Igniting the Truth Against Authoritarian Sportswashing (2024)

Igniting The Truth Against Authoritarian Sportswashing

As many sporting events returned to pre-pandemic conditions this year, so did the practice of authoritarian regimes hosting prestigious sporting events, acquiring sports clubs, or attracting celebrities and athletes to improve their public image. With most sporting institutions and athletes choosing financial gain over defending moral values, a few bold and brave voices instead chose courage and stood for human rights and democracy.

Sports aim to promote a set of moral and ethical values — including fairness, integrity, equality and respect — and athletes, sports institutions, and brands market their strong commitments to these values. For example, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) proclaims on its website that it “emphasizes the great importance of human rights,” among other things. Yet, in January, IIHF President René Fasel flew to Belarus — the co-host of the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship and a country ruled by an authoritarian regime — where he warmly embraced dictator Alexander Lukashenko. As it has become increasingly isolated for its human rights abuses, the Belarusian regime hoped to use the Championship to project a false image of normalcy. Facing criticism and calls to cancel the tournament on the basis of Lukashenko’s ongoing repression of Belarus’ pro-democracy movement, Fasel declared that “we do not want to mix sport and politics. Sport should unite nations, not divide them.” In fact, Fasel’s own actions and statements were anything but apolitical. During his visit, Fasel also met with Dmitry Baskau, one of the individuals that allegedly beat peaceful protester Raman Bandarenka to death in November 2020. It was a grim reminder of how the Lukashenko regime mixes sports and politics, and how the regime uses ice hockey to whitewash its image. Baskau had also served as the Head of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Federation, and was a close personal friend of Lukashenko.

Similarly, the National Basketball Association (NBA) aggressively markets its stated passion of being “deeply committed to social responsibility,” notably through the NBA Cares global social responsibility program. Yet, in launching its highly anticipated Basketball Africa League in May 2021, the NBA chose to partner with Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame, who sparked the bloodiest conflicts since World War II with his invasions of neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and is implicated by the United Nations in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The tournament helped the Rwandan regime present Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, as an attractive, clean, and safe destination while concealing the reality of Kagame’s harsh tyranny. Hosting the tournament allowed Kagame to boost his much marketed, but increasingly contested, image as Rwanda’s transformational and visionary leader, and to be seen with celebrities such as billionaire Robert Edens, co-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks franchise, and rapper J Cole.

Facing renewed scrutiny and criticism over ongoing repression — particularly following the release of a new book on the Rwandan regime’s campaign of extraterritorial assassinations and the forceful rendition and trial of prominent Rwandan dissident Paul Rusesabagina— Kagame appeared to attempt to rehabilitate his image through sports. In August, for example, he sought to appeal to pop culture by tweeting a frustrated reaction to a defeat of English Premier League club Arsenal FC. However, this was no innocent action, as Kagame’s regime has been profiting from a sponsorship deal with Arsenal since 2018 — one in which the club promotes the image of Rwanda as a leading global tourist destination by featuring a “Visit Rwanda” logo on the team’s uniforms. Shortly after Kagame’s tweet, it was revealed that the club had quietly renewed its sponsorship deal with the Rwandan regime, ignoring the public controversies following Kagame.

The Rwandan regime also holds a sponsorship deal with French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain, which is owned by the Qatari royal family. The club’s blockbuster acquisition of superstar Lionel Messi in August was a boost to both authoritarian regimes. However, the Qatari regime topped Messi’s signing in November when it recruited David Beckham with a $277 million deal to promote the 2022 World Cup, to be hosted in Qatar. The deal came just a few months after an investigative report revealed that more than 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since the country was awarded the tournament. Beckham dismissed widespread criticism, invoking his belief in the “power of football to inspire positive change.” Beckham’s friend and fellow soccer legend Samuel Eto’o went further; “Football is for the player, politics is for politicians,” he said in Doha, Qatar’s capital city, as he joined Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, and other celebrities in a ceremony for the unveiling of the Qatar 2022 World Cup countdown. Infantino struck a more nuanced tone, insisting that Qatar had undergone a “great evolution,” while acknowledging that more needs to be done. He gave assurances that all would be welcome in Qatar, including LGBTQ+ fans whom he urged to attend the tournament.

