Sportswashing. It’s probably a term you’ve heard lately and are likely to hear a lot more in the future. But what exactly is it?
Generally speaking, sportswashing is the phenomenon in which sport is used by a state or non-state actor to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing.
It’s not a new phenomenon. The 1934 FIFA World Cup held in fascist Italy and the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany serve as historic examples. However, the number of these instances has grown in recent years.
The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the LIV Golf Tour, and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar have all come under fire as employing this tactic to divert the world’s attention from the human rights issues of the host countries of China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, respectively.
According to Wilma Shim, BSc’07, JD’10, a sports law sessional instructor in the faculties of Law and Kinesiology, sports is an effective tool to distract people from wrongdoings because it’s universal and has a unique influence on people across the globe. “When people watch a game, they go in with the mindset that everything is equal,” says Shim, who is also a Master of Laws candidate in sports law at De Montfort University.
“The idea that sport is pure is still something that a lot of the general public holds on to.”
In Qatar for the World Cup, there was intense scrutiny of the country’s use of migrant workers to build the infrastructure for the event and its anti-LGBTQ2S+ policies. Once the whistle blew on the first match, the focus turned to the pitch.
“What happens with sportswashing is we get distracted,” says Shim. “We see the fans and the players in all of their colours and the excitement, which distracts us from what we normally see when we talk about countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and their human rights matters.”
Shim says it’s important for the media not to lose sight of the issues of concern because of the “shiny object” that is being put before everyone’s eyes.
Another group that can help curtail sportswashing is the fans, who drive the viewership and profit of these events. “What would be great is for all fans to be informed,” says Shim. “Watch the event, but still be aware of what is going on.”
Fans can enjoy the sport but stay attuned to what’s occurring outside the sporting venue. “Knowledge is power,” she says. “Enjoy the sport, but don’t forget that once the games are over and the athletes leave, things are still happening in that specific country.”
With three high-profile events being accused of sportswashing, Shim says we will be seeing more sportswashing as more autocratic regimes with the capital to host these massive sporting events emerge.
However, by hosting these events, countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia also thrust themselves into the international spotlight, so the hope is the attention will stick to them once the sporting event ends. “These events aren’t happening 365 days a year,” says Shim. “The days when sport isn’t being played, it’s important for the public to keep the heat on and keep the public attention on those specific issues.”