Sportswashing: ‘A dirty, rewarding game’

Jake Pemberton

Digital Journalist | @jake_pemby

15 min read
A laborer cleans up outside the Formula One corniche circuit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on December 1, 2021.
AP Photo/Amr NabilA laborer cleans up outside the Formula One corniche circuit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on December 1, 2021.

‘Sport is so powerful. It will always have an appeal to be used, for good or evil, or a combination of both'

“Three thousand dead Americans. [They don’t] care because [they] got offered a paycheck? It’s just the worst form of greed,” said Brett Eagleson, whose father was killed on September 11, 2001, in attacks carried out by al Qaeda against the United States.

Professional golfers were chastised last week for “getting in bed with” Saudi Arabia ahead of a golf tournament in the northwestern US state of Oregon. 

The Saudi-funded LIV Golf tour was met with family members of 9/11 victims who gathered to speak out against those competing, criticizing the event and its connection to a regime with a dismal human rights record.

All but four of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudi citizens, and the Saudi kingdom was the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attack.

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US Senator Ron Wyden used the term “sportswashing” to describe the event: “It’s wrong to be silent when Saudi Arabia tries to cleanse blood-stained hands,” he told AP News.

Sportswashing – a relatively newer term, but a centuries-old concept.

Roman emperors spending money on gladiator fights to improve their image to the crowd, or Greek politicians sponsoring teams in the Ancient Olympic Games to bolster their state’s reputation, the strategy is almost as old as sport itself.

Nowadays, it is used to describe everything from the upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar, to Saudi Arabia buying an English soccer club, or even Israel hosting the latest Miss Universe beauty pageant.

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
AP Photo/Hassan AmmarA worker at the Qatar Education Stadium, one of the 2022 World Cup stadiums in Doha, Qatar, on December 15, 2019.

While it is debated what it actually entails, sportswashing is widely considered as using sport to “distract, normalize, or minimize moral violations,” according to Alfred Archer, an assistant professor of ethics at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

“If it’s successful, sportswashing helps facilitate continued wrongdoings. It allows regimes, like with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to engage in human rights abuses in a way that doesn’t damage their reputation,” Archer said.

‘Standards have lowered’

While the word is less than a decade old, the modern sports age has been ripe with examples, dating back to the early 20th century when Nazi Germany used the 1936 Summer Olympics to push its authority abroad and seem welcoming to all – one of the first cases of successful, modern sportswashing.

AP Photo
AP PhotoThe Olympic torch in Lustgarten, Berlin, is lit on August 1, 1936, guarded by members of the Hitler Youth until it is brought to the Olympic stadium for the opening of the games.

Fast-forward 80 years, and sportswashing is continuously used by political regimes and leaders to present sanitized versions of themselves.

“When nation-states realized that sport was also about making money and gaining political and cultural prestige, it was susceptible to washing,” explained Alan McDougall, a history professor at the University of Guelph in Canada.

Take for example the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia – despite a stained reputation from human rights abuses and its previous annexation of Crimea, coverage related to President Vladimir Putin’s oppressive regime ceased when the soccer bout kicked off.

Attention was instead focused on how successful the mega sporting event was and “how great those Russians were,” recalled international relations expert Dr. Tomer Fadlon.

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Sportswashing goes even beyond sports, Fadlon noted, as with Miss Universe 2021. Held in Israel, the event was boycotted by some contestants and understood by critics as an attempt to gloss over the Jewish state’s Palestinian conflict.

“The whole entertainment world is involved – with phenomena that are larger than life, there’s no other platform that can achieve the same goal,’” said Fadlon, a lecturer at Israel’s Tel Aviv University.

“Standards have lowered. These days, sport is all about money. And with the globalization of sport, leaders can show their desired image with the world as their audience.”

He pointed to the wave of sanctions imposed on Russia over its recent invasion of Ukraine, barring it and most sporting entities tied to it from competing in or hosting international games, a move that effectively recognized the power of sport.

“Sadly, it does work. For most people who love sport, there might be concerns where a sporting event is hosted, but in the end, we tend to forget about the ethics,” McDougall said.

“Sport did its job for Putin.”

AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File
AP Photo/Petr David Josek, FileRussian President Vladimir Putin (R) touches the World Cup trophy next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia, on July 15, 2018.

New players, same game

Nowadays, the dynamics of the sports world have shifted. Regular bidders of international sporting events eventually realized that hosting is not a profitable gig, opening the door for smaller countries who could use “image makeovers” to stage them instead. 

“If you take into account major sporting events, like the Olympics or World Cup, these are bad investments. They leave so many white elephants in your backyard,” Fadlon explained, pointing to examples like Greece going bankrupt after hosting the 2004 Olympic Games and the seemingly abandoned stadium used for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada.

With more sporting events up for grabs, countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia are taking advantage, despite the worrying state of human rights in the Gulf Arab nations.

