Sportswashing, a new word for an old idea

The usage has been extended to include corporates and sponsors looking for respectability through sports.

Last year it was revealed that the Manchester City football team deceived the UEFA over Financial Fairplay through disguised sponsorships.   -  Getty Images

By the time you read this, the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz heavyweight bout would have taken place. In Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International has said the regime was using the event to “sportswash” its human rights record.

Sportswashing is a new word for an old idea. The usage has been extended to include corporates and sponsors looking for respectability through sports.

Last year it was revealed that Manchester City football team deceived the UEFA over Financial Fairplay through disguised sponsorships. Amnesty International accused City Football Group of sportswashing.

Political sportswashing has always existed. The 1934 football World Cup in Italy was a Fascist party; the Berlin Olympics two years later a Nazi one. But now there are interesting clashes of interests. Earlier this year The Guardian newspaper gave us the following to consider during the Champions League:

"Here’s an interesting circular equation. Manchester United are currently playing Paris Saint-Germain over two legs in the Champions League. Paris Saint-Germain are owned by Qatar. Qatar also sponsors Bayern Munich and Roma and has a “foundation” project with Real Madrid.

Real Madrid are sponsored by the Emirates airline of the UAE. Another of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, owns Manchester City. Manchester City are taking on Schalke, who are sponsored by Gazprom, which is owned by Russia, which is in effect at war in Syria with Qatar, which is being blockaded by Dubai, which is a financial services partner of Manchester United, whose next opponents will be Paris Saint-Germain, who are owned by Qatar. Which is pretty much where we came in.

Confusing, isn’t it? If only there were a single figure who could stand above and wade through this confusion of interests. For example, Nasser al-Khelaifi, the newest member of UEFA’s executive committee.

Khelaifi is also chairman of BeIn sports, which pays UEFA for its Champions League TV rights. UEFA is investigating claims of financial fair play breaches by PSG. Where he is — do keep up — the club chairman.”

Wonderful!

Behind professional sport there is a tangle of wires of different colours which connect in fascinating ways to ensure that we get to see the best players in action from the comfort of our living rooms. The politics and sportswashing is kept hidden.

Part of the give-and-take of such an operation (perhaps the main part) is the reputation-laundering indulged in by countries and corporates besides the governing bodies. The exchange of money/venue for respectability is seen as both fair and necessary.

You can see the spread of international sport — Olympics, football, Formula One, boxing, athletics — in repressive regimes in the West Asia, China and Russia as the duty of the respective governing bodies or a convenient way for these countries to gain respectability by association and sportswash their human rights record.

This assumes that sporting competitions should be awarded only to countries with clean records, which in turn assumes that such countries exist. Democracies have their human rights issues too, after all. For the average fan, it may not be worthwhile to dig too deep.