Sportswashing: a historical perspective on a current trend (2024)

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At one level, the LIV event is part of a long history of sports splintering into groups, which we can trace as far back as 1895, at least, when a group of rugby clubs in the north of England broke away from the Rugby Football Union (RFU) over the thorny issue of amateurism and professionalism. The southern-based RFU saw payment for play as anathema, while clubs based in northern industrial towns wanted to compensate their players for lost working hours. A breakdown was inevitable, and the schism resulted in the birth of a new code, rugby league.

The LIV story also resonates with the World Series Cricket competition of 1977 to 1979, organised by Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer, which offered players financial incentives to leave the existing system and therefore forsake their international careers. And in 1992, the biggest English football clubs left the Football League to form the Premier League in the chase for higher broadcasting fees; a move echoed – so far unsuccessfully – by the recent European Super League project. So, there is nothing new in breakaway competitions with deep pockets.

But the LIV Golf controversy is as much about politics as the money. Alongside Saudi Arabia’s 2021 investment in Newcastle United FC in a takeover worth approximately £300 million, it’s an example of a trend known as ‘sportswashing’.

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What is ‘sportswashing’?

Sportswashing is where a person, group or even a state gets involved in sport, predominantly by hosting events or sponsoring teams, to create a more positive public image that directs attention from divisive issues. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the accusation is that they are using golf and football – as well as having eyes on hosting a future Olympics – to improve their international reputation, distracting from its poor human rights records (including the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi) and structural discrimination.

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Saudi Arabia and other oil states are taking the practice of sportswashing to new heights, particularly through their investment in famous clubs in other countries, exemplified by Abu Dhabi’s $212 million takeover of Manchester City in 2008, and the Qatari state’s 2011-12 purchase of Paris Saint-Germain in a deal worth approximately €1 billion over five seasons. At the end of 2022, in another headline example, Qatar is set to host the men’s football world cup.

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History has some salutary lessons here. The two biggest sporting mega-events on the planet are the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, and both have long records of sportswashing. Many authoritarian governments have hosted these events, and used them to promote images of stability, normality and order. For the international sporting establishment, this trend has been acceptable as long as the events have gone well.

For the Olympics, this trend was pioneered by Nazi Germany in 1936, when Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berlin hosted the winter and summer games respectively. Further examples then came in Mexico City in 1968, Moscow (1980), and Beijing (2008) with the summer games; and Sochi (2014); and Beijing again in 2022 with the winter.

As for the FIFA World Cup, the classic examples have been the tournaments hosted by fascist Italy in 1934 and Argentina’s military junta in 1978. While there are many contextual and ideological differences between these events, some key themes are visible when they are examined through the lens of sportswashing.

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The first feature is for the host government to convince the sporting world that the event will be a success, and will not be disrupted by political problems. Nazi Germany did this best. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had awarded the 1936 Summer games to Berlin in 1931 when the Weimar government was in place, so the arrival of Hitler’s regime in 1933 proved a challenge.

Many opponents of the Nazis, particularly trade union and Jewish groups in France, Britain, the US and elsewhere, objected to the Olympics becoming a Nazi propaganda piece. The German government responded by inviting key stakeholders, notably American athletics administrator Avery Brundage, on fact-finding visits. In 1934, Brundage’s trip was designed to look for evidence of anti-Jewish discrimination in sport, but his Nazi hosts tightly controlled every moment to ensure their preferred outcome.

Brundage was given high-level state hospitality, while prevented from meeting any Jewish athletes privately. With all of the conversations going through government interpreters, there was never any doubt about the superficiality of the trip, especially when we note Brundage’s personal record of anti-Semitism as well as his membership, at the time, of a Chicago sports club that barred Jews from joining.

As historian Allen Guttmann noted, “Brundage believed what he was predisposed to believe”, and he returned to the US convinced that the Olympics were safe in Nazi hands. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which made structural discrimination against Jews central to all aspects of German public and private life, obviously showed up Brundage’s claims as risible. The Nazis then introduced the infamous ‘Olympic Pause’, a reduction of anti-Jewish propaganda to cover the winter games in February and summer games in August.

