Are nations playing the game of 'sport washing?'

During British colonial rule in South Africa, it is estimated that as many as 150,000 people were held in concentration camps, of which 28,000 may have died in the 40 camps the British had constructed.

At the same time, the British government was encouraging its sports teams to visit South Africa, one observer noting how, “The Bakers Cup, Suzman Cup, and Godfrey South African Challenge Cup were national [soccer] competitions that electrified crowds in Johannesburg and Durban. Tours by professional clubs from Britain added to the enormous excitement, an atmosphere sustained by popular discourse and improving sports coverage in the press.”

Whether sport was deployed by the British to suppress South Africans or as a means through which to shift attention away from its crimes and misdemeanors, the current global discourse employed in this context would surely have seen the British being labeled as "sport washers". In other words, the country may have been using sport (specifically soccer, cricket and rugby) to cleanse its image and reputation by washing away what the country’s government didn’t want people to see.

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However, it is only over the last decade that such episodes have been characterized as “sport washing,” with cause and campaign groups (such as Amnesty International) employing the term in the specific context of sports event staging. Recently nevertheless, the scope of what some feel is a growing phenomenon appears to have expanded.

For instance, earlier this year when English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United was acquired by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, some critics argued the purchase was an example of sport washing. Indeed, for United fans in particular, rather than condemning the country’s military campaign in Yemen or the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, most of them instead seemed to celebrate their club becoming the richest in the world.

Yet, it is in relation to events that we see the label of sport washing being most commonly used. Saudi Arabia is not just investing in overseas sport assets, it is also increasingly becoming a destination for global sport events. Recently, the country held its very first Formula 1 Grand Prix motor race, which has joined the Paris-Dakar Rally and Formula E in staging events in the Gulf nation. At the same time, everything from mixed martial arts bouts and golf tournaments to soccer games and boxing matches are now finding a home there.

Significantly, Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian state, which for many people is a predictor of a country becoming engaged in sport washing. Authoritarianism is something it shares with other countries such as China and Qatar. In 2022, both countries will be staging sport mega-events — the Winter Olympic Games for the former, the FIFA World Cup in the latter. Inevitably both have already been highlighted by critics as being episodes of sport washing. Inevitably, this begs the question: What have these countries got to hide?

In China’s case, there has been a debate about what is happening to the country’s Uyghur community in Xinjiang, with some claiming that genocide has been perpetrated against members of the region’s Muslims. Concerns about China have been heightened recently both by the recent disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai and the suppression of LGBTQ+ rights. One view is that next February’s Olympic games will therefore be little more than an attempt to launder China’s image and reputation.

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Next November, the World Cup starts in Doha though this is a tournament and a country that have long been beset by serious concerns about immigrant workers, gender equality and treatment of minority groups. The country’s kafala system — which imposes significant labor market restrictions on overseas workers — often forms the basis for such criticism. There have also been reports that 6,500 workers may have died on World Cup stadium construction sites. In the eyes of many, Qatar has therefore become synonymous with and an archetype of a sport washing nation.

Meanwhile, back in the U.K., it is not without its own labor market issues: One estimate suggests there could be in excess of 130,000 modern slaves currently living there. Yet at the same time, the British government is using sport (notably soccer with the Premier League) to promote the U.K. and project soft power around the world. Soft power is attractive power, an attempt to shape the preferences, choices and values of others.

Viewed from Riyadh, Beijing and Doha, instead of soft power cynics may instead see British sport washing, which implies that current applications of the term may actually be more an ideological lens through which we assess (and condemn) others rather than being something real or intended. 

The notion of intent is an important one to consider, as there is little explicit mention of deliberate attempts to sport wash from within the Middle East and East Asia themselves. For that matter, there isn’t a sense that the United States is somehow involved in sport washing. After all, there don’t appear to be any claims that the NBA’s popularity around the world somehow has distracted attention away from the killing of George Floyd.

Clearly, the U.S. government has had no intention of deploying the NBA overseas to deflect attention from Floyd’s death. Indeed, the same is likely to be true for most other countries around the world who are commonly accused of being sport washers. 

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So, if an investment in sport or the staging of a sport event is neither sport washing nor soft power, then what is it? Perhaps it is a legitimacy-seeking behavior, although in the case of Saudi Arabia maybe it is industrial diversification; for Qatar, could it be that sport is an important instrument of nation-building; while for China, maybe sport is public affirmation of its growing global power and status.

No matter, as 2022 starts there is no doubt that many of us will be repeatedly exposed to the term “sport washing.” Although it is important to remain cautious and questioning throughout, there is a lack of clarity about what sport washing actually is and how it works, which reflects the paucity of research undertaken in this burgeoning field. 

Equally, as geopoliticians across the world debate whether China’s staging of Winter Games validates genocide, it is worth questioning whether sport washing is appropriate terminology. After all, many of us will be talking about it and pointing it out, rather than working to cover up, the stains.

Simon Chadwick is professor of Eurasian sport and director of the Centre for Eurasian Sport Industry at the Emlyon Business School in Paris, France. Follow him on Twitter: @Prof_Chadwick