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Sportswashing in 2023: Can it be stopped?

June 13, 2023

Sportswashing is the hot topic once again after Manchester City's Champions League triumph and a ground-breaking merger in the world of golf. DW explains what it is and what, if anything, can be done to stop it.

Manchester City players raise their arms as fireworks light the background behind them
Manchester City's Champions League triumph has brought sportswashing back to the foreImage: Manu Fernandez/AP Photo/picture alliance

What is sportswashing?

Sportswashing refers to the practice of using sports to improve a country or organization's image by investing in high-profile sporting events or teams. This investment can come through sponsorship from state-run organizations or the nation itself or by acquiring equity in clubs, teams or sporting organizations.

The term gained popularity through the 2010s, a decade in which authoritarian governments, such as China, Russia and Middle Eastern states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, began funneling vast funds into sports. Critics have often accused these ventures of attempting to distract from human rights abuses at home.

What are examples of sportswashing?

As Nicholas McGeehan, the director of FairSquare Research, a human rights think tank, tells DW, sportswashing is "nothing new."

"You can go further back to Roman times. Sport has always been used to serve a political purpose," McGeehan says. "Sport is powerful, and it can be used for nefarious ends."

Posters for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin and the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Posters for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin and the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Decades before the term existed, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy hosted major sporting events in the 1930s. Tennis tournaments were held in apartheid-era South Africa; while Mohammed Ali boxed in totalitarian Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the Philippines, then under martial law.

This century, the term is most commonly associated with China, Russia and Middle Eastern states. In 2010, FIFA, football's governing body, famously came under fire for awarding World Cup hosting rights to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Similarly, the International Olympic Committee's "political neutrality" approach has come under fire after allowing Sochi and Beijing to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2014 and 2022, respectively.

Meanwhile, football fans have lamented recent Middle Eastern takeovers of European clubs, most notably an Abu Dhabi takeover of Manchester City in 2008, a Qatari one of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in 2011 and the recent sale of Newcastle United to a consortium that includes Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, or PIF.

How rich regimes are ruining football

Sportswashing, even before the term was coined, has also applied to private companies. For decades, critics have accused apparel companies like Nike of using prominent athletes to draw eyes away from the poor working conditions in which their products are made. More recently, retired NFL quarterback Tom Brady and basketball star Steph Curry featured prominently in advertising campaigns by FTX, a now-bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange whose founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, has since been charged with fraud, money laundering and campaign finance offenses.

What impact does sportswashing have?

Given how the practice comes with much financial investment, several sporting markets have become distorted.

For example, PSG's purchases of forwards Neymar (€230 million, or $247.4 million, in 2017) and Kylian Mbappe (€180 million in 2018) have upended football's transfer market. Recent contracts given by Saudi Pro League clubs to superstars Cristiano Ronaldo (reportedly a $200 million per year total salary) and Karim Benzema (reportedly $107 million) threaten to have a similar effect.

PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi shaking Neymar's hand in front of a PSG logo
Neymar's record transfer to PSG completely distorted the football transfer marketImage: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/dpa/picture alliance

Golf could be facing a similar financial crisis. In 2022, the Saudi-backed LIV Golf International Series courted former major winners like Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka away from the well-established PGA Tour with jaw-dropping salaries. But after an announced merger of the two golf competitions, the compensation of top golfers, especially those loyal to the PGA Tour, remains to be seen.

Otherwise, while many have decried the rise of sportswashing, the entities that practice it only stand to gain. Take the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which, leading up to it, had extensive reporting on horrid working conditions for migrant workers in the country. Though some Western countries, including Germany, saw a drop in TV audience figures, FIFA reported record viewership numbers for the group stage and a 1.5 billion global TV audience for the final — a match which heavily featured Mbappe and Lionel Messi, teammates at the time with Qatar-funded PSG.

Lionel Messi receives the World Cup trophy while draped in a bisht
Lionel Messi receives the World Cup trophy while draped in a bishtImage: Martin Meissner/AP/picture alliance

What have athletes said about sportswashing?

Throughout history, sportwashing has occasionally been synonymous with boycotts and activism. The response to sportswashing has varied when it comes to sportsmen and women.

Many have opted to take the money and do what is asked of them on or off the pitch. But as athlete activism has continued to rise, so have critical outlooks on sportswashing countries. Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton said ahead of the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix he was uncomfortable racing in the country and that the sport should "raise awareness for things that the people are struggling with."

Lewis Hamilton holding his mouth while speaking to cameras
Lewis Hamilton said he was 'uncomfortable' racing in Saudi Arabia due to its treatment of the LGBTQ communityImage: KAMRAN JEBREILI/AFP/Getty Images

Ahead of the Qatar World Cup, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway conducted on-field protests directed at human rights abuses in the Gulf country. Germany famously covered their mouths in their team photo before their opening World Cup match against Japan after FIFA prohibited the "OneLove" captain's armband, which advocated for the LGBTQ community which has limited rights in Qatar.

Nevertheless, many feel limited in what they can say, fearing the ramifications of their choice to speak out. For instance, though some athletes chose to speak out about China's human rights abuses against the nation's Muslim Uyghur community ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, many decided not to, fearing it would affect their ability to compete.

What can be done about sportswashing?

Even in a world that has become ever more politically, culturally and socially aware, many decry the impact of sportswashing. As a result, bucking the trend may become more challenging.

Occasionally, a sportswashing arrangement becomes so untenable that change finally comes. Russia's invasion of Ukraine caused much of the sports world to rethink its relationship with the nation, which led to canceling sponsorships or banning Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams from competing. But despite the atrocities in Ukraine, some backtracking has begun, and as Saudi Arabia's ongoing involvement in Yemen's Civil War can attest, the new precedent of handling sportswashing doesn't seem to apply to everyone.

As the main actors, the athletes can continue to take power into their own hands. The outcry from players like Germany captain Alexandra Popp and US superstar Alex Morgan over a Saudi sponsorship of the upcoming Women's World Cup led to FIFA eventually reversing course

Fans also have a role to play, and it's one they've taken up in Germany, where the 50+1 rule limits outside investment in football clubs. Bayern Munich supporters have strongly criticized the club for its relationship with Qatar, where the first team has made annual midseason trips since 2011.

Club executives have long defended the relationship, especially regarding the club's shirt-sleeve sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways. But after a chaotic annual general meeting in 2021 and the German national team's protest during the Qatar World Cup, the agreement may not be extended.

Bayern Munich fans hold up a banner critisizing the club's relationship with Qatar
Bayern Munich fans hold up a banner critisizing the club's relationship with QatarImage: Imago/B. Fell

But the big governing bodies are the ones who have to take a stand against sportswashing. FIFA President Gianni Infantino's brash defense of the Qatar World Cup and the International Olympic Committee's choice to act only when forced to suggest they're not yet ready to make that stand. 

Edited by: James Thorogood

Saudis accused of sportswashing over English football funds