Author: Anna Arnold-Perry
October 3, 2023
What is sportswashing? The intersection of sports and human rights plays a crucial role in defining and understanding the concept of sportswashing. The Encyclopedia of Britannica defines sportswashing as, “the use of an athletic event by an individual or a government, a corporation, or another group to promote or burnish” their reputation, “especially amid controversy or scandal”. In other words, a country, organization, individual, or group using major sporting events (MSEs) to frame an alternative narrative of their reputation and image. While the concept is not new, the term sportswashing came to be during the Sport for Rights campaign which was launched as a result of the 2015 European Games in which the host country, Azerbaijan, banned Amnesty International and denied entry to foreign reporters (Ganji, p.64). Azerbaijan used the European Games to divert attention from outsider concerns about its human rights image and consequently, the term sportswashing was created. In the same vein, the term, greenwashing, describes corporations or companies aiming to mask their harmful effects on the environment by trying to evoke an environmentally friendly image. Thus, “washing” of a term is to elicit a better image of what potentially harmful events are occurring.
Sports are supposedly viewed as apolitical, promoted by FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) and the IOC (International Olympic Committee). This perspective is widespread among both fans and participants, who generally perceive sports as apolitical and prefer to keep them free from political influences (Jiménez-Martínez and Skey, 2023). However, this viewpoint on sports is contested, where some argue that MSEs can temporarily shut down critical views of a government: the positive, seemingly apolitical atmosphere of sports can temporarily mask the negative image and politics of a state. Sports are seen as a way to exert “soft power”—power of attraction rather than coercion—whose sources include movies, music, universities, and sports rather than the economic and military sources of hard power (Jiménez-Martínez and Skey, 2023). As a form of soft power, sports can allow host nations to promote themselves on a global stage.
Sociologically, sporting events foster a social atmosphere, “a shared experience of place” with “transformations in consumers’ emotions and behavior” (Hill and Canniford, 2023). These social atmospheres create “emotional energy”—a feeling of group membership that makes participants want to repeat such feelings (Hill and Canniford, 2023). Fans find a sense of belonging when gathered in a crowd to watch a sporting event, they experience intense collective emotions and associate the symbols of such sporting events with these intense positive feelings (Hill and Canniford, 2023). Therefore, when fans see the symbols—representations of the event, such as the Olympic Games logo—of such sporting events, they associate them with the emotional energy they felt at the game, thereby casting a shadow on potential negative associations.
Sarath Ganji (2023) argues that one method for investigating sportswashing is by looking at how sports, especially the soccer industry, are used as a tool to manipulate information. Ganji notes three methods of manipulation that can be used to investigate sportswashing. First, sports can “displace negative content by elevating alternative stories.” Used like a smoke screen, this method capitalizes on the biases of what and how the news is covered to manipulate what is being said about a state. Second, sports can “discredit negative content by amplifying alternate perspectives.” This method sees the use of intermediaries, and character references, such as celebrity and sports influencers, who become resources to shape public opinion. Third, sports can “debase negative content by arousing certain emotions.” A kind of augmented reality where the social atmosphere of sports affects the participants’ emotions—the emotional energy of sporting events.
Ganji argues that information manipulation is the stronger case for sportswashing, “using the bankability of sports to discredit, displace, and debase content that global audiences might perceive as damaging” (p.70). One notable concern, Ganiji writes, is how "autocratic regimes are using sports to bolster repression at home and gain influence abroad” (p.63). What makes sportswashing especially concerning is how states utilize the soft power popularity of sports and the positive emotions associated with its events to articulate an alternative narrative of their state’s reputation, manipulating the information about their possible atrocities, dismissing concerns, pressure, and potential progress from their human rights issues. In their article on sportswashing, César Jiménez-Martínez and Michael Skey note a prevailing pattern of controversies, concerns, and accusations before a sporting event being left aside for a “sphere of consensus” where sports take center stage; in other words, “nobody wants to be the party pooper.”
Historic MSEs play a crucial role in shedding light on the phenomenon of sportswashing. Notable examples include the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Russia hosting both the 2014 Olympic Games and 2018 World Cup, as well as China’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008, 2014, and 2022.
First, the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin took place during the rise of Nazism. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) attributed the games to Berlin in 1931, before the Nazi party came to power in 1933 (Chappelet, 2021). Originally opposed to hosting the event, the Nazis later saw the event as an opportunity to promote the “new Germany.” There was some skepticism and concern over Germany’s antisemitic policies and their promise to select Jewish athletes on merit, leading the American Olympic Association (AOC) to send then-president Avery Brundage to Germany in 1934. Brundage returned convincing the AOC that the Nazis would keep their promise, arguing that “sport should remain aloof from politics,” a position Brundage would defend during his time as AOC’s president (Chappelet, 2021). In the end, not one country boycotted the 1936 games, later termed the “Nazi Olympics,” and Germany tried to portray the nation as a peaceful and tolerant country.
Second, the 1978 World Cup was held in Argentina despite its military seizing power two years prior and engaging in systematic human rights abuses during the time known as the “Dirty War” (1976-1983). The Dirty War is characterized as a period of state-sponsored terrorism, where an estimated 30,000 people were killed or “disappeared” by the state (Blakemore, 2019). The ruling military junta abducted or “whisked away” political dissidents and people suspected of aligning with leftist (opposing) causes and torturing and killing them; referred to as the “desaparecidos,” the disappeared (Blakemore, 2019). It’s also worth noting two important developments in the world between 1936 and 1978: the creation of the United Nations (UN) and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Countries began ratifying human rights conventions and treaties, drawing attention to the importance of human rights and making the topic a highly political issue.
