Sport Studies in the Middle East is still a relatively young field in comparison with its counterpart in the global north. However, Gulf investment in European football teams, Qatar’s winning of the 2022 World Cup bid and their hosting of the tournament, has recently opened a space for academic examination of intersections of sports with social, political, and economic questions concerning the region. This roundtable will use the opportunity that the world cup in Qatar has given to sports studies in the Middle East and direct the focus to Palestine. Themes discussed will be sport as a site of colonization and decolonization, as a method of resistance and inter-national solidarity, and as a point of intersection between varying Palestinian identities.
The four participants will bring multidisciplinary angles to address the themes of the roundtable in relation to their own specific interests. One participant will discuss the historical context of the colonization of Palestine in the twentieth century, tracing the development of sport as a political tool first by the British, then to the Zionist control of clubs, and the Palestinian organisation of their own sporting spaces in response. Comparisons will be drawn with the example of Indigenous athletes in Canada, which raises similar issues of national representation and restrictions placed on athletes in colonial contexts.
Another participant will discuss the role of sports boycott and solidarity with Palestine. A useful historical comparison will be raised by bringing Palestine into conversation with the most successful example of a sport boycott in twentieth century, the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and the more recent example of the boycott of Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.
Our third participant will explore the impact of the world cup in Qatar. This discussion will look beyond the commonly raised issue of “sportswashing”, using international sporting events to distract from criticisms of the state, and focus instead on how the world cup manifested formal and informal, pan-Arab and pan-global south expressions of solidarity with Palestine.
Finally, drawing on the theme of resistance and intersections of identity, the fourth participant will discuss the case of Palestinian women athletes, and their use of sport to resist occupation as well as gender discriminations. Whilst women’s fight for equality within sport has been studied in many cases of the global north, there has been scant discussion surrounding women athletes in Palestine, and indeed the Middle East in general.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar raised critical questions regarding the role that global sporting megaevents have come to play as a stage upon which political, social, and economic matters unfold in the Middle East region. Though it was more often than not depicted in the mass media as an example of “sportswashing” by state actors, the World Cup also signified a moment of popular mobilization around the question of Palestine. This roundtable presentation will shed light on the various ways in which the first World Cup to be held in the Arab region served as a site of mobilization and contestation witnessed through the constant visibility of Palestine solidarity by fans from across the region (and indeed, the world), as well as the role played by individual teams, the media, and other actors. Acts of solidarity were witnessed in the match stadiums, on the field of play, and on the margins of the games in the streets of Doha, and then instantly transmitted the world over through traditional and social media platforms. To be sure, the host nation also helped shape the expressions of Palestine solidarity, as did locally organized efforts on the part of activist groups. In the age of the Abraham Accords and the continued subjugation of Palestinians enduring occupation and apartheid, the mobilization on display at the World Cup elevated existing national debates over cultural and political normalization to the regional and international arenas. Given the relative novelty of this recent phenomenon, the presentation also aims to raise questions for a wider discussion regarding how scholars can provide analytical depth for similar modes of expression and popular mobilization that arise in future megaevents of this nature. As recent developments have shown, other states in the region, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Morocco, have expressed major ambitions to serve as hosts of future events that promise to feature tensions between the pursuit of strategic goals by state powers and popular mobilization on a global stage.
Scholarly work connecting Palestine with Indigenous American Studies has been gaining ground over the past decade and is a productive means to compare decolonization methods. Engaging sports studies with this body of comparative work is especially helpful for assessing both historical and present-day colonial struggles and exposing the power that can be garnered through sport as a form of resistance. This section of the roundtable will compare Palestine specifically with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, by drawing on themes concerning the politics of exclusion, the shaping national consciousness across borders, and issues concerning recognition of sovereignty by countries hosting international sporting events.
