet, despite many disappointments, that moral veneer “has also, fitfully and sometimes unwittingly, helped reduce some of those wrongs” (p. 224). This clear and judicious conclusion is a fitting cap to a collection of essays that so commendably describes and explains the fraught connections between “mega” sport, moral improvement, and human rights. It deserves a wide readership among historians of international relations, sport, and the impact of nongovernmental agencies.

Citation: John Soares. Review of Keys, Barbara J., ed., The Ideals of Global Sport: From Peace to Human Rights. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.