Over the past five years, the term has been used to describe everything from the 2018 World Cup in Russia to a 2019 heavyweight boxing match in Saudi Arabia to the recently-concluded Winter Olympics in Beijing.
And at a news conference for the Saudi-funded LIV Golf league earlier this week, it came up twice.
“Isn’t there a danger,” one reporter asked Phil Mickelson on Wednesday, “that you’re also being seen as a tool of sportswashing?”
That term – “sportswashing” – is still relatively new. But the strategy it represents has been employed by governments around the world, in some form or fashion, for a century or more.
For world leaders, it is a way to improve their nation’s reputation by hosting a prestigious sporting event, or financing a popular team.
“In essence, sportwashing is about diversion,” said Simon Chadwick, a global professor of sport at Emlyon Business School in France.
Human rights groups say LIV Golf is just the latest example. Bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the upstart league has offered astronomical sums to a handful of the sport’s biggest names – including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson – to poach them from the PGA Tour, which said Thursday it had suspended the defectors.
LIV Golf claims that its goal is to “holistically improve the health of professional golf” and “help unlock the sport’s untapped potential.” But critics say the league is part of a broader political effort by Saudi Arabia to buy legitimacy and polish its global image.
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As the league’s inaugural event continues in London on Friday, here’s a look at what we know about sportswashing, how it’s employed and the role that sports investments play in Saudi Arabia’s broader political strategy.
Is sportswashing a new thing?
The term has only been commonly used in the past five years, but the strategy itself is hardly new.
One of the most commonly-cited examples of sportswashing is the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany, which Adolf Hitler viewed as an opportunity to both burnish the nation’s image and spread its antisemetic ideology. Though other countries likely employed elements of sportswashing long before then.
Chadwick said there is a dearth of academic research on sportswashing, though he believes the term was first popularized several years ago by human-rights organization Amnesty International. He feels the term is used too “liberally and simplistically” – often by Western countries, toward those in the Middle East and Asia – and needs to be better defined by researchers.
“Our knowledge as a global community of this apparent phenomenon is relatively immature,” he said. “So I think it’s good that we talk about it, and I think it’s good that we raise it.”
How does sportswashing work?
Another human-rights group, Grant Liberty, released a report on Saudi Arabian sportswashing efforts last year. It described the theory as straightforward.
“Sport is loved and played around the world, it is a giant unifying force, and it’s also a multi-billion dollar industry,” the organization wrote. ” … By associating themselves with sport, leaders are seeking to position their country in line with that magic. They want to bask in reflected glory, and thus lighten their image.”
Perhaps the clearest examples of this, human rights activists say, are instances in which countries host major international sporting events. They often point to recent hosts of the Winter Olympics (Russia and China) and World Cup (Russia and Qatar).
But sportswashing can also be an investment in a team or league, such as state-run Qatar Airways’ sponsorship of F.C. Barcelona, or the Saudis’ recent purchase of English Premier League team Newcastle United.
“Sporting events have good reputations. They’re glamorous. They invite prestige, and prestigious characters,” said Dana Ahmed, a researcher at Amnesty International who specializes in Saudi Arabia. “So these kinds of events contribute to creating a new image for Saudi Arabia. They contribute to the country’s efforts in rebranding itself.”
What is Saudi Arabia’s strategy?
Ahmed said Saudi Arabia has made a broad concerted effort to rebrand its image in recent years, particularly after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in 2018. A U.S. intelligence report determined the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, signed off on the operation.
“Sportswashing is one part of (the PR strategy),” Ahmed said. “Another part of it is all the entertainment events that include women, some legislative reforms in the country that also allow for women’s participation in society.
“It’s not just sports. But I think sports is a major part of it.”
Grant Liberty’s report found that Saudi Arabia had spent an estimated $1.5 billion on sportswashing efforts, as of early last year. LIV Golf represents another massive financial investment, with $25 million in prize money at each event and top players like Johnson and Mickelson receiving nine-figure signing bonuses, according to multiple reports.
Chadwick said that while the Saudis’ investment in LIV Golf might not result in an immediate financial payoff, it is a play for both long-term profit and political capital. And althgouh only one of the league’s eight scheduled events will be held in Saudi Arabia, he believes LIV Golf is yet another sign that the nation is trying to position itself as an international sports destination, which would bring both clout and money down the line.
“It’s almost as though Saudi Arabia is trying to position itself as the Las Vegas of the Middle East,” Chadwick said.
How has LIV Golf responded to claims?
The CEO of LIV Golf, Greg Norman, has broadly denied claims that the league is part of a Saudi sportswashing campaign – despite the fact that the league is primarily funded by the government’s investment arm.
“I don’t know what the Saudi government does. I don’t want to get into that,” he said in an interview with Sky Sports last month. “… They’re not my bosses. We’re independent. I do not answer to Saudi Arabia.”
Norman also downplayed Khashoggi’s murder in a separate interview with a London newspaper, saying, “look, we’ve all made mistakes.”
The Public Investment Fund did not immediately respond to an email inquiry about its investment in LIV Golf and claims that it is sportswashing.
Those participating in the new league, meanwhile, have largely dodged questions about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and sportswashing – or, in the case of Graeme McDowell, said they are happy to help the country achieve its goals.
“If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we are proud to help them on that journey,” he said in a news conference this week.
Ahmed hopes LIV Golf could actually help draw attention to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. She referenced the arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics, the mass execution of 81 prisoners in March and the lack of free expression as among several key issues that she hopes will now be on the radars of golf fans – and pro golfers themselves.
“I would tell (golfers) to use their platform and leverage, to talk about human rights,” Ahmed said. “Because no one is able to speak about them inside the country. It’s very important for people who can to speak out.”
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
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