Starting with historical context, the presenter will discuss how colonial forces seized control of sports clubs as an enactment of the politics of exclusion during the point of contact between the colonizers and colonized. In both cases, however, the annexation of sports clubs sparked the use of sports as a point of resistance and the shaping of national consciousness. In Palestine, local effort was put into the creation of Palestinian sporting spaces which also extended to the diaspora populations. The term “Fútbol Filastini” will be used to describe this cross-border diaspora Palestinian connection through football, which has been especially strong in South America since the establishment in 1920 of Club Deportivo Palestino in Chile. Although under differing circumstances, similar pan-Indigenous solidarity was formed by the Haudenosaunee that extended across the Canadian and US border. Following Indigenous exclusion from official clubs, lacrosse, originally an Indigenous practice that held spiritual, medical and diplomatic purposes, was used as a method of “assimilation” in residential schools, where it was re-packaged and presented as a white-Canadian national game. However, contrary to the aims of the politics of assimilation, lacrosse presented an opportunity for the formation of pan-Indigenous bonds between varsity lacrosse teams, through a silent understanding that they were playing the “Creator’s Game” together, not Canada’s national sport.
Decolonization through Fútbol Filastini and the Creator’s Game is an ongoing process, and one which comes into conflict with international sporting associations and blockages faced by Palestinian and Haudenosaunee athletes. The final part of this presentation will examine some of these instances, particularly concerning the issue of recognition of passports, and the fight to be recognised as a sovereign, national team at international sporting events.
The intersection between the context of living under occupation in Palestine and gender constraints will be the focus of this part of the roundtable discussion. The participant will offer background and analysis related to the multifaceted burgeoning sporting culture for women in Palestine. Major turning points in the history of the occupation as well as everyday encounters under occupation will be connected to the impact on women’s involvement in sport. By elevating experiences of Palestinian women athletes in competitive sports, such as football and running, the participant will bring to light the various ways Palestinian women are carving out space to resist the occupation and gender discrimination simultaneously.
Just as the occupation has evolved in the aftermath of Oslo, so too, has Palestinian resistance. The participant will provide context into the everyday dangers and obstacles women confront due to the occupation and analysis into how their ordinary sporting pursuits are transformed into acts of resistance on an everyday basis. The participant will account for how everyday athletes, in addition to athletes that represent Palestine on the international stage, such as players with the Palestinian Women’s National Football Team, recognize that they have a distinct role as pioneer sporting figures, as Palestinians, and as women. The meaning of sport in their lives goes far beyond winning-losing, it is deeply intertwined with their aspirations for progressing women’s rights, being recognized for their sporting talents, and living freely without occupation.
The everyday impacts of the occupation and the extraordinary measures that sportswomen are forced to take in order to play sport offers important insight into the gendered nature of conflict and gender politics in Palestine today. In the context of the occupation, Palestine women are commonly marginalized and invisibilized to outsiders. Through their engagement in sport, women are rejecting their invisible status, raising their voices, achieving sporting successes, and doing something for Palestine.
Throughout the twentieth century, technology such as photography, television, and more recently, social media, has risen as a central tool in promoting the popularity of both sports and athletes. Marginalised and oppressed groups, however, have demonstrated how this same technology has the power to be used as an effective platform to protest injustice. This part of the roundtable will focus on the use of technology and sports boycotts. The participant will centre the discussion on attempts to evoke a sports boycott on Israel, by both Palestinians and through international solidarity efforts.
The discussion will draw on comparisons with other examples of the twentieth and twenty-first century, to identify how and why some sports boycotts are more successful than others, and the place of Palestine within the inconsistency in the application of a sports boycott. These will include acts by individual athletes, as well as much wider global activism that reached state level, specifically, the global anti-Apartheid boycott that resulted in South Africa’s expulsion from international sporting events and associations, and ultimately, the end of Apartheid. More recent comparisons which highlight the inconsistency of boycott can be found with Russia, who faced vehement international opposition for its hosting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and Sochi Winter Olympics due to its treatment of LGBTQ+ activists, and later further international isolation following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Palestinians’ call for a sports boycott of Israel, on the other hand, has often been silenced. Critics of sports boycott have labelled sports boycott as “wrong” and “overtly political” because it “goes against the spirit of international sports.” The participant will assess the economic reasons behind this inconsistency. The argument will be presented that because athletes serve as economic and social capital sources for their national federations, questions of sponsorship, money, and public image pose a serious challenge to the practice of solidarity. The age of neoliberal capitalism, therefore, unveils the paradox of solidarity, further complicating the question of the price tag for showing solidarity and who can afford to do so.