In the years when cigarette companies sponsored sport in India, it was seen as a fair exchange. Tobacco advertising was not allowed in the media, and here was an opportunity to gain both eyeballs and loyalty. It was mainly cricket, of course, but other sports too benefitted, and no one minded.
The word ‘sportswashing’ hadn’t been coined then. Today it is not just corporates who are into sportswashing, but countries with disastrous human rights records looking for respectability.
Dollar-rich countries in the Middle East ruled by despots and with dodgy human rights records already own top football clubs in Europe and England. Countries with democratic credentials trade with them, supply defence equipment, invite their money into their banks and as investments, but somehow sport is expected to be above all that. Sport — and the individual sportsman — is expected to reject such ‘tainted’ money.
So when an attempt is made to attract top golfers away from the PGA Tour by a Saudi-sponsored Tour, LIV, moral high horses are called for and everyone climbs atop. What about Khashoggi, they ask in response to a reported joining fee of 200 million dollars for Phil Mickelson. What about the mass executions of 81 Shias earlier this year, they ask in response to the winner’s pot of four million dollars at LIV’s first tournament? And what is this LIV anyway?
READ: Let’s make the most of our heroes
LIV is ‘54’ in Roman numerals. It is the number of holes each player will complete in each event’s three-round format.
The PGA Tour has banned those joining the LIV which is to be expected. Not because the PGA has an issue with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the sponsors, but because its monopoly is threatened. The Saudi strategy is about “transforming, distorting, and weaponising international sport,” according to one report. The wealth fund is worth some 600 billion dollars, so there will be more transforming, distorting and weaponising before it is through.
What is the individual’s responsibility in this, given that countries don’t think it should break off relations with so-called ‘pariah’ states? When the American President travels to Saudi Arabia (as he is likely to soon) to renegotiate the price of oil, he is doing it as much to increase his party’s chances in the next election.
To ask individuals to do what their governments are reluctant to hardly seems fair. This has been one of sport’s recurring issues. It was easier for countries in South Africa’s apartheid years because there was, usually, no gap between an individual’s morality and the government’s official stand.
A player nearing the end of his career might be tempted to go in for a big pay day, but Andy Murray recently turned down 1.5 million dollars to play an exhibition in Saudi Arabia; four years ago Roger Federer had turned down a similar offer.
The golf world is looking at a vertical split if LIV is able to attract more top players. But sometimes a shake-up is good for sport, as the Kerry Packer ‘circus’ showed in cricket in the 1970s.