Sportswashing: Countries Use Sports To Distract From Crimes (2024)

BIANNA GOLODRYGA: Well now, is 2022 a year of sportswashing? The Beijing Winter Olympics and the Qatar World Cup have shed a light on the relationship between major sporting events and governments hoping to clean up their image. Dave Zirin is sports editor of “The Nation” and host of the “Edge of Sports” podcast. He joined Hari Sreenivasan to discuss what sportswashing means and the many examples we’re seeing around the world, from Qatar to Los Angeles.


HARI SREENIVASAN, CORRESPONDENT: Bianna, thanks. Dave Zirin, thanks for joining us. First, let’s get the terminology correct here? What is a definition of sportswashing?

DAVE ZIRIN, SPORTS EDITOR, THE NATION: Sportswashing is when an authoritarian regime uses a major sporting event like the World Cup or the Olympics as a method of distraction for its crimes it may be committing against populace. That’s how it’s usually used. But I think it should also be used as a way to describe when a country uses a sporting event to push through priorities that the citizens, otherwise, would not be for. Like, say, the tearing down of a local community to build a stadium for the purposes of one of these mega events. That’s what sportswashing is.

SREENIVASAN: How is it being used around us right now? Because there’s a lot of conversation about a new golf league that the Saudi government is essentially bankrolling.

ZIRIN: Well, we’re seeing the rise of a lot of authoritarian governments in terms of power, money, and influence. And we’ve seen this new generation of authoritarian leaders. Like, in Saudi Arabia, for example, seeing the importance of sports as a way to put the happiest possible face on their regime. And it’s not just for internal consumption to show the country, like, hey, look. We’re a modern country and we’re hosting all of these amazing events. It’s also for external consumption. It’s a message to the world that these countries should be part of the community of nations. And they point to things, like hosting, say, the Olympics and golf tournaments, a various soccer tournament, whatever it may be as a way to say we are part of the modern world. We are part of the international community and we should be given that respect.

SREENIVASAN: You know, for people who don’t follow golf, what happened here? I mean, why is this so important? And why is it different than just, say, a tournament that’s being played in Saudi Arabia?

ZIRIN: Well, it’s so different. And I’m — first of all, I’m glad you pointed that out, that last point. Because the PGA Tour, the Professional Golfers Association, they played tournaments in places that are authoritarian all the time. Autocracies are very, very popular landing spots for golf tournaments. So, the idea that the PGA’s hands are clean in sportswashing is a fallacy. But what Saudi Arabia has done is it has funded to the tune of hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars a new professional golfers’ tour called the LIV Tour, the LIV Tour. I mean, it’s pronounced in different ways. But the point of it is to actually draw in some of the biggest names from the PGA Tour. And, basically, take them away from the normal course of golf tournaments. Even to the point of offering Phil Mickelson nine figures. Nine figures, to leave the PGA Tour and join. Tiger Woods was also offered nine figures to leave the PGA Tour and join the LIV Saudi Arabia Tour, but Tiger Woods actually turned that down. So, they’re writing big, big checks to damage the PGA Tour. And the PGA Tour’s response has been to actually ban these golfers from future majors. So, this is a big, big controversy. And it’s the biggest thing to happen in golf, structurally, since the games beginnings.

SREENIVASAN: So, there are some big names involved here. Phil Mickelson, Greg Norment, I mean, these were household golf names. Very successful athletes. Probably already very, very wealthy people. What do they get out of doing this?

ZIRIN: Well, there are a couple of things. I mean, Greg Norment has had very bad feelings towards the PGA Tour going back decades. And a lot of golfers do. They view the PGA Tour as a Cartel. Something that operates in a way that doesn’t allow for competition. They view the PGA guidelines in terms of what it takes. In terms of tournaments, to be able to make it to the majors, the majors that aren’t open tournaments. And so, there’s a lot of griping about the PGA Tour that’s been going on for decades. And Greg Norment’s been at the front of that line. So, I mean, I view Greg Norment as somebody who, yes, he’s taking the big check. But he’s also trying to figure out how to create something different. What the problem is that he’s not thinking about where he’s getting this money from and what the implications of that are. And Phil Mickelson is somebody, I mean, he’s been quoted already as saying that he understands the crimes that Saudi Arabia commits against dissidents. Against LGBTQ people. Against, of course, Jamal Khashoggi, “The Washington Post” reporter who was killed. You know, Phil Mickelson is fully aware of all of this. But as he says, you know, hey, you know, this is a chance to do something to the PGA Tour. So, there’s a real blinkered morality at play where, it’s like, you can understand why they’re frustrated with the PGA Tour. Why they want to stand up to the PGA Tour. But the method by which they’re going about it is earning them nothing but not just poor media coverage, but, I mean, also a lot of questioning from their fellow golfers.

SREENIVASAN: There has been a line of thinking in the past that we could, essentially, import democracy, Western ideals, under or through the Trojan horse of sports diplomacy. That this is a way for countries to see something better. Are — is that still the case now?

ZIRIN: No, if it ever was — I mean, the idea that sports could be a Trojan horse to bring human rights, modern values, progressivism, whatever word we want to use as a stand in for it, I think we have to look at as just a — an absolute fallacy at this point. It’s just not tethered to reality. I mean, one of the things these mega events bring, particularly in the post 9/11 era, where so much security is demanded to pull these events off is a debt displacement and the hyper militarization of public space. Now, how does a country pull that off without serious uproar among its populous? You know, piling up debt, displacing ordinary people, and then militarizing public space? Well, if you’re an authoritarian country, that actually makes you very attractive for the Olympics, for the World Cup, for these other mega events. Because an authoritarian country can actually push these things through without having to deal with any sort of democratic roadblocks. Now, what you see though when, say, the Olympics are coming to Paris in 2024, or Los Angeles in 2028, what you see is actually these countries in, you know, “Western democracies”, acting more like authoritarian governments. And pushing through building plans, pushing through police plans, pushing through security plans, that would make authoritarian countries envious. But they’re able to do it through the guise of sports, through the glory of sports, through the excitement of sports. And that’s the other side of sportswashing I feel like we don’t talk about it enough. It’s not just to cover up the crimes of an authoritarian country, it’s also about pushing through proposals that people would otherwise reject if they didn’t come wrapped in the bunting of sports.

SREENIVASAN: So, you are saying that, in a way, the city of Los Angeles can displace, say, homeless populations a couple of years in advance, as a way, well, to pave the way for the new complexes that might be coming for the Olympics down the road?

ZIRIN: Well, that’s what they are doing. I mean, I’ve talked with homeless rights activists in Los Angeles, as well as Olympic planners. And basically, what they’re able to do right now is displaced people from the tent cities that have been erected in Los Angeles because there is a housing crisis in Los Angeles. There is an affordable housing crisis in Los Angeles. And instead of dealing with that, the root problem, what they’re doing instead is rounding up and displacing and destroying the park tent cities that have been erected, so people have some form of a shelter. And how are they able to do this? How are they able to do this above — instead of there being some sort of civic response is they talk about the 2028 Olympics and the importance of preparing for the 2028 Olympics. Whether that means building infrastructure for it or just making the city a place that they think is going to be more sightly for an international audience.

SREENIVASAN: What is the role of the IOC here? Because they have a pretty large checkbook when it comes to deciding for, you know, what city that they’re going to. And it will have a huge ripple effect on, at least, the local, if not regional, economy.

ZIRIN: A massive ripple effect. I mean, the International Olympic Committee, first of all, has bought hook, line, and sinker this idea that they are somehow this traveling roadshow of democratic ideals and international togetherness. And therefore, whatever country they go to, no matter how authoritarian, no matter how many human rights abuses, they are somehow making that country better by the sheer presence of the Olympics. Now, what happens when reality intercedes with that? What happens when they say, oh, we’re going to hold the winter games in China and we’re going to make China a somehow better place just through our presence there. And then, of course, there’s a ton of evidence to the contrary, in terms of attacks on human rights workers, on Muslim populations, on all sorts of issues that we can talk about that China transgresses human rights. The Olympics feel like they’re still doing the right thing. So, then they find themselves in a position of making excuses for China, and actually being a force that aids and abets directly China’s political operation. I mean — and they do that in every country where they go. They’re always going to be the cheerleader of whatever country they’re in. Whether it’s China, Russia, France, the United States. They’re going to stand by them no matter what that country is doing to prepare for the Olympic games. So, the IOC, I mean, becomes more than just, sort of, like a quiet partner. They become a political force in these countries to justify what we have been discussing, the debt displacement and militarization. Because they say, not only are the Olympics worth it, but we’re actually leaving this country better than where we found it.

SREENIVASAN: Now, World Cup, obviously, billions of people are excited about it. It’s going to be played in a place where there have literally been thousands of workers who have died in horrible conditions. But FIFA says, that’s not really our place to decide.

ZIRIN: No, because Kante (ph) wrote a very big check and the Qatari monarchy has decided that it will spend billions of dollars of its country’s wealth for the purposes of sportswashing. Of presenting itself to the world as, somehow, this modern monarchy that needs to be accepted into the broader society. Now, the crimes in Qatar have been so extreme. I mean, you mentioned the deaths of migrant workers. It’s estimated that as many as 30 to 40 workers have died directly, in just making the stadiums, creating the infrastructure for the World Cup itself. Let alone the hundreds of deaths that have taken place in other projects and the conditions that these migrant workers have faced is absolutely horrific. So, one of the things that the two biggest unions in England are demanding, along with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is they’re saying that FIFA needs to put aside $440 million. I don’t know how they came up with that figure, but it is certainly a big number, to create a migrant center in Qatar where people can get support, have grievances met, and just some sort of social infrastructure for the migrant workers in Qatar because currently there is none. There’s nowhere they can go in the face of these labor abuses. And this call has been taken up by some very high up people with the English National Team. So, we’ll see if that goes anywhere. But that’s really what I’m talking about, Hari, is this idea that people are going to have to agitate for these institutions to act in a different way than they’ve been acting really for the last century. But particularly since 9/11, where the pressure to have a security games has been very intense, and has cost millions upon millions of dollars.

