‘Sportswashing’ is the grim game of our times

There is a new word for an old business now plied by tyrannical states such as Saudi Arabia

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, appearing at a 2015 press conference, are  due to play a lucrative exhibition tennis match in Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, appearing at a 2015 press conference, are due to play a lucrative exhibition tennis match in Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

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It predates 2018, but one of the contenders for word of the year must be “sportswashing”.

In three syllables, it encapsulates a global game fondly and regularly played by corrupt and tyrannical regimes, often with little opