To use an incredibly cliché phrase: sportswashing is having a moment right now. That term went from obscure political jargon to mainstream issue in just a couple of years. The practice of using sports to improve your country’s reputation and distract from any awful things your regime has done is nothing new, but it’s certainly en vogue. Still, sportswashing might not be a phrase you’ve come across before, especially if you don’t follow international soccer. Now that the practice is working its way up to the global stage, it’s worth taking a look at the issue John Oliver style: what sportswashing is, where it comes from, and why it’s booming right now.
Sportswashing has always existed in some form or fashion. Roman poets were complaining about citizens ignoring important political issues because they got their “bread and circuses” all the way back in the first century. The modern form, national governments using sports to distract from their total disregard for human rights, was created by someone that I think we all can agree was a pretty bad dude: Adolf Hitler. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were supposed to be Hitler’s coronation, a celebration of Nazi Germany and demonstration of the Aryan race’s biological superiority. Thankfully, American hero Jesse Owens ruined it, embarrassing Hitler to the point that he left the games entirely. And while they wouldn’t launch the deadliest war in history for another three years, the Nazi regime had been systematically isolating and attacking Jewish citizens well before the start of the Olympics. They tidied up a bit before the rest of the world arrived, and everyone bought into the pageantry of it all, enthralled by the allure of sport. Ever since, creating a successful sports culture has been a key part of the authoritarian blueprint.
Sportswashing may not be new, but it certainly is the new hotness. The globalization of sports has allowed foreign money to move freely into established markets. Dictators no longer have to try (and probably fail) to build their own league from scratch, even if some are still trying it (Spoiler alert: it has NOT gone well). Now you can throw sponsorship money at a team or, even better, just buy the team yourself. Nowhere is that second route more prevalent than in the beautiful game. Oil money runs through the veins of international soccer like wine through an Italian eight-year-old. At this point there seems to be a direct correlation between the number of trophies in the team’s case and the number of humans rights violations their owners have committed. City Football Group, run by Abu Dhabi, owns the reigning champions in three different countries, including here in the USA, though the crown jewel is English side Manchester City. In their 114-year history before the Abu Dhabi purchase, they had won the Premier League twice. In the fourteen years since, they’ve won it six times. Qatar purchased French team Paris Saint-Germain in 2011. Before, they won the league twice in 41 years. They’ve won it in eight out of the eleven seasons since. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, literally the first man to endorse Vladimir Putin, bought London-based Chelsea in 2003. They won the league once in the 98 years before Abramovich. They won it five times, plus two Champions League titles, in the two decades after (Thankfully, the team was recently seized by the British government because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so at least he’s out of the club). Noticing a pattern? Sportswashing preys on our worst instincts as sports fans. The same tribalism which creates that beautiful feeling of community surrounding our favorite teams also drives us to toss aside our usual morality, blindly defending “our guys” from the enemy. The team is a middleman, an extra layer of fog between you and the evil. Would any of you donate money to a government that hacked a journalist to pieces with a bone saw? I doubt it. Would any of you buy your favorite player’s jersey? Many of you most likely already have. Therein lies the power of sportswashing.
Buying a team is a great way to get a large group of people on your side, but that’s just one fanbase. The real power comes from hosting events. After the dust settled in Europe, and the International Olympic Committee was confronted with the consequences of helping legitimize the Nazi regime, they stayed away from awarding the games to any controversial nations (for the most part). All of that changed in 2014, when the Olympics returned to Russia. In hindsight, it actually changed with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but the CCP’s atrocities weren’t as well known at the time. When the Winter Olympics came to Sochi, they did so despite protests from some of the largest human rights organizations in the world. Just two years later, the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro were overseen by Vice President Michel Temer because the former president had just been impeached for genuinely absurd levels of corruption. After a short break, the Olympics ended up back in China, this time after their genocide on full display. As always, soccer saw the Olympics and had to jump in on the sportswashing party. Many leagues now host their Supercup, a one-off game to start the season between the winners of last year’s league and domestic tournament, in Saudi Arabia. Isn’t that where fans of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid want to see their teams compete for a trophy? While this might be the most blatant example of soccer grabbing at blood money, it’s not the biggest one.
The event that brought sportswashing into the mainstream, and the genesis of this whole piece, is the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Back in 2010, FIFA awarded this year’s World Cup to Qatar, despite the small gulf state having no real soccer culture, no stadiums, minimal infrastructure for major events, and a climate so extreme that the tournament had to be moved to Winter. And those are just the practical issues. Never mind the human rights abuses and their system of modern slavery, which has caused the death of over 6,500 migrant workers. It’s not a coincidence that many of the officials who chose Qatar are now in jai. Hosting the biggest sporting event in the world is more than just owning a team. The World Cup is essentially a month long commercial for the host nation. The world will see nothing but scenic beaches, thriving cities, and smiling faces; nothing past the razor-thin layer of polish hiding the ugliness. The TV networks certainly won’t be the ones to remove it. Billions of dollars are at stake. And that is why sportswashing works. The fatter the sack of cash gets, the more corporations are willing to overlook. The bigger the trophy case gets, the more fans are willing to overlook. So what’s the solution? I don’t know. I don’t want to be a bummer, but there’s not much us regular folk can do to immediately affect change. Unless you have a few hundred billion dollars under your mattress, you can’t compete with the blood money. All we can do is stay vigilant, and, most importantly, care.