Which Side Are You On?

I hear that the Winter Olympics are now over. I myself did not watch any coverage of the games, with the exception of a couple hours spent in someone else's home where women's curling was the featured entertainment and simple manners - along with free beer - dictated that I sit quietly and look interested.

It wasn't a lack of passion for spending a few dozen hours of my precious allotted time on Earth watching Bjorn and Birgitta in the 3 man short track speed luge finals that kept me from watching; after all, it's THE OLYMPICS, and it's BIG, and it's us against them and USA! USA! USA! and all of that.

(Although I might mention in passing that American soccer fans who look with contempt at casual fans who actively avoid soccer except during the World Cup when it becomes "an event" should go have a discussion with Ice Dancing, Bobsled and Biathlon fans and explain to them why you haven't spent ten seconds thinking about any of those sports since Vancouver 2010 but you suddenly put your life on hold in order to catch the dramatic men's curling final.)

In truth I was already feeling a bit queasy about the Sochi games anyway, what with Russia's newly minted laws criminalizing homosexual activity that Putin generously pledged not to enforce during the games, sounding an awful lot like the Nazis taking down all the "no dogs or Jews allowed" signage from the parks and restaurants so as not to offend the tourists during Berlin 1936.

Still, what's a gross violation of human rights compared to hearing your national anthem played in honor of someone you never heard of three days before, right?

And then they started killing the dogs.

As detailed every evening by the wildly erudite but frustratingly mercurial Keith Olberman on his eponymous sports roundup program - which is the only actually watchable show of its kind now that Sportscenter has devolved into a jock-centric version of TMZ and if you can watch five minutes of Fox Sports Live without wanting to punch one of those insufferable, witless, mugging, on-air douche bags they employ square in the mouth you're a better man than I - the details were so utterly repulsive that, taking his lead, I swore off watching all the skiing, sliding and skating I could possibly avoid.

That's not to say that I find one offense more repulsive than the other just that there's only so much one can stomach before you're unable to avoid the feeling that, in a very real sense, you've become complicit in a crime, however passively.

"Sochi 2014 starring Bob Costas as Leni Riefenstahl" might be a bit over the top - or not, depending on whether you live in the Sudetenland or Ukraine - but you've got to draw the line someplace.

Now I'm not here to argue about the morality of watching the Sochi games or the decency of the Russian government and it's "elected" leader - although the latter is at this point somewhat beyond debate - but simply to observe that events like this are staged not for the benefit of the very few who are able, financially or otherwise, to sit in a seat and watch an event.

Rather, as we all know, the reason events like the Olympics are held is because of the vast sums of money television broadcast rights and corporate sponsorships pour into the coffers of the IOC.

And the reason why that money keeps flowing is because a billion people are watching, and as Putin, the IOC and broadcasters like NBC know full well, it takes more than a couple thousand murdered dogs or a couple hundred gay activists getting their asses kicked in a basement cell someplace to keep the people from their entertainments.

Which brings us to Qatar 2022.

Now of course we're already familiar with the fact that, under Islamic law, homosexual activity will get you imprisoned if you're lucky and - as was the case last weekend when our new pals the Twelver suicide cult that rules Iran executed a group of gay men - beheaded if you're not.

In response to which, as we all recall, FIFA President Sepp Blatter offered up the sage advice that any gays planning on visiting the World Cup in Qatar would be well advised to crawl back into the closet, pull the door shut tightly and maybe drive a couple dozen 16 penny nails into the jam just to be sure.

Problem solved. Life is simple when you're a pompous, luxury-addicted septuagenarian Swiss gasbag who can keep getting reelected until 10 years after he's dead.

If you are of a mind to, you can sign the petition demanding that Russia 2018 be relocated based on anti-gay abuse, but we all know how much effect an on line petition will have on the Grandees who rule FIFA.

That's because they know full well that, complain though you might, you're still going to watch the World Cup. Fill the prisons, take truncheons to the protestors, make a couple dozen gay activists disappear into the New Gulag, the finals will go on and a billion people will tune in.

It's their ace, and it's why they don't take any of this seriously.

Which is also why, when the first reports of worker abuse in Qatar surfaced last March, FIFA more or less shrugged. The International Trades Union Congress and Amnesty International are always bitching about something, right? If it's not one thing it's something else.

So FIFA issued the usual "The host government assures us that they'll investigate these obviously untrue charges and will get back to us. Or something."

Then, late last summer, The Guardian in England published an expose on the treatment of Nepalese workers in Qatar, claiming that their investigation revealed hundreds of construction worker deaths due to overwork, decent accommodations or even clean drinking water, along with a littany of abuses including confiscated passports, workers not paid for months at a time, men unable to work and not being allowed to leave Qatar, a long list of shocking abuses.

The ITUC chimed in again, this time with an estimate that 4000 men would die in the building of World Cup venues and associated infrastructure projects. Nobody believed them.

In response, FIFA's ExCo assigned Sepp Blatter to go to Qatar - which is how we knew they weren't serious - meet with the Emir and let him know this crap had to stop because they were getting questions from the likes of Coca-Cola, Visa, Sony and Hyundai, outfits that, unlike FIFA, really need to care about being associated with human rights offenses.

Instead, as discussed in this space, Blatter went to Qatar and was handed a "report" saying that while there may have been a few cases of bad behavior the government is on it like stink on a monkey and there's really nothing to worry about.

Immediately afterwards, Blatter jetted off to the Asian Football Confederation Congress and - stunningly - announced to the cheering delegates that the whole thing was just a case of anti-Asian propaganda by Western journalists.


What's more, Sepp told them, the whole thing is only a problem because Germany and France voted for Qatar due to political pressure. Otherwise, the thing would be scheduled for the US where they have these pesky laws that prevent you from working men 12 and 14 hours a day seven days a week in 140 degree temperatures, without lunch breaks or water, until they collapse and die. So if you're going to blame anyone, blame the Europeans.

No, I am not making this up.

And if you're wondering what FIFA is really thinking about all of this, well, now you know. According to the President himself, criticism of Qatar is "unfair".

Also in November, Blatter met with the president of the ITUC, Michael Sommer, agreed that fair working conditions must be introduced promptly in Qatar.

Afterwards, Blatter told reporters that "Economic and political leaders must contribute to improving the unacceptable situation in Qatar" before adding, ludicrously:

"I am convinced that Qatar is taking the situation very seriously".

So when a Guardian report in December said that, according to Nepalese authorities, over 200 of their citizens had died in 2013 while working on World Cup projects and they were still counting, FIFA again expressed their "great concern" but said little else.

For their part, Qatar responded by commissioning another laughable "study" of the labor situation - by my count this will be the fourth in the last ten months - reminding one of nothing so much as Jefferson Davis promising to get to the bottom of all those ugly "slavery" rumors coming out of Virginia.

Making the farce perfect was the fact that the law firm Qatar hired to conduct said study is also the chief counsel for Al Jazeera, the TV network wholly owned by the Kingdom of Qatar.

Frighteningly for anyone who actually cared to notice no one was mentioning that Nepalese nationals make up only about one-sixth of the Qatari World Cup construction force. So if the numbers held true across the board - Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and the rest - 200 dead men times six equals a truly terrifying number of bodies being shipped home every single year between now and 2022.

Then, before the whitewash report even came out, the Indian government chimed in with a report that 500 of their nationals have died while working on construction projects in Qatar in the past two years.

They helpfully added that in January another 24 bodies were sent home.

Now it's true that men die working construction all the time. It's a dangerous job, for sure.

But we're not talking about lack of safety equipment and procedures here, although reportedly those are pretty much non-existent.

Instead, the official cause of death for 60-70% of the workers being shipped home in boxes is "heart attack".

Young, healthy men, most of them in their 20's and a substantial number ever younger, do not normally die of cardiac arrest, and if they do it is because of environmental factors like, oh for example, working in 140 degree heat without breaks or water for 14 hours a day seven days a week.


Bottom line, Qatar is killing these men, they really don't give a shit and they're going to continue to do it because no one dares to stop them.

If only someone in power at FIFA, say an Executive Committee member, was a native of India and thus was personally touched by some of this tragedy, maybe he'd speak out, go to the media, demand that FIFA take this issue seriously.

Someone like Sunil Gulati, for example, who was born in Allahabad, India and became a migrant worker in - luckily - a whole different field. But Sunil has a really good gig right now and isn't about to blow it by, you know, standing up for something as insignificant as thousands of men dying so that FIFA can bank a billion dollars.

Priorities, you know.

It's fair to estimate that today in Qatar at least six men will die while building World Cup venues.

They'll die from the heat, they'll die from exhaustion, they'll die from lack of water or lack of food or lack of sanitation or lack of the barest minimum safety precautions.

They most likely wanted to quit and go home, but they haven't been paid a dime in months, their employer is holding their passport and they owe the "labor contractor" who signed them up (and then tore up the original contract) thousands of dollars which they can never repay.

So they work and they die.

And the reason is not Qatar, it's us.

Where are the athletes on this? Where is the media? Where are the fans?

Mostly we're worried about who is going to fill the left back spot or whether or not to buy the new national shirt and arranging for time off in June so we can sit in front of the TV and watch the matches.

FIFA knows this. So does Qatar.

They know that in the end, regardless of how many thousands - and there will be thousands - of people die so that Qatar can put on a World Cup, we'll be watching and Coke will be advertising and the players will be kicking and cashing checks and nobody will say a word.

We have seen the problem, and it is us.