“Sports require sponsors and money. If regimes like Qatar or Saudi Arabia are prepared to invest huge amounts of money, it's difficult for athletes, teams, even fans to say no,” said McDougall.

“Nobody knew about Qatar 30 years ago, so I think sports-investing paid off”

In Qatar – the host of the upcoming 2022 World Cup – concerns are mostly targeted at how the monarchy treats its migrant workers, who face serious exploitation and abuse, according to Human Rights Watch.

Last year, it was reported that over 6,500 migrant workers died in preparations for the Cup over the past decade, including workers who died in workplace accidents, in road traffic accidents while riding in a company bus, in labor camps, and some by suicide. 

On top of harsh working conditions – illegally long hours, with no days off, in jarring heat – it was also revealed that migrants are forced to pay billions of dollars in recruitment fees to work there.

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Since winning this year’s World Cup hosting bid, global pressure on Qatar to reform has been ripe, alongside speculation of potential boycotts by athletes and sports organizations. 

However, some suggest that such criticisms are misplaced, a sentiment felt by Dr. Danyel Reiche, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.

“Countries should engage with criticism, and Qatar has done that,” Reiche noted, referring to labor reforms announced by the Gulf state in response to international outcry.

One of those apparent reforms came in 2016, when Qatar said it ended the controversial “kafala” system, which forced all foreign workers to require a local sponsor and need their permission to switch jobs or leave the country – compared by critics to modern-day slavery.

Critics are skeptical, though, about the lasting effects of reforms when the World Cup is over, and whether Qatar will be upheld to a higher standard or if such measures are merely window dressing.

“Each country operates in a different context. Qatar is investing in sport to contribute to its national visibility,” Reiche added. “Nobody knew about the small state 30 years ago, so I think sports-investing has paid off. Also, its reputation has improved, but not just because of sport. You can’t see sport as the only tool to better a world standing.”

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But the line between soft power and sportswashing is thin. 

If Qatar was simply sending representatives to compete in events, it wouldn’t necessarily amount to washing, Archer said. “It’s more about hosting events, or buying teams in foreign countries – acts that make a clear conscious attempt to improve a reputation.”

He suggested that visibility is also not disconnected from sportswashing: “If you raise visibility as a sporting nation, you downplay visibility in other areas. The association shifts to one of sport rather than one of human rights abuses.”

“A costly form of propaganda. Saudi Arabia and its leaders, their images have improved” 

Human rights in Saudi Arabia have also long been a topic of concern and controversy. The Saudi government is tirelessly denounced by the international community for violating human rights both within the kingdom and in its surrounding region.

Everything from suppressing dissent and freedom of speech, to violating the rights of women and minorities, to alleged war crimes for its part in Yemen’s civil war, Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian track record is widely considered among the worst of the worst.

A more recent incident that didn’t help Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman’s stature was the kidnapping, murder, and dismemberment of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, with reports that it was approved or even ordered by Salman himself.

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Yet, the kingdom is enjoying more influence in the sports world, spending billions of dollars on what human rights groups call sportswashing activities.

“It’s a costly form of propaganda. Saudi Arabia and its leaders, their images have improved,” said Fadlon. 

The monarchy and Saudi firms have been dipping their feet in various sports, ranging from golf with its LIV Tour to Formula One by hosting regular races – but especially in the world of soccer with its recent takeover of England’s Newcastle United FC team.

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Near the end of last year, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund acquired 80 percent of the English club, sparking backlash from human rights groups and further uproar when the kingdom executed 81 convicts months later. 

Archer explained that while there are various ways to “launder a reputation,” sportswashing is distinct for two reasons:

    1. It makes participants “unwittingly complicit.”

“Newcastle is being used to launder Saudi Arabia’s reputation. It makes the players, manager, and fans complicit in the regime’s wrongdoings, whether there’s choice involved or not.”

    2. It corrupts a “valuable sporting heritage.” 

“The club has cultural value, built up through generations of fans and players. Now it’s being used as a tool to protect another country’s image.”

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Regimes have also realized other avenues – along with sport as a geopolitical tool – to not only wash a stained reputation but to “assert themselves on a world stage,” said Tim Elcombe, a professor in Kinesiology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. 

“It’s a credible, hard power rationale – Saudi Arabia and Qatar understand that they can’t build a future on just oil, so they argue that they are just diversifying their economies, expanding their wealth, building influence,” Elcombe explained.

A Saudi investor, for example, owns a stake of up to 50 percent in The Independent Digital News & Media, drawing speculation from human rights groups and even the British government that the kingdom has editorial influence over the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the hypocrisy is not only from those committing or complicit in the washing, but also from those who condemn it, according to Fadlon. In the world of sports, which is a Western structure, participants use Western definitions, making “life easier for democracies and harder for the ‘bad guys'.”

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“Sport is so powerful – from hard power to soft power, and everywhere in between,” Fadlon said. “It will always have an appeal to be used, whether for good or evil, or a combination of both.”

“It’s a dirty, yet rewarding game.”

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