Another significant example of change is South Africa and its relation to the Olympic Games. South Africa was excluded from the 1960 Rome Games due to the country’s apartheid policy. The IOC withdrew its recognition of South Africa’s National Olympic Committee (NOC) in 1964 saying the country’s segregationist system breached the first fundamental principle of the 1949 Olympic Charter; “No discrimination is allowed against any country or person on the grounds of color, religion or politics” (Chappelet, 2021). In 1978, coinciding with the World Cup in Argentina, the International Convention Against Apartheid in Sports was held, ultimately leading to the adoption of the International Declaration Against Apartheid in Sports. South Africa didn’t participate in the Olympic Games until 1992, after the apartheid system was dismantled.
Russia's hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup led to international controversy and boycotts due to allegations of human rights abuses against minorities, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and military conflict in Ukraine. Four days after the closing of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russian troops entered Crimea and began its formal annexation. Despite these controversies, the annexation of Crimea, continued discrimination, corruption, and doping scandals, Russia still hosted the 2018 World Cup.
China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympic and 2022 Winter Olympic Games also raised issues such as the right to adequate housing, the rights of minorities, the right to self-determination, the right to seek, receive and impart information, and the right to demonstrate (Chappelet, 2021). The 2008 Olympic Games drew attention to the right to adequate housing, brought up by people being forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for Olympic facilities, an issue not previously brought up concerning the Olympics (Chappelet, 2021). For the 2008 Olympics, the historic housing district of Hujialou was demolished to build the Olympic Park. Protests and controversy culminated in the run-up to the Games and the Olympic torch relay regarding China’s actions in Tibet, its involvement in the war in Darfur, South Sudan, and its persecution of Falun Gong, a Chinese religious organization. Controversy over the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing came from accusations of China violating the rights of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the people of Hong Kong, the native people of South Mongolia, and Tibetans (Chappelet, 2021).
Despite the significant events demonstrating sportswashing, what has been gaining media attention today are the Gulf monarchies—United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—display of sportswashing. These countries don’t have a pleasant human rights record but have all spent billions of dollars in sports investments. The UAE has spent an estimated $2 billion USD on acquiring sponsorship throughout Europe’s top five soccer leagues. Amongst these top leagues, the Emirates logo is on Arsenal’s (English Premier League), AC Milan’s (Italian Serie A), and Real Madrid’s (Spanish La Liga) jerseys. English Premier League team Manchester City wears the Etihad Airways logo on their jerseys and plays in the Etihad Stadium.
Qatar owns five professional soccer teams including French Ligue 1’s top team Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) since 2011 and built eleven world-class scouting and soccer training facilities. Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup was against the backdrop of widespread abuse of the migrant workers who built the World Cup stadiums. During the tournament a U.S. reporter was detained for wearing a rainbow shirt in support of the LGBTQIA community—later released.
Saudi Arabia is the Gulf country gaining particular attention for sportswashing. Saudi Arabia has spent at least $6 billion USD in sports deals since early 2021. Since 2018, Saudi Arabia has hosted WWE, boxing, tennis, horse racing, and Formula 1 events and has created its own golf tour—the LIV golf tour. Saudi Arabia has made significant investments within the sport of soccer, their 2021 purchase of English Premier League team Newcastle United, thereby giving the team financial power to buy players and stay in the top league. Popular soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo and N’golo Kanté have also signed with Saudi Arabian clubs for hundreds of millions of dollars. The funding for these investments comes from one of the ten largest sovereign wealth funds, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), with assets estimated at $700 billion USD.
The intersection of sports and human rights is a foggy but growing field of research and discussion. Rule 50.2 of the (1946) Olympic Charter states a strict ban on any “demonstration or political, religious or racial or propaganda in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”; this rule was somewhat relaxed during the Tokyo 2020 +1 Olympics (Chappelet, 2021). There’s been much discussion on the political nature of sports and the responsibility of sports corporations to consider the human rights records of the states hosting MSEs. It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that the discussion of human rights in sports gained more public and academic attention. In March 2017, the conclusion of mediation between FIFA, Building and Wood Worker’s International (BWI), and the Qatari government resulted in Article 3 stating “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights” (Chappelet, 2021). In the Olympic Agenda 2020, the sixth Fundamental Principle of Olympism was reworded and derived from the UN UDHR, the first time the IOC admitted they had responsibilities toward human rights; although saying “insofar as they apply to the Olympic Games’ activities” (Chappelet, 2021).
In conclusion, sportswashing refers to how an actor uses sports and MSEs to burnish their controversial image. States with unsavory reputations, notably human rights violations, can use the soft power of sports to portray themselves on a global stage and manipulate the information surrounding their controversies in favor of capitalizing on the popularity and emotionally charged energy of sports. Sportswashing is a relatively recent term gaining news attention but not an entirely new concept; as far back as the 1936 Berlin Olympics, MSEs have been utilized by states to change their global image. What becomes concerning is what happens to the human rights scandals discussed before sporting events and after the games have ended. As Jonathan Wilson (2022) argues, “complacency is easy; engagement is hard” which is what makes “sportswashing so insidious.”
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Right to seek, receive and impart information: United Nations General Assembly. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). New York: United Nations General Assembly, 1948. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights#:~:text=Article%2019,media%20and%20regardless%20of%20frontiers.
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