SREENIVASAN: You mentioned the pressure that the unions in the UK and Amnesty International has put on FIFA. What is FIFA doing to try to get ahead of this?

ZIRIN: They’re abdicating, is what they’re doing. They’re trying to create some semblance of friendly public relations in the run up to the World Cup. So, this isn’t the issue that we’re talking about each and every day. See, already this World Cup is — comes draped in shambles, Hari, because the World Cup should be happening right now. And when Qatar won the bid, they said, we are going to create state-of-the- art air-conditioned stadiums. So, even in 109-degree summer heat, World Cup Soccer can be played. That turned out to be, of course, a fantastical lie that people, at the time, said that will never happen. But FIFA was willing to accept that because it was also accepting some very large checks. Not to mention a bribery scandal, about why the World Cup went to Qatar in the first place, that’s been reported upon extensively. So, I think what the FIFA is trying to do is to get ahead of the issue over the next several months with the hopes that when the games start, we’re not talking about the deaths of migrant workers, in the years in prison, LGBTQ people face in Qatar. The fact that some countries are telling LGBTQ fans to not even travel to Qatar during the World Cup. That they can’t guarantee their safety. They don’t want those stories out. They want stories of a Qatar that is actually in better shape than it would have been precisely because of the presence of the World Cup.

SREENIVASAN: Given the prestige that’s at stake, given the eyes of the world that are watching, and given how integral soccer is, especially in the lives of pro-athletes. I mean, should we be putting this onus on the Messi’s and the name-ours (ph) of the world or their countries? I mean, should they be boycotting the World Cup? And how do we force this kind of change and attention to happen?

ZIRIN: You know it’s so interesting, Hari, because what you’re asking is a question that I’m seeing across society on a host of issues. Like, does it really move the needle to have a celebrity speak out for change? You know, does a celebrity, whether it’s an athlete or movie actor, does them using their platform to speak out on an issue actually make a difference? And I think there’s a lot of evidence that says that our attention on celebrity, our attention on the famous stepping up, doesn’t necessarily move things forward. I mean, it can create, you know, tremendous awareness. It can amplify issues already at play. But, at the end of the day, what’s going to be needed are institutions, ordinary people, unions, human rights organizations start to see these games, whether it’s the World Cup, the Olympics, or what have you as political events.

SREENIVASAN: Here we are having a conversation while Brittney Griner is still being detained by Russia. She’s clearly a political pawn here. It’s —


SREENIVASAN: Right? It’s not because of whatever trace of whatever she might have had. A vape or not. I mean, there hasn’t been a trial, there hasn’t been evidence presented. Nobody knows exactly why but we do know that she is one of the greatest athletes the United States has ever produced.

ZIRIN: Absolutely. And one of the things that you’ve seen is a lot of women’s basketball players have said that they’re not going to play in Russia where women’s basketball is not only a huge sport, but it’s also extremely lucrative. And so, you know, those kinds of boycotts actually do make a difference. They create an atmosphere of pressure on Russia to release Brittney Griner, or at least negotiate her release. I mean, that’s the kind of sports diplomacy that we need. Sports diplomacy from below. Sports diplomacy that isn’t forced upon athletes to say things they might not necessarily want to say or try to make it like they mean things they do not necessarily mean. We need a constant level of pressure around Brittney Griner’s release, first of all, on the U.S. State Department to make sure they’re dealing to make this happen. But we also need and we’ve seen athletes speak out in solidarity with Brittney Griner. You see, that’s the kind of political sports collision that can actually make a difference. And I think that the seizure of Brittney Griner, and the creation of this Brittney Griner political prisoner in Russia, has been a real consciousness changing moment for a lot of athletes. Because it’s one thing to speak out about injustices here at home, whether it’s police brutality or whether it’s equal pay. It’s another thing to start stepping onto that international stage. An international stage that gets you paid to be able to raise the issue of Brittney Griner’s freedom. But when you have somebody who is a friend, who is a teammate, who is somebody the lot of these players have known since they were all teenagers coming up together in AAU, I mean, it creates a different kind of political calculus and a different kind of political momentum. I mean, we’ve never had a generation of more politicized athletes than we do in 2022. What they do with that is going to be an interesting thing to follow.

SREENIVASAN: Dave Zirin, thanks so much for joining us.

ZIRIN: Thank you so much.

Sportswashing: Countries Use Sports To Distract From Crimes (2024)
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