Sportswashing: Keep Politics Out of Sports When It Suits

Image Credit: Flags on Beach by Marc Cooper from Pxhere

Ronán Daly examines the issue of sportswashing in the context of the crisis in Ukraine and how other humanitarian crises have not afforded the same response.

Off the back of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine much of the sporting world has rightly condemned Russia’s actions and placed sanctions on Russian sporting events and teams. UEFA have removed all Russian clubs from competing in European competition and moved the 2022 Champions League final from St. Petersburg to Paris while the FIA and Formula 1 have cancelled their contract with Russian Grand Prix. This is all well and good but if the governing bodies of the sports can punish Russia and remove Russian events and teams then why can’t they do so for other countries? If UEFA can remove Russian teams from European competition, why can Israeli football clubs still compete while their country occupies Palestinian land an enforces apartheid? Why can F1 decide it’s not ethical to race in Russia but hold races in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE?

Sportswashing is the process by which regimes or companies become involved in sport to improve their public image, by all accounts this seems to be exactly what is happening here. While the phrase itself may be a more modern one it’s hardly a new practice but the word has been doing the rounds recently and in a modern context football club ownership, F1 races and sponsorships are some of the common ways in which this happens. Manchester City have gone from irrelevancy to one of the biggest and most successful clubs in England thanks to owners funded by the UAE and Newcastle United are tipped to follow in their footsteps having been bought over by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF).

The recent purchase of Newcastle United by the Saudi’s has led to new boss, Eddie Howe, coming under some pressure from the media in relation to the club’s owners. Howe replaced Steve Bruce at the helm in St James Park after the club had been sold to the Saudi PIF and was recently asked about how ethical the club’s ownership and any potential subsequent success off the back of it is. While admitting he realises these questions must be asked, he said his specialist subject was football and he wanted to focus on the football.

Many have pointed out that if you are prepared to take on a job at a club like Newcastle knowing where the funding is coming from you should be prepared to be criticised for accepting the support of a regime with a record like Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government have supported the government in Yemen since the outbreak of a civil war in 2015 and have launched air strikes on the country consistently since then killing 10’s of thousands of people. The UN has said both sides of the war may be guilty of committing war crimes but one such tactic used by the Saudi led coalition named a “double tap” strike attacks where rebels are targeted and then they also bomb those who come to their aid. In March of 2022 the Saudi Arabian Government carried out its largest number of executions in a single day, killing 81 people.

It’s clear to see that Sportswashing exists on the back of knowing this. Newcastle were struggling towards the bottom of the Premier league and looked set for relegation but spent £90 million in January, a Premier league record spend for the winter window and have since all but secured their safety. At a recent game away to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the first game after Chelsea had their assets frozen due to the English governments’ sanctions on owner Roman Abramovich, Newcastle fans waved Saudi Arabian flags in the away end. Chelsea fans have also since come under scrutiny having chanted Abramovich’s name at several games since the sanctions, despite the fact he is an associate of Putin. Chelsea have achieved unprecedented success since Abramovich took over the club in 2003 winning 5 league titles and 5 European trophies thanks to his substantial backing.

And this is exactly where the problem lies. Most of these fans don’t seem to care about the questionable practices and in some case crimes and human rights violations committed by their owners because their team is experiencing success because of their backing. Some might argue that it’s not the fans fault that the club was sold to these people and while that isn’t completely wrong it is distasteful and tone deaf to wave the flag of Saudi Arabia and chant the name of one of Putin’s cronies because they paid for the striker that has made your team better.

This year’s World Cup goes to Qatar which has been marred in controversy from the day it was awarded the tournament. The biggest issue with the Qatar world cup is the country’s main workforce is primarily made up of over 2 million migrant workers who are heavily exploited. According to Amnesty International, Qatar passed reforms in 2020 that would allow workers to leave the country without an exit-permit and a no-objection certificate from their bosses which had been in place, However, these reforms have not been effective as leaving the country is expensive and inaccessible to these workers and a de facto replica of the old system still exists. On top of this Qatar have failed to investigate the deaths of migrant workers who died on world cup facilities and nearly 20,000 migrant workers died between 2010 and 2019 all with similarly vague causes of death listed on their death certificates. Qatar is a vastly wealthy country that used their money to bride FIFA to host the most watched sports event in the world which will surely only improve their image while the stadiums that will host the games were built off the back of mass exploitation.

As mentioned already Formula 1 is another sport where this lack of consistency has been criticised by the fans. Before the start of the 2020 season F1 launched its “WeRaceAsOne” campaign to fight against racism and inequality within the sport. Some sections of F1 fans have since hijacked the slogan, rephrasing it as “WeRaceAsMoney”. Last month’s Saudi Arabian GP was marred by a number of issues such as track safety and a nearby oil depot owned by the main sponsor of the race, Aramco, was hit by a missile as a result of the conflict in Yemen. Decisions to drop the Russian GP but continuing to race in places like Saudi Arabia or China where over 1 million Uyghur Muslims have been detained show a clear lack of consistency and reports that the Russian GP may be replaced by another race in Qatar don’t exactly help this image.

Part of F1’s WeRaceAsOne campaign includes the promotion of equality not just on racial or religious grounds, it is also supposed to support the LGBTQ+ community. Racing in these countries in the middle east like Bahrain and the UAE obviously flies in the face of that but it also applies to races closer to home as well. Last year F1 raced in Hungary just weeks after the country enacted an anti-LGBT law banning the teaching of homosexual relationships to minors. Fortunately, two of the sport’s biggest stars, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have used their influence in recent years to try and call out both the actions of F1 and the countries in which they race.

Hamilton is the most successful F1 driver of all time winning 7 world titles and over 100 races and has done so as the only black driver to drive in F1. Hamilton is a known activist and has faced criticism from some sectors of F1 for using his platform for activism with former driver Ralf Schumacher, brother of 7-time champion Michael, calling it “Dangerous” in response to Hamilton sporting a rainbow flag on his helmet and criticising the treatment of women ahead of the 2021 Saudi GP. Fortunately, this hasn’t stopped Hamilton who has also been a strong advocate of the BLM movement over the last 2 seasons, nor did it phase 4-time World Champion Vettel. While the German is more outspoken on his environmental activism, ahead of the 2021 Hungarian GP he wore a Same Love t-shirt on the grid and was reprimanded by the stewards for breaking “pre-race” rules. Responding to the call Vettel claimed he would do it again and would happily let them disqualify him.

Sportswashing isn’t just another buzzword that will pass, by letting these countries host the world cup and bring success to football clubs through support of oppressive regimes we are letting them enhance their image as they continue to profit off and commit human rights abuses. In 2014 UEFA fined Dundalk FC €18,000 for flying Palestinian flags and many have criticised the knee and support towards BLM in football as “Too Political”. Now nearly every team across Europe waves Ukrainian flags in solidarity and there is nowhere near as much criticism and there’s not a peep from the “keep politics out of football” crowd. F1 and football turn a blind eye to the abuses of these regimes because they provide large funding. When a white European nation is invaded Russian clubs are kicked out of Europe, when it’s Palestinian and Muslim land being occupied it’s a fine for those showing solidarity with them. Football is right to stand with Ukraine but if it’s going to set a precedent of sanctioning countries like Russia it cannot do so seriously while it doesn’t show the solidarity with countries likes Palestine or allows Qatar to host the biggest tournament in the world.