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Dugfrisk Forskning: Dictators escalate repression shortly before international sporting events  – A talk with Adam Scharpf and Christian Gläßel

af Aksel Bagge Hvid & Benedikte Grundtvig Huber

‘Dugfrisk forskning’ er en ny artikelserie af Aksel og Benedikte,  der giver spotlight til noget af alt det spændende forskning, der kommer fra instituttets videnskabelige personale.  Gennem udtalelser fra forfatterne og uddybende kommentarer fra os, håber vi at bygge bro mellem kommunens klistrede gulve og kommunehospitalets øverste gange.

This week Denmark played their first match at the world cup in Qatar against Tunisia. If you have been on Twitter during the last couple of weeks, you have heard the flurry of arguments for and against following the world cup this season.  What happens around international sports events in autocracies? Does it improve human rights in the host autocracies? Or does it actually amp up the repression? To understand this better, Aksel & Benedikte had a talk with Adam Scharpf who is a newly hired Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics, and one of his co-authors Christian Gläßel. 

Benefiting from positive publicity and avoiding bad press through strategic repression

In the article ‘International Sports Events and Repression in Autocracies: Evidence from the 1978 FIFA World cupAdam Scharpf, Christian Gläßel, and Pearce Edwards show for the first time a systematic connection between major sporting events in autocracies and the persecution of political dissidents. They do so by studying data from the 1978 world cup in the (then) autocratic Argentina.

[Adam] We see that there has been a steep increase in the share of dictatorships that host international sports events. So my colleagues and I were wondering what happens on the ground during these events. By that, I mean how these events affect the citizens and regime critics. We draw on the case of Argentina because it gives us a unique angle to look at this. The regime collapsed in 1983 and after the collapse, there was established a commission that gathered information on the victims of the military dictatorship. They did not focus directly on the FIFA world cup, but they gathered very detailed information which gives us an unprecedented view on what was happening on the ground when the tournament took place.”

The case of Argentina thus gives the authors a unique possibility to systematically analyze state repression in autocracies during major sports events.  They find that dictatorships face a “publicity-scrutiny dilemma”: The dictator wants to maximize publicity but risks intensified scrutiny when hosting international sports events.  They “solve” this through the strategic use and timing of state repression.

“[Adam] What we find is that autocratic regimes want to reap the benefits of positive publicity – they want to portray themselves as liberal, competent and open and try to put a lid on everything that could threaten this image they are trying to craft. Because of this, as we show in the paper, they ramp up violence, specifically in places where they anticipate that the international journalists will be, before the tournament to then actually have calmness during the games. This allows them to claim that whatever they were criticized for before the tournament was untrue because there was peace during the tournament.”

State repression in autocracies that host sports events can be divided into three phases: (1) Weeks before the event, state repression is increased in order to clear the streets of potential troublemakers. (2) Then, during the event, there is an absence of repression, portraying the autocracy as liberal and peace-loving. (3) After the event, repression is then turned up again in order to punish ‘bad apples’ who acted out against the regime during the event. 

Blå Bog of Adam Scharpf
BA in political science and public administration from the University of Konstanz
MA in political science and public administration from the University of Konstanz & University of Essex
Ph.D. from the University of MannheimPostdoc at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA)
Assistant Professor at the University of Copenhagen

The process behind the paper

As students, the idea of getting your paper published in a prestigious paper like the journal ‘American Political Science Review’ seems like something one can only dream of.  Intrigued by the process of conceptualizing, writing, and publishing a paper, we asked how this whole project came about. 

“[Adam] Well Christian and I met during our Ph.D.’s in Mannheim, where we had the same Supervisor – Sabine Carey. The two of us have actually never met Pearce in person – a testament to the fact that you can pull this sort of stuff off over zoom. We share the focus on Latin America and dictatorships and thought his work looked awesome, so why not ask him to team up?  That is the beautiful thing about academia, you can just reach out to people and ask if they would be up for it.”

The argument can seem so elegant,  simple, and almost obvious when reading the paper. However, we were wondering if perhaps the authors had to discard or rethink some of their hypotheses along the way:

[Adam] The short answer is no, we had this hunch about dictatorships from the beginning. But I can tell you why: You very quickly get an idea if a paper is going to be published in a top-tier journal or if it is just going to be a good research paper. Christian and I have been collaborating for quite some time. We told Pearce that we had this hunch about the violence increasing in the run-up to the World Cup. Pearce took the first shot with this one because we were super busy with other projects. He came back two days later and there was clearly the pattern we expected – we could see the wave .”

Christian adds that one of the most important ways, whereby they elevate their research is by keeping on looking for “additional observable implications”. He highlights that creativity is key when going about this process, where they ask themselves: “if we are correct about this theoretical mechanism, then what else should we see in the data?”. 

The impact of international sporting events

The choice of focusing on international sporting events was not random. The authors noticed how more and more of these globally broadcasted events were hosted by autocratic regimes. Although the repressive nature of these regimes is no secret, many sports functionaries put forward statements supporting the trend, arguing that hosting sports events will spur democratization and help basic human rights.

“[Adam] We wanted to critically engage with those who argue that letting autocracies host sporting events will cause them to respect human rights and become more democratic. That argument stands in total contrast to what we find happens on the ground.”

Furthermore, Christian tells us that sports events present a unique medium for autocrats to show off their regime.

“[Christian] We tried to come up with similar events that would give dictators the same attention, but we could not come up with any. There are bits and pieces of evidence that a similar pattern might be going on when it comes to political events such as hosting summits or US presidential visits.  Especially when it comes to hiding groups of people that autocrats don’t want to the world to see. But due to the media attention around the globe, we think that autocratic regimes have a lot to benefit from hosting these international sporting events in particular. Also, sports unlike any other global event come attached with certain ideals, which dictators want to be associated with.”

Adam adds how the encounter between the autocrat and the sporting event has an inert quality, making it especially interesting:

“We have this tension between the beauty of the sport – it’s nice to look at and it brings us together. But at the same time, dictatorships also have really severe, nasty consequences for the people living in these regimes.”

A strictly ‘authoritarian’ phenomenon?

Even though the case of Argentina in 1978 is unique in regards to the data that are available to test their argument, Argentina is absolutely not unique when it comes to the general patterns the paper finds. Argentina was not the first nor the last dictatorship to host an international sporting event and the same phenomena seem to replicate across different time periods.

After reading the paper we were wondering whether this publicity-scrutiny dilemma was strictly authoritarian or whether it also applied to democracies – perhaps to a different degree? Notably, sports events in democratic countries also come with increased ‘policing’ and state control. 

“[Adam]The difference lies in the degree of repression – the publicity-scrutiny dilemma is essentially the same. You do not want to have the games disturbed and you do not want to get bad press. So, we see some of the same mechanisms going on in democracies as well, where they preemptively clear certain areas or push people out in order to ensure order during the event.”

But just because democratic countries also amp up state control, it does not mean that there are no fundamental differences. 

“ [Christian] The scrutiny-publicity dilemma in autocracies is more exceptional compared to democracies. In democracies there constantly is a free press. In autocracies, the default is that journalists cannot report freely. So when international journalists come to the country, it changes the potential coverage, which for autocrats increases the stakes. “

A whole new world

The scrutiny-publicity dilemma may persist across regime types – varying in degree. But a lot of time has passed since 1978. Importantly,  we now have social media like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter – forms of media that were not present at the FIFA world cup in 1978.  Especially after the Arab Spring, social media was being represented as a liberating force, which makes it easier to ‘expose’ and ultimately revolt against autocracies. However, this representation might have been a bit too optimistic. 

“[Christian] Around the time of the Arab spring everybody was so euphoric about social media. But, as it turned out, it was only the very old men who had been in power for decades, who were simply not aware of the power that social media can generate.  The other Autocrats learned from these failures and now we are seeing that the internet and social media are being used as tools for repression. They learn fairly quickly when it is their own heads at stake.”

“[Adam]Obviously times have changed in some ways. But I am not sure about the effects of social media. What we see is that autocratic regimes essentially replicate what they do in the analog world: If the autocratic regime is afraid that the citizens will become critical during the event through social media then the regime can, in anticipation of this, limit access and repress even harder and even earlier. So we don’t think it changes the dynamic very much.

Qatar passed this very vaguely formulated law in 2022, that essentially imposed limits on what you are allowed to report. And they have tightened the screws again now, limiting journalists’ right to film people in their homes. To me, this is an indicator that the regime is well aware that there might face negative reports if they do not prevent it.”

In conclusion, even though social media is a new form of media, it does not seem that the publicity-scrutiny dilemma or the associated patterns of repression are fundamentally altered by it.

We want to encourage you all to read the article and share your thoughts with us (and your fellow students).