In a world where political strife and accusations of power and human rights abuses are rife, a term has grabbed the attention of the Oxford English dictionary to help us confront one of the most prevalent issues in our society today. ‘Sportswashing’ is defined as the ‘deceptive, insincere and opportunistic appropriation’ of sport. In other words, corrupt leaders are using sporting icons, events, and teams, to mask the fact that their states are committing heinous crimes.
Although this may be a novel term, the practice has been around since the beginning of civilisation. Take the Roman Empire, who used the promise of ‘bread and circuses’ to distract the masses from the activities of their rulers. As the first ever instances of genocide took place, Romans delighted in grand showings of sport, oblivious to what was going on around them.
Dealing with this issue is difficult and is compounded by the fact that in some ways, sport is its own worst enemy. The people behind the regimes that support human rights abuses are smart, and they know the magic of sport is something they can tap into. The World Cup provides us with the best examples; before the 1978 tournament in Argentina, several teams raised concerns about playing in a country where a military dictatorship governed the people. Despite this, they all took part and once the first pass was made, any pre-tournament concerns faded away. Russia 2018 was no different. There were widespread misgivings about attacks against political activists and the torture of members of the LGBTQ+ community, but once the enchantment of football set in, those misgivings dissipated. It seems that Qatar will follow in a similar vein in 2022. The country has an atrocious human rights record and innumerable workers have died constructing stadiums, but history suggests that all of that will go under the radar once the sporting heroes of that year start showing off their skills.
Sport naturally draws our attention away from these issues, but how much are FIFA at fault for how sportwashing has become part of our society today? I’d be inclined to say a staggering amount. Whether you believe football’s international governing body are corrupt and are purely motivated by money or whether they are simply reluctant to mix football and politics, they have the power to stop these issues but have done next to nothing with it.
If you need recent evidence of FIFA’s failure to protect the innocent then just take a look at the recent case of Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini footballer who fled his home country in 2014 after being tortured. He was detained in Bangkok in November while on honeymoon and was released only last week following the intervention of a Thai court. This situation had presented FIFA with the opportunity to save al-Araibi. They have previously applied sanctions if it is found that a government has interfered in the running of a national association, and with Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa, the President of the Asian Football Confederation, also a member of the ruling Bahrain royal family, FIFA could have leveraged the Sheikh’s position for al-Araibi’s prompt return. However, in a scarcely believable shirking of responsibility, FIFA said it could only express concern over the situation, despite the fact a man’s life was in danger.
Unfortunately, it has to be acknowledged that the sports stars we love also have a role to play in creating the growing sportswashing culture. Many professional athletes forget that as some of the biggest icons in the world, they have a responsibility to promote good causes and act against bad ones.
Mohamed Salah’s decision to accept honorary citizenship from Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Chechen Republic, was questionable at least, given the horror accusations of abductions, killings, and an anti-LGBTQ+ pogrom in the region.
Saudi Arabia, a country responsible in all but name for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was deemed an acceptable place by WWE to hold a major wrestling event last November.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal announced plans to play an exhibition match there the very day after Mr. Khashoggi was murdered. The match was later called off due to Nadal undergoing surgery, but the issue remains that neither player had pulled out until then. Interestingly, Roger Federer turned down the opportunity to play in the lucrative match because he “didn’t want to play there at that time.”
Justin Rose has also recently come under fire for playing in the Kingdom after it became the latest stop of the European Tour. He declared that he’s a ‘golfer not a politician’, but his decision to play there given the Khashoggi controversy, and the fact women are effectively second-class citizens, is borderline inexcusable.
The players seem to forget that they are the ones being used. These countries haven’t improved their behaviour or stopped violating human rights just because they are hosting a big sports tournament. They are simply taking part in ‘reputation laundering’. They affiliate themselves with the respect these stars have accumulated to make themselves look better than they are. This is apparent in the cases of Manchester City and Paris St Germain, two massive football clubs, that are bankrolled by some of the most powerful people in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, respectively. The better these clubs do, the more people begin to associate those countries with titles and success rather than the crimes and human rights abuses they are guilty of behind the borders.
There is an argument that sportswashing should be tolerated. The main point for this is that success in sport can bring such joy to a country and its people. Qatar have just won the Asian Cup while Syria featured in it, their first international football tournament in eight years of war. It has given the people an escape from the controversy and violence that plagues their countries and has helped unite the people in support of a common goal.
Nobody wants to ruin the fun. These sporting events are watched and supported by millions of people who enjoy them and derive such happiness from them. Why should we put a halt to that? The answer is that sport is not politically neutral, no matter how much we might want it to be, and we can’t let sport cloud our vision when it comes to confronting the regimes and practices that need to be halted in our world today.