‘Sportswashing’: unethical but sadly here to stay

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With growing accusations across the world stage of genocide in the Uighur minority population in Xinjang Province, China, the question of whether the 2022 Winter should be boycotted has raised, though many nations such as the UK have ruled out the move, with Boris Johnson recently stating that the government is usually “not in favour of sporting boycotts” and such stance was a “long-term position”.

The games are being considered by many as an act of ‘sportswashing’, a term created by the 2015 Sports or Rights Campaign, which was an attempt to call out Azerbaijan’s hosting of prestigious sporting events to “distract from its human rights record”. The term has grown in use with discussions around the ethics of holding sporting events in countries with questionable human rights records. The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, the Qatar 2022 World Cup and the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix are frequently questioned examples.

Many argue in favour of boycotting these events due to the success sportswashing has arguably had, with China gaining a vast PR boost after the 2008 and Azerbaijan holding sporting events successfully hosting a F1 Grand Prix every year since 2017.

Sportwashing holds a long and problematic history. Some opposers of sportswashing use the 1936 Olympic Games which were used by Hitler and the Nazi party to promote their ideals as an example of the danger and success ‘sportswashing’ can have.

Other more modern arguments against sportswashing, outside of baseline humanitarian objections, include the conflict between the affairs of host nations and the equality campaigns, codes of ethics and conducts run by sports and sporting bodies.

For instance, look out the #WeRaceAsOne campaign run by Formula One in the 2020 season, which has been carried through to 2021 alongside other initiatives such as the W Series support for 2021 races. Many point out how the promotion of LGBT rights, gender and racial equality conflicts with the laws, culture and affairs of many locations on the calendar such as Russia, Azerbaijan, China and Saudi Arabia. This casts doubt upon the validity of #WeRaceAsOne campaign amongst fans.

I do believe sportswashing should be opposed, but I do not see it as a likely solution in the current landscape

The other side of the discussion suggests that although values may clash, sports and sporting bodies should let events go ahead wherever they deem fit.

Fans from nations often mentioned in sportswashing discussions argue that they want to simply enjoy sporting events in their home nations and wish to see events considered outside of politics. Not all citizens reflect their government or agree with their ideas, seeing boycotts and event re-location as unfair on sporting fans and ineffective against governments.

Others claim that hosting events run by bodies with progressive values in clashing nations promotes positive change. However, this can be said to have Eurocentric undertones, negating the fact that many nations already have their own activists and changemakers. Leaving intervention to sporting campaigns feels almost colonial and certainly uncomfortable.

Another suggestion in disagreement with event re-location and the idea of ‘sportswashing’ is that governments should be left to sanction nations on a more political level, with sport and sporting bodies acting neutrally outside of this.

What is the right approach? It is difficult to say.

Although many sports and sporting bodies promote equality through campaigns and codes of ethics and conduct they have never inherently been political bodies. Despite political figures gaining lots of screen time as ceremonial figures at sporting events – something which is frequently criticised – their ‘neutrality’ leaves grounds to host wherever they deem fit and not hold responsibility for political and humanitarian objections.

But ethically sportswashing proves difficult. No sporting body wants to be seen as a front for the promotion of ideologies questioned by both governments and humanitarian organisations but sporting events are driven by profit and financial gain, which are big incentives for sports and sporting bodies to overlook such issues.

Amnesty International accuse FIFA of making large profits from the exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. Accusations include forced labour, delayed salaries, appalling living conditions and entrapment by the confiscation of passports and non-renewal of resident permits by employers, which is illegal in Qatari law. The Guardian revealed in February 2021 that more than 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since their winning 2010 bid.

FIFA also received many allegations of vote buying after Russia and Qatar’s successful bid’s for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Further accusations of bribery and corruption offences surrounding the broadcasting rights for 2018 and 2022 tournaments in the Americas demonstrate the value of money in sport and how it is often held above ethical values.

Although sporting fans should be allowed to enjoy events globally, I do believe sportswashing should be opposed and re-location of events undertaken if necessary but I do not see that as a realistic solution in the current landscape.

However, I do believe some action is realistic and wanted by sporting fans to allow fans from host nations to attend events while preventing the promotion of ideologies, governments, current affairs and laws deemed questionable by international governments and humanitarian organisations and which are against the equality campaigns, codes of ethics, and values held by the relevant sport.  

The questions of whether ethical objections should come first and whether ‘sportswashing’ should be opposed are ultimately discussions that will go on for many years to come, and a topic where unfortunately change is unlikely to come while nations continue to offer large financial incentives for event hosting.

Image: theglobalpanorama via Creative Commons

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