Sportswashing, Propaganda, and Diplomacy

Criminals wash their dirty trillions through the global financial system to make it ‘white’ and legit. Corrupt and rotten regimes enhance credibility and reputation via sports
By Alam Srinivas
  • Sportswashing allows regimes to divert attention from moral violations, downplay their impact, or even normalise them. This occurs as mega-sporting events
  • UAE bought Manchester City, an English football team that has won numerous titles and has ownership in various countries through a holding company
  • The Emirates logo has been a staple of kits worn by England’s Arsenal, France’s PSG, Germany’s Hamburger SV, Italy’s AC Milan, and Spain’s Real Madrid
  • Saudi Arabia paid $500 million to Cristiano Ronaldo, to play for a Saudi club, purchased Britain’s Newcastle United football club for $400 million

ALMOST 3,000 years ago, the Greeks held the Olympic Games as a religious festival to honour Zeus, the father of their Gods and Goddesses. Within decades, Olympia, the site of the games, became an arena to play politics, even wage wars. Since control over Olympics and Olympia entailed prestige, economic benefits, and political influence within the region, the city-states in Greece engaged in several battles to capture both. It was not long before tyrants used them to gain respect in a peaceful manner too. They took part in the contests held every four years, won medals, dedicated lavish offerings to Zeus, and documented their victories through poems, statues, and stories.

During the Roman empire, the emperors held gladiator games and chariot races in a massive Coliseum to divert the attention of the public from daily problems and troubles. The participants were slaves, criminals, and prisoners of wars, but the public was enchanted with death, blood, and gore. According to a website,USHistory.org, “Paid for by the emperor, the games were used to keep the poor and unemployed entertained and occupied. The emperor hoped to distract the poor from their poverty in the hopes that they would not revolt.” A Roman author wrote 2,000 years ago, “The people are only anxious for two things: bread and circuses (tracks for chariot races).” External excitement helped people forget their internal pangs.

Over the centuries, sports became deeply embedded with politics, propaganda, and diplomacy. In the past 100 years, Adolf Hitler hosted the Olympics (1936) in Berlin to assert Aryan supremacy. He was angry when an African-American Jesse Owens won four golds. Two years earlier, Benito Mussolini staged the football World Cup, Italy won it, and the fascist regime used it to show its strength and flex its muscles. Argentina wooed global fans for the football World Cup in 1978. Not far from a stadium was a naval school, where “thousands of the military junta’s victims were tortured or disappeared.” China and Russia (USSR) hosted large-scale and grand sports events like the Olympics to promote and enhance their soft power.

There is nothing wrong with nations using cultural icons and values to further global power. The examples include American movies, and food (McDonald’s) and beverages (Pepsi and Coke), Russian vodka and Soviet communism, China’s manufacturing and Maoism, French and Italian fashion, and British language (English). There are positive values attached to them. Soft power in this and past centuries proved to be more resilient compared to hard power (wars and military supremacy). Sports is a crucial element in the form of ping pong and chess diplomacy between the US, China, and Russia, cricket as a gentleman’s game exported by Britain to the sub-continent, and football as a uniting factor among divisive cultures.
What irks critics is when regimes that violate human rights, encourage gender discrimination, and dilute morals use sports to conceal wrongdoings, or deflect attention from human cruelties. Michael Skey, an academician, talks of different forms of such ‘washing’. Whitewashing is concealment or cover-up. It has, according to Lesley Wexley three components: a defect, attempt to conceal it, and failure to fix it. Greenwashing, says Skey, is communication aimed to “mislead people into forming overly positive beliefs about an organisation’s environmental practices.” Pinkwashing emphasises support of LGBTQ+ people and lifestyles, as Israel does successfully, even as it deflects attention from its actions in Palestine.

BUYING REPUTATION VIA SPORTS

Welcome to Sportswashing, which entered the mainstream lexicon a few years ago, and became a part of Oxford dictionary in 2018. This points to how questionable regimes in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East use sports to gain global credibility and legitimacy. By investing billions of dollars in hosting events, buying clubs and players, and sponsorships, these nations aim to hide their black spots, cover their dark underbellies, and repel attention from them. Since concealment is almost impossible in this age of digital and social media, diversion is the main goal. Let the world talk about the sport-related positives, and pray that negative messages get buried.

Although the label loosely and largely applies to non-western countries, those in Europe and North America can equally be accused of sportswashing. Let us focus on three Middle-East nations, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and UAE, which receive huge coverage in media and academic circles. In football, Qatar, which organised the World Cup in 2022, reigns supreme. It has media rights in 43 countries, and spent $600 million in 2021 to broadcast matches of UEFA’s Champions League in the region. It has commercial deals with clubs, competitions, and associations in five continents. It sponsors kits of clubs, owns five teams, like France’s historic Paris Saint-Germain, and has 11 world class facilities to train footballers, and enable renowned players to play.

In terms of reach and expanse, Saudi Arabia is a clear leader. Grant Liberty, which spearheads movements against regimes engaged in sportswashing, estimates that the nation’s investment in sports zoomed from $2 billion to more than $50 billion between 2020 and 2023

Sarath Ganji of Harvard University writes, “The Emirates logo has been a staple of kits worn by England’s Arsenal, France’s Paris Saint-Germain, Germany’s Hamburger SV, Italy’s AC Milan, and Spain’s Real Madrid; meanwhile, the Etihad brand has become a metonym for the stadium in which England’s Manchester City FC plays.” UAE purchased Manchester City, an English football club which has won several championships and, through a holding company, has stakes in 12 franchises, including clubs in Australia, Brazil, India, Japan, and the US. Its business model, says Ganji, is to turn the global football assets into an international entertainment company like Walt Disney. In terms of reach and expanse, Saudi Arabia is a clear leader. Grant Liberty, which spearheads movements against regimes engaged in sportswashing, estimates that the nation’s investment in sports zoomed from $2 billion to more than $50 billion between 2020 and 2023. This may be an exaggeration, as the latter figure includes plans to sink in $38 billion in e-sports in the future. But still, one may be amazed by the $5 billion each it has spent on football and golf, $1 billion dollars in wrestling (WWE), $1.4 billion in motor sports, apart from hundreds of millions in horse racing and boxing.

Audacious as it may sound, Saudi Arabia decided to spend $2 billion on a new global golf tournament, and then forced the established PGA Tour to merge with its LIV Golf brand in a $3 billion deal. It paid $500 million to Portugal’s footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, to play for a Saudi club, purchased Britain’s Newcastle United football club for $400 million, and doled out $75 million to Argentina’s Lionel Messi as a ‘Visit Saudi’ ambassador. More ambitious was its unsuccessful plans to woo Messi and golfer Tiger Woods to play in the country, and a $20 billion bid to acquire the Formula One motor racing enterprise.

SPORTING COMPLICITY, WASHING CORRUPTION

Kyle Fruh, and two co-authors, argue that sportswashing enables regimes to distract people away from moral violations, minimise the impact, or even normalise it. Distraction happens when a sport mega-event helps them upgrade “reputation-enhancing messages”, and downgrade the negative ones. Thus, during the Qatar World Cup, it was inevitable that the first page of search results for Qatar pertained to football, and those related to human rights were relegated to the later pages. In cases of minimising, the dark issues seem less urgent. Normalising is the extreme scenario when global audiences may not even see the moral violations as violations.

This happens through a twin-pronged strategy of audience complicity, and corruption of sports-related values. Complicity happens when players and managers of a club, or administrators and experts related to an event, stay away from the misdeeds. When Newcastle United’s manager was asked about the execution of 81 people in Saudi Arabia, which owned the club, he said he would comment only on football. This, says Fruh and others, “helps to separate owners’ misdeeds from the club.” It was not surprising that ever since Qatar won the World Cup bid in 2010, officials of FIFA, the global football body, supported the host. Testimonials came from former well-known players like England’s David Beckham, who were recruited by Qatar.

From right to left: the Fuhrer Adolf HITLER, King BORIS III of Bulgaria, Marshal August VON MACKENSEN and Doctor FRICK in the VIP stands at Berlin’s stadium for the 11th Olympic Games, in 1936. Depuis la droite, le Führer Adolf HITLER, le roi BORIS III de Bulgarie, le maréchal August VON MACKENSEN et le docteur FRICK dans la tribune d’honneur du stade de Berlin lors des 11èmes Jeux olympiques de 1936.

In the past 100 years, Adolf Hitler hosted the Olympics (1936) in Berlin to assert Aryan supremacy. He was angry when an African-American Jesse Owens won four golds. Two years earlier, Benito Mussolini staged the football World Cup, Italy won it, and the fascist regime used it to show its strength and flex its muscles

Fans can be complicit too, thanks to loyalty, passion, zeal, and undying attachment to a club. Chelsea Football Club, formerly owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who is deeply tied to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, witnessed a scene when its fans sang the owner’s name and interrupted applause meant to show solidarity for Ukraine, after Russia attacked it. In a manner, the fans undermined, even to a small extent, international efforts to put pressure on Putin to withdraw his troops. In 2018, an Abu Dhabi court convicted a British researcher on charges of espionage. The sentence was defended on social media by a section of supporters of Manchester City, the British football club owned by UAE.

Ganji cites a study by Oxford anthropologists, who discovered that Manchester City supporters were among the most ‘fused’ fans in the English Premier League, and perceived each other as “members of a single tribe.” He adds, “Taken together, the studies underscore the value of Manchester City to its Emirati owners: a stadium to convert casual fans into energised partisans, and a brand to rally energised partisans for political ends.” Similarly, Newcastle United’s fans turned into “propaganda foot soldiers”, and attacked journalists who questioned the human rights record of Saudi Arabia.

Football clubs, says researcher Andrew Edgar, have “long and proud histories,” which are sources of identities for communities and fans. Newcastle, which has not won a major trophy in decades, attracts a “fanatical local following.” This is true for iconic sports events such as World Cup football and cricket, Olympics, PGA Tour, Formula One, Wimbledon, and others. Such ties among fans, and within communities, are sacred, feels Edgar. Sportswashing, adds Fruh and co-authors, tends to corrupt values embedded in sporting culture. When a club does well, “the fans will defend the sports-washer, just as they defend a beloved manager or player.”

Sports tools

By investing billions of dollars in hosting events, buying clubs and players, and sponsorships, questionable regimes in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East aim to hide their black spots, cover their dark underbellies, and repel attention from them

Such emotions, like augmented reality, creates an immersive atmosphere that infects the fans. Ganji says that such an atmosphere is common in English football. A recent marketing study on Liverpool club found that the “collective effervescence” among the fans “energise not just their spirits but also the symbols – the kits and scarves, songs and slogans, photos and logos – seen and heard around Anfield (the 53,000-seat stadium which is home to Liverpool supporters).” In such an environment, people “see no evil, hear no evil, and feel no evil.” There is a smoke screen that displaces information before it reaches the people, says Ganji, “dimming their eyes to pertinent events.”

SPORTS AS WAR MINUS THE SHOOTING

George Orwell, the famous writer, said, “Serious sport is war minus the shooting.” However, when bullets, tanks, missiles, and rockets are eliminated, a few doubts crop up. First, sportswashing may be one of the several objectives of a regime. Adam Hertzman, a researcher, says that FIFA believes that the 2022 World Cup football in Qatar has the “potential to generate opportunities for increased cultural understanding and awareness, between different types of cultures.” Earlier, it set 2030 as the year to ensure promotion of cultural diversity, and culture of peace. Was this true of Qatar?

During the build-up to the World Cup, Qatar did reform and fine-tune its national policies, and shifted focus on sport, education, and culture. There is a development plan for 2030, and sport is an important foundation of a “vision of cultural progress.” One needs to assess if these blueprints will remain relevant in the future, and whether Qatar pursues these socio-cultural goals. Similarly, Saudi Arabia hopes to use sport to wean away its economy from undue dependence on oil exports. It plans to prepare for a non-fossil fuel future, even as its coffers are currently full of oil-related dollars. If these non-oil investments yield results in terms of growth, employment, and higher incomes, will they inevitably lead to a more just and equitable society?

Hence, as Fruh and co-authors note, sportswashing as an allegation and as a phenomenon is tough to assess by an outsider. There may be no linear linkage between a sports event and sportswashing. The 1978 World Cup football in Argentina was awarded in 1966, years before a military dictatorship took control in that country in 1976. Hence the violent regime used the event, which was already in its bag. What lends credence to the charges is the fact that the dictatorship “sensed that if Argentina won the World Cup, it could ‘create a sense of national euphoria and togetherness’ – just what you need when you are brutally attempting to stamp out dissent.”

A study by Oxford anthropologists discovered that Manchester City supporters were among the most ‘fused’ fans in the English Premier League, and perceived each other as “members of a single tribe.” Similarly, Newcastle United’s fans turned into “propaganda foot soldiers”, and attacked journalists who questioned the human rights record of Saudi Arabia

Finally, using sport to wash blackened and darkened reputations can boomerang. One can safely argue that because Qatar became the host of the 2022 World Cup way back in 2010, there were increased and high-pitched allegations against it. There was more media coverage on human rights, and living standards of migrant labourers because of the World Cup. The same was the case with Azerbaijan, which hosted the 2015 European Games, Europe’s version of Olympics. Immediately, 17 global rights organisations “resolved to use the spotlight on the games to draw attention” to its regime’s repressions. It resulted in a campaign, Sport for Rights, which received high media coverage.

Thus, some critics observe that sportswashing as a term is being misused and abused, at least within the media. To prove it requires investigations at multiple levels, especially since the goals of the host nation may be nuanced and layered. Sportswashing can be both successful and unsuccessful, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. At the same time, one can be sure that several nations have realised the benefits of pumping money into global sporting events, clubs, associations, and players.

Alam Srinivas

Alam Srinivas is a business journalist with almost four decades of experience and has written for the Times of India, bbc.com, India Today, Outlook, and San Jose Mercury News. He is working on a new book on the benefits and pitfalls of the Indian Bankruptcy Code.

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