September 26, 2023
WRITTEN BY:
Melinda Head

Sportswashing: The Art of Being What One is Not

And life goes on …

Sportswashing … have you ever wondered where the term comes from?

“Washing” has long been associated with deceptive practices and deliberate forms of distraction.

Whitewashing involves trying to hide unpleasant facts about somebody or something, or trying to make something seem better than it is. A good example of this is when, in 1998, Bill Clinton said that he “never had sexual relations with That Woman”, deflecting the fact that, while married and in a position of ultimate power, he had oral sex (technically not sexual relations) with 21 year old White House intern Monica Lewinsky “to relieve pressures of the job” in the Oval Office.

When it was revealed that President Bill Clinton had had an affair with young intern Monica Lewinsky, an entire machine went into overdrive to protect his reputation. We call that “whitewashing”

Greenwashing, coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in 1986, is the practice of trying to persuade others that products, policies and/or practices are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.  A good example of this is when Adidas claimed that its Stan Smith tennis shoes were 50% recycled, when only one component of them fit this bill. Other examples are increasingly numerous.

Adidas has had to soften its environmental claims, now it simply purports to be “more sustainable”

Sportswashing is the practice of supporting or organizing sporting events as a way to improve one’s reputation, often serving as a diversion from social concerns. The term was first coined in 2015 as a portmanteau of “sports” and “whitewashing” to describe Azerbaijan’s use of the European Games to divert international attention away from human rights concerns. That doesn’t mean sportswashing wasn’t present beforehand; the term “sportswashing” simply came into existence in 2015.

Soccer, the world’s most popular sport, has been accused of sportswashing. For example, Qatar faced scrutiny over its hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup amidst concerns about migrant workers and LGBTQ+ rights.

Kylian Mbappe has reportedly been offered $1.1 billion to play for Al-Halal SFC. Superstar Cristiano Ronaldo has already crossed the carpet and plays for Al-Nassr FC. Saudi Arabia has been widely criticized for human rights abuses

Formula 1, the pinnacle of motorsport, has found itself entangled in sportswashing controversies, with events held in countries with poor human rights records. Earlier this year, rumors were circulating that the Saudi Public Investment Fund wanted to buy the rights to F1 for $20 billion; at some point, Liberty Media may just decide to take its cheque – not bad for an initial investment of a paltry $4.4 billion! Aramco, the largest gas and oil company in the world, entered a 10 year $45 million/year sponsorship deal with F1 in 2020, the same year it was announced that Saudi Arabia would host its first Grand Prix. Aramco also has ties with Aston Martin F1, owned by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll who made his fortune in the fashion business. Mr. Stroll is undoubtedly also familiar with greenwashing.

Lawrence Stroll’s (left) Aston Martin F1 team receives support from the Saudis

There is also golf, with Saudi Arabia’s purchase of some of the best available talent to establish LIV, to the hysterical dismay of the PGA.

Including Phil Mickelson (pictured above), 7 of the 10 highest paid golfers in the World crossed over to LIV Golf

"We really see LIV Golf as a major sportswashing attempt by Saudi Arabia to cover up its egregious abuses." (Joey Shea, Human Rights Watch)

“We’re here because we’re concerned about what it means for an authoritarian government to use its wealth to capture an American institution.” (Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations)

And we haven’t touched upon tennis, boxing or other sports.

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a senior government official of sexual assault.  The Women’s Tennis Association suspended all tournaments in China and Hong Kong, but eventually lifted its boycott as interest waned

Saudi Arabia recently said that sportswashing increased its GDP ($1.1 trillion) by 1%. That amounts to $11 billion.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t care what his critics say

“If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we will continue doing sportswashing … I don’t care. I have 1% growth in GDP from sport, and I am aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want”. (Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Crown Prince)

Can sport still be pure? The answer is no. It is big business, and, in business, money is king. Expect to see wealthy, unscrupulous nations do whatever they wish … as long as athletes continue to play, and audiences continue to watch. If you expect anything else, you’re dreaming in technicolor.

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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