Similar trends were evident in Argentina in 1978, when former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who still wielded great influence in American diplomacy, visited the country during the World Cup. His trip came at a time when the Argentine military government was pursuing a brutal policy of crushing dissent through arbitrary arrests, torture, and the disappearances of people who spoke out. China also managed this well for Beijing’s two Olympics, in 2008 and 2022, with clear assurances to the IOC that neither would be upset by any political concerns.

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The second sportswashing feature that these historical examples have in common is the spectacle itself. No expense would be spared in building impressive sporting and, in some cases, public infrastructure in order to be the best possible showcase for the sport.

Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, designed by Werner March, was the most ambitious Olympic project to date and it remains in use today; a vivid legacy of Nazi architecture. For Argentina in 1978, alongside existing stadiums in Buenos Aires and Rosario, three brand new stadiums hosted matches in Cordoba, Mar del Plata, and Mendoza. The construction on another new venue in Horco Molle shut down in the face of fighting between the army and anti-government forces in the region.

Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron became an icon of the 2008 Olympics; and Russia’s venues for the 2018 World Cup included nine new stadiums. Qatar’s showcase stadiums, built by workers, according to Amnesty International, in conditions of “forced labour”, fit this same trend of authoritarian sportswashing: make the tournament or competition look as spectacular, modern, and dynamic as possible.

These venues provide plenty of opportunities for the authoritarian leaders to be seen on public display, and to enjoy the sport. Yet the beauty of sport’s unpredictable nature does create a level of risk for these leaders. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was not banking on his country’s team getting knocked out in the quarter finals in 2018, just as Adolf Hitler cannot have been pleased with an African-American athlete, Jesse Owens, winning four gold medals in Berlin.

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And while nothing has been formally proved about Argentina’s highly convenient 6-0 defeat of Peru, which secured the home team’s place in the World Cup final, stories of Argentine officials visiting the Peru players before the match suggest that the junta found a way around the unpredictability of sport.

Of course, there have been protests about these events. As more news spread from German exiles about how the Nazis were treating Jews, trade unionists, and opponents from the left, some governments considered boycotting the 1936 Olympics. Only Republican Spain saw this through, even going so far as to plan a counter People’s Olympiad in Barcelona that year (although this was derailed by Franco’s nationalist coup).

Groups advocating a range of causes, from environmental concerns to LGBT+ rights, lobbied against the Sochi 2014 Olympics, while the Beijing 2022 Olympics provided the perfect setting for campaigning groups to publicise widely-shared reports from governments and NGOs about China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslims. Credible reports of forced labour camps, mass sterilisations for women, and arbitrary executions led to critics labelling the policy as genocidal, and human rights groups have asked how such policies are compatible with the IOC’s brand.

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Similarly, in 1978, left-wing groups in Europe ran a high-profile campaign against the World Cup in light of the Argentine government’s disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings of its political opponents, including activists and journalists.

The governments involved typically brush these criticisms off, and appeal to the unifying nature of sport. The Mexican government’s treatment of protesters before the 1968 Olympics, however, showed what dictatorships put in this position are capable of. When students and workers gathered in Tlatelolco days before the opening ceremony to protest about a range of social and political issues, and to call for the money being spent on the games to go instead into social projects, the response was a massacre.

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Armed troops and police, including members of the special paramilitary Olimpia Battalion that the government had formed to infiltrate and destroy opposition groups, fired on the crowd. While the final death toll is still debated, it was somewhere between 300 and 400. Ultimately, none of these protests stopped the events from going ahead.

The golfers playing in the LIV Invitational Series at the Centurion Club may seem to be a long way from this tragedy, but they are the latest sportspeople to be part of a long trend of sportswashing. From Berlin to Qatar via the golf courses of Hertfordshire, authoritarian states have long used sport as a way of trying to show that they can be trusted. Investing in sport events, whether that has been buying clubs and competitions or hosting mega-events, is the perfect way for such states to promote an image of reliability, respectability, and internationalism. But the realities for their home populations will never match the supposed values of equality, friendliness, and fair play that sport is supposed to embody.

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Martin Polley is a professor of history and director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University. His books include Moving the Goalposts: a History of Sport and Society Since 1945 (Routledge, 1998) and The British Olympics: Britain’s Olympic Heritage, 1612­-2012 (English Heritage, 2011)

Sportswashing: a historical perspective on a current trend (2024)
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