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 press conference for the Saudi-funded LIV golf league earlier this week, it was mentioned twice.
“Isn’t there a danger,” a reporter asked Phil Mickelson on Wednesday, “that you’ll also be seen as a tool for sportswashing?”
This term – “sportswashing” – is still relatively new. But the strategy it represents has been employed by governments around the world, in one form or way, for a century or more.
For world leaders, it’s a way to enhance their nation’s reputation by hosting a prestigious sporting event or funding a popular team.
“In essence, sportwashing is a matter of diversion,” said Simon Chadwick, global professor of sport at Emlyon Business School in France.
Human rights groups say LIV Golf is just the latest example. Funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the upstart league 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 announced on Thursday it had suspended defectors .
LIV Golf says 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 wider political effort by Saudi Arabia to buy its legitimacy and polish its global image.
As the league’s inaugural event continues in London on Friday, here’s a look at what we know about sports washing, how it’s used and the role sports investment plays in the wider policy strategy of the League. Saudi Arabia.
Is sportwashing new?
The term has only been in common use for the past five years, but the strategy itself is not new.
One of the most frequently cited examples of sportswashing is the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany, which Adolf Hitler saw as an opportunity to both boost the nation’s image and spread his anti-Semetic ideology. Although other countries probably used sportswashing elements long before that.
Chadwick said there was a dearth of academic research on sports washing, although he believes the term was first popularized several years ago by the human rights organization man Amnesty International. He believes the term is used too “liberally and simplistically” – often by Western countries, towards those in the Middle East and Asia – and needs to be better defined by scholars.
“Our knowledge as a global community of this apparent phenomenon is relatively immature,” he said. “So I think it’s good that we’re talking about it, and I think it’s good that we bring it up.”
How does sports washing work?
Another human rights group, Grant Liberty, published a report last year on sports washing efforts in Saudi Arabia. He described the theory as simple.
“Sport is loved and played around the world, it is a giant unifying force, and it is also a multi-billion dollar industry,” the organization wrote. “… By associating with sport, leaders seek to position their country in line with this magic. They want to bask in the reflection of glory, and thus brighten their image.
Perhaps the clearest examples of this, according to human rights activists, are when countries host major international sporting events. They often refer to the recent hosts of the Winter Olympics (Russia and China) and the World Cup (Russia and Qatar).
But sportswashing can also be an investment in a team or league, such as Qatar Airways’ sponsorship of FC Barcelona, or the Saudis’ recent purchase of English Premier League side Newcastle United.
“Sporting events have a good reputation. They are glamorous. They invite prestige and high-profile figures,” said Dana Ahmed, researcher at Amnesty International who specializes in Saudi Arabia. “So these kinds of events help create a new image for Saudi Arabia. They help the country’s efforts to rebrand itself.”
What is Saudi Arabia’s strategy?
Ahmed said Saudi Arabia had made a concerted and broad effort to rebrand its image in recent years, particularly after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in 2018. A US intelligence report determined that the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had signed off on the operation.
“Sport is part of (the PR strategy),” Ahmed said. “Another part of that is all the entertainment events that include women, some legislative reforms in the country that also allow women to participate in society.
“It’s not just sport. But I think sport is an important part of it.”
The Grant Liberty report found that Saudi Arabia had spent around $1.5 billion on sports washing efforts 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 immediate financial gain, it is both long-term profit and political capital. And although only one of the league’s eight scheduled events is in Saudi Arabia, he believes LIV Golf is another sign that the nation is trying to position itself as an international sporting destination, which would bring both weight and money. line.
“It’s almost like Saudi Arabia is trying to position itself as the Las Vegas of the Middle East,” Chadwick said.
How has LIV Golf responded to complaints?
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman has largely denied claims the league is part of a Saudi sportswash campaign – despite the league being primarily funded by the government’s investment arm.
“I don’t know what the Saudi government is doing. I don’t want to get into that,” he said in an interview with Sky Sports last month. “… They are not my bosses. We are independent. I do not answer to Saudi Arabia.”
Norman also downplayed the significance of 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 says it is sportswashing.
Participants in the new league, meanwhile, largely dodged questions about Saudi Arabia’s human rights and sportwashing record – or, in the case of Graeme McDowell, said they were 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 where they want to be and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we’re proud to help them on that journey.” , he said in a press conference this week.
Ahmed hopes that LIV Golf can really help bring attention to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. She pointed to the arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics, the mass execution of 81 prisoners in March and the lack of freedom of expression among several key issues that she hopes will now be on the radars of golf fans – and professional golfers themselves.
“I would tell (golfers) to use their platform and their influence to talk about human rights,” Ahmed said. “Because nobody can talk about it inside the country. It’s very important for people who can express themselves.”
Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.