From the Basement | The dark side of international sports

Jeremy Rosen, Sports Editor

Matthew Tate

Sports are a shining example of a way to promote the importance of moral values. Integrity, fairness, equality and respect are all core values of athletic competition. Professional sports organizations, especially international ones like the Olympics and FIFA, claim to promote these values and more through the spirit of fair competition.

This all sounds incredible. However, a worrying trend has been forming in the realm of sports that has been corrupting the values that these organizations claim to hold so dearly. Oppressive regimes all across the globe have been using prominent sports competitions to try and improve their image abroad through a tactic called “sportswashing.” Authoritarian leaders use the reputations and prestige of athletic institutions to divert headlines away from the human rights abuses they have, and continue to, commit. 

While the term itself is relatively new, the slimy tactic has been implemented by generations of cruel dictators. Look at the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics when Adolf Hitler attempted to use the grand stage to spread Nazi propoganda. The Nazis took down signs that banned Jews from public spaces for the event, to make the country appear more hospitable and friendly to international visitors.

The two biggest sporting events of 2022 by far have been deeply corrupted by sportswashing. Earlier this year, China, a country firmly within the iron grip of the Chinese Communist Party, hosted the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The powerful regime used the global event to try to shift the country’s reputation away from the countless human rights abuses it has committed in recent years. From the brutal suppression of protests in Hong Kong and Tibet, to the detainment of over a million Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, the CCP has brutally maintained dominance over China. 

All eyes will be on Qatar next month when they host the FIFA World Cup. The Qatari government has long been suspected of bribing FIFA officials to buy the bid for the 2022 World Cup in order to shift the country’s reputation abroad. The Gulf state has a horrific track record of human rights abuses against the LGBTQ+ community, where same-sex relationships can be punishable by three years in prison. Since obtaining the bid, over 6,500 migrant workers from countries in South Asia have died in Qatar while working on the infrastructure for the World Cup.

The Qatari regime has even hired legendary soccer player David Beckham to be their sports ambassador ahead of the World Cup. When criticized for working with the regime, he deflected by simply stating his belief in “the power of football to inspire positive change.”

Gulf states have been using European soccer to whitewash their image for years now. The state-owned Qatar Sports Investment group purchased the top-tier French club Paris Saint-Germain over a decade ago. Qatar Airways is a massive corporate sponsor for many of the premier soccer clubs in Europe and also happens to be owned by the Qatari regime. Their name is plastered across the jerseys of players for top-tier clubs like FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich.

Similarly, United Arab Emirates prime minister Sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan has owned Manchester City since 2008, investing heavily to improve the club’s reputation. The state-owned airline Fly Emirates is prominently displayed on the jerseys of prominent teams all over Europe, from AC Milan to Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the most famous athlete on the planet, spent years promoting the airline and the UAE as a global ambassador when he played for Real Madrid.

Even American sports leagues are not immune to the effects of sportswashing. The NBA partnered with Rwandan autocrat Paul Kagame to set up the Basketball Africa League last year. Kagame’s regime has been accused of widespread humans rights abuses within Rwanda, including assassinations against political opponents and media censorship. He also launched two deadly wars against the Democratic Republic of Congo, which killed over 5 million people. The tournament brought attention to Rwanda’s capital of Kigali, presenting the country as clean and safe while hiding the harsh realities of the ruling regime.

Saudi Arabia has become the biggest offender of sportswashing in recent years. The oil-rich country has reportedly spent over $1.5 billion on various sporting events across the globe, from chess to golf to horse racing. Saudi Arabia appeared in unwanted headlines in 2018 for the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi whose reporting criticized the crown prince. Other human rights abuses by the Saudi government include heavy crackdowns on free speech, imprisoning women’s rights activists and launching mass airstrikes against Yemeni civilians.

 

The Saudi government also created the highly controversial LIV Golf, which has completely shaken up the golf world by directly challenging the established PGA Tour. The league threw tons of money at some of the biggest names in golf, luring big name players like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. When asked about the problematic source of Saudi funding for LIV, Mickelson bluntly answered, “They’re scary motherf–kers to get involved with. We know they killed [Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay.”

Sports entities are being blatantly hypocritical by claiming to fight for equality and social justice, while at the same time partnering with the most brutal authoritarian regimes on the planet. It is the responsibility of all sports fans to hold these organizations accountable for who they decide to work with.

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