When the sport becomes a political tool
Recently, we have been hearing more and more about sportswashing. There are those who see it as a practice with positive outcomes and those who see it as a sophisticated soft power policy. When we speak of soft power, we mean the ability of a state to influence and persuade third parties through the use of intangible resources such as culture and values or – in this case – sport.
Sportwashing is an English neologism created by the non-governmental organization Amnesty International to describe a strategy used by various states based on the exploitation of sport and its immense following to improve their reputation and present themselves as freer and more democratic.
Nowadays, sportwashing is mainly practised by the Persian Gulf monarchies and other countries such as China and Russia, but in fact it has been around for some time. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany made use of this strategy, the famous 1936 Berlin Olympics being an example. But in the last decades, this age-old technique seems to have evolved, shifting from investment to control international sports organizations to investment in local sports clubs. An even more effective strategy that allows those who use it to penetrate directly into the social fabric of the target countries, so that these regimes are seen by Western fans as real benefactors, as blessings for their favourite teams. And this is way, they have gone from being simple sponsors on a T-shirt to owners of entire clubs, getting more and more in touch with the emotions of the Western public.
Again, there are countless examples. Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup and David Beckham – former Manchester United and Real Madrid star – is the ambassador. Beckham’s choice has been sharply criticised by several newspapers and NGOs because the human rights situation in Qatar remains a cause for concern, from severe restrictions on freedom of expression and persecution of members of minorities to investigations into premature deaths and the appalling conditions in which migrant workers are forced to live and work in the country.
Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have also become permanent stages for motorcycle and car racing. Saudi Arabia hosted the rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. for the title of world boxing champion and the final match between Fognini and Medvedev at the Diriyah Tennis Cup. In October 2021, the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) bought the English football team Newcastle. As The Guardian reported in March 2021, Saudi Arabia has recently invested 1.5 billion in sporting events and activities, because Sportswashing is ultimately an economic strategy.
The Gulf states depend on oil as their greatest source of wealth, but given the ongoing ecological changes, that source appears to be short-lived. And so sportwashing is part of Riyadh’s Vision 2030, which includes investments in various sectors such as Facebook, Disney and Uber, to name a few. The goal is to make the country an attractive place for tourism, foreign investment and trade, so it cannot risk being associated with human rights violations. In this regard, sportwashing becomes a fundamental tool to improve its reputation.
Investing in sports can actually distract from human rights abuses in these countries. It is especially effective for the audience it targets – namely fans – who are usually not sensitive and/or informed about the situation, or even angry about interference in sports. Moreover, it is easy to view these regimes as alleys, as Western governments continue to maintain economic partnerships with them. Indeed, it is hard to criticize a Newcastle fan who celebrates because his team was bought by a regime that is anything but democratic, while his government approved a 1 billion 400 million arms export to Riyadh in February 2021.
Sportwashing is indeed a very effective practice, but only because it fits into a socio-cultural fabric that is inherently characterized by a habitual tendency to indifference, to look the other way. We continue to focus only on the positive side of our relationship with these regimes, the side with which we feel more comfortable and which brings us more benefits. And because of this mindset, we continue to be enchanted by the majesty of the iconic Lusail Stadium, completely ignoring the inhumane exploitation of thousands of people that made it possible.