Awarding international sporting events to countries run by dictatorships and other autocratic regimes worsens their human rights abuses, a new study has found.

Repression occurs in three phases, the European study found – before, during and after the event.

As an example, they used the 1978 FIFA World Cup held in Argentina, which was suffering under a military dictatorship at the time. 

“Several weeks before the opening match, the Argentine regime carried out a huge operation, in which the authorities systematically kidnapped or murdered potential troublemakers – especially at night and in the early hours of the morning,” said Adam Scharpf of the University of Copenhagen, who led the study.

“During the World Cup itself, the regime struck discreetly while the matches were being played and the journalists were busy covering the matches. 

“After the final and the departure of the foreign journalists, the regime ramped up another wave of violence.”

Similar tactics were used by the Nazis in 1936, around the hosting of that year’s Summer Olympics; China’s hosting of the same event in 2008; and ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ boxing match of 1974 in Zaire, which was led by the corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko at the time.

The reason appears to be that autocratic regimes fear dissidents will bring attention to the abuses while the world’s spotlight is on them.

“We have discovered a clear and very worrying trend—not least because the proportion of autocratic hosts of major sporting events has more than quadrupled since the end of the Cold War,” Scharpf said.

“It will require a broad, social alliance to pressure politicians and international sports federations to prevent dictatorships from hosting major sporting events in the future.”

The findings come ahead of the next FIFA World Cup, which is being held in the repressive Gulf state of Qatar

The full study can be read in American Political Science Review.