However, Infantino was much less nuanced when he visited Qatar’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia in January, meeting with the kingdom’s de facto dictator Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who was responsible for the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and praising the Saudi regime for developing the country and women’s soccer in a government sponsored video. MBS’ regime has spent at least $2.2 billion in sportswashing since 2017 to largely obscure ongoing repression, including the imprisonment of Saudi women’s rights activists demanding the end of the oppressive male guardianship system. This October, which marked the third anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder, a Saudi-led consortium controlled by MBS completed a controversial $400 million purchase of English Premier League club Newcastle United, while another MBS-controlled golf investment group hired Australian golf legend Greg Norman as its CEO in a $200 million deal. In response to concerns about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, Norman offered a statement that even the Saudi regime could not get away with: “The women there now, I’ve been so impressed. You walk into a restaurant and there are women. They’re not wearing burkas. They’re out playing golf,” he said. In September, Saudi Arabia also signed a $650 million deal with Formula One, which included hosting its first race and a concert with entertainment featuring musical artists like Justin Bieber in the midst of public outcry.

Saudi Arabia’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose royal family already owns the English Premier League club Manchester City, also remained a major player in sportswashing. For example, for years, the Emirati regime has used its partnership with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to host mixed martial arts (MMA) fights to obscure domestic repression, the jailing of dissidents, and the country’s role in the devastating Saudi-led war in Yemen. This year, however, the UFC’s sponsorship deal with Emirati AI company G42 backfired when the press unmasked the company as the main investor in surveillance technology deployed by the UAE to spy on its citizens. Thus, the UFC, with intentions of promoting a premier Emirati business, ended up becoming a billboard for a company enabling the Emirati regime’s surveillance state.

Besides the UAE, the regime of Chechnya’s dictator Ramzan Kadyrov has also been exploiting its relationship with UFC for sportswashing, investing in MMA sports (including creating its own fighting club and building training facilities across the region) and hosting fights to attract celebrities, whitewash human rights abuses, and exercise control over its population. In May, the regime’s Visit Chechnya Instagram account put up a video of the dictator sparring with UFC superstar Khamzat Chimaev. Kadyrov, who has been projecting an image of himself as a knowledgeable and avid fan of the sports, also staged an amateur boxing match with his four fighting sons in a contrived display of dynastic propaganda.

Perhaps one of the biggest enablers of sportswashing is the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Too often, the IOC has been unwilling to fulfill its moral responsibility to defend the values of the Olympics, by providing brutal dictators a place of honor in box seats. In 2021, the Human Rights Foundation and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice asked the IOC to deny the heads of state from 15 authoritarian regimes the opportunity to participate in the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympic Games by leaving their designated seating box or virtual room empty.

The IOC’s complicity is even more glaring with the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which the Chinese Communist Party — one of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes —will use to grandstand and whitewash its human rights abuses, notably in Hong Kong, Tibet, and the Uyghur Region (Xinjiang). Despite widespread calls for a boycott of the Games, evidence of mounting repression in the lead-up to the Olympics, and China’s failure to address accusations of sexual assault leveled by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai against a retired high-ranking Chinese government official, IOC Chair Thomas Bach likened taking a stance on human rights to political partisanship by stating that “if we were to start taking political sides, this would be the politicization of the Olympic Games, and this, I would think further, could be the end of the Olympic Games.”

Against the apathy of sporting institutions and the powerful pull of high dollars or considerable financial profits offered by authoritarian regimes, stood a few brave and determined brave activists, journalists, and athletes, with only the truth on their side.

In Belarus, prominent athletes such as Alena Leuchanka mounted a successful campaign, along with activists and the Belarus Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), to shame many of the sponsors of the Ice Hockey World Championship into withdrawing their sponsorships. IIHF eventually canceled the event in Belarus, and BSSF continued to speak out and oppose other international sporting events sponsored by the regime.

When anti-regime protests broke out in Cuba in July, Cuban Major League Baseball stars Aroldis Chapman, from the New York Yankees, and Adolis García, from the Texas Rangers, used their platforms in the United States to show their support of the Cuban people. They both released statements of support on social media and wore the slogans “SOS Cuba” and “Patria y Vida” on their hats at the 2021 MLB All-Star Game. Patria y Vida (“Homeland and Life”) is the name of a protest song by Cuban artists that has become an anthem for the pro-democracy movement in the island, and is a play on the regime’s decades-old slogan, Patria o Muerte, “Homeland or Death.” Chapman also received solidarity from his Yankees teammates, with many of them wearing “Patria y Vida” T-shirts with him during a pregame session in Miami days after the protests started. These MLB athletes brought visibility to the grim reality on the ground in Cuba, at a critical moment when the regime was doing everything in its power to shut down the internet and prevent news of the protests from spreading abroad.

In the fallout of The Guardian’s investigation into the deaths of thousands of migrant workers in Qatar, several European soccer clubs and associations have taken public stances in support of human rights in the country. For example, amid calls for soccer associations across Europe to boycott the tournament, Norway’s players wore T-shirts with the message, “Human rights on and off the pitch” during their World Cup qualifiers. Meanwhile, Denmark’s players pledged to feature protest messages on their training clothes in Qatar, and Denmark’s soccer association pledged that its team would use its time in Qatar to advocate for human rights and migrant workers. Sweden’s top soccer leagues also demanded action from the soccer governing body, FIFA.

With all this negative attention, Qatar’s regime capitalized on Formula One’s cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix because of Covid-19 to secure a 10-year deal to host its own Grand Prix. With the final three races of the 2021 F1 World Championship in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton used his helmet and his platform to call attention to the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community in the countries.

English activists and fans also took stances against the sportswashing involving Newcastle and Arsenal FC. Some soccer fans publicly aired concerns about Saudi human rights violations, and a van with a “Justice for Jamal Khashoggi” poster was seen driving around the Newcastle stadium. The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, which has long criticized and scrutinized the club and the British government over the morality of the sponsorship deal with Rwanda, accused the club of having “lost its moral compass in its desire to maximize revenues.”

One of the bravest acts of individual defiance came when Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter (now Enes Kanter Freedom) kicked off the NBA season with a series of videos on social media, denouncing the Chinese regime’s abuses in Tibet, the Uyghur Region, and Hong Kong. Despite the Chinese government’s backlash —including suspending all scheduled broadcasts of Boston Celtics games on Tencent, the NBA’s streaming partner in China — Kanter has stood firm and continued to wear customized shoes with human rights messages about the Uyghur crisis, forced labor, the Chinese dictatorship’s fragility, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and more.

Kanter’s peaceful protest shoes were hand-painted by several artists, including Chinese dissident artist Badiucao. At the 2021 Oslo Freedom Forum in Miami, the artist released a “Beijing 2022 Olympics” poster collection denouncing China’s sportswashing of its abuses in Tibet, the Uyghur Region, Hong Kong and in China,and calling for a boycott. In December, Australia and Canada joined the U.S. in a diplomatic boycott of the Games.

In November, tennis star Peng Shuai accused a top Chinese official of sexual assault. The official had played a key role in China’s bid to host the Olympic Games. Peng disappeared from public view soon after, only to be subsequently paraded while smiling in a series of contrived videos. To date, Peng’s safety and wellbeing is still unknown. China’s censorship and lack of transparency surrounding Peng’s disappearance led the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to suspend lucrative tournaments in the country. “This is about something that’s bigger than the business and bigger than the financials,” said WTA chairman Steve Simon. With so few in sports and business willing to stand up to China, Simon’s stance and show of solidarity is extraordinary and warmly welcomed.

“In terms of authoritarian sportswashing, 2021 was a particularly troubling year,” said Karim Zidan, an investigative journalist who has extensively covered the use of sports by authoritarian regimes. He expressed that despite the growing awareness of sportswashing, apathy from sports fans and willful indifference from sports celebrities and institutions are particularly concerning. “2022 is going to be another difficult year for human rights organizations and the fight against authoritarian sportswashing,” he added, pointing out that the Beijing Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar make the year “one of the more politically charged sporting years in recent memory.”

Sports, celebrities, and institutions doing business with authoritarian regimes typically dismiss human rights concerns as “politics” or suggest that engagement with dictatorial regimes help closed societies open up and reform. In reality, by doing business with dictators, celebrities, athletes, and institutions become the messengers of their narrow political ideology and apologists for their abuses. They also help legitimize and normalize into mainstream pop culture authoritarians undermining the very moral and ethical values of sports.

Instead of serving to legitimize the image of authoritarian regimes, the sports industry and athletes should:

– Refrain from doing business with dictatorial regimes to avoid any risk of the exploitation of the prestige of their brands to whitewash human rights violations, and alternatively and explicitly make clear that any business relationship is not an endorsem*nt of that regime;

– Ensure that any sporting investments in a country with an authoritarian regime benefits the people, and not the regime; and

– Consult the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

– Ensure consistency by upholding the same human rights values they promote and defend in their home countries.

With China and Qatar preparing to stage grandiose, but deceptive spectacles of promotion as they host two of the biggest sporting events in 2022, who will be the few brave sporting celebrities, institutions, journalists, and activists in democracies who will stand up to authoritarian sportswashing?

Igniting the Truth Against Authoritarian Sportswashing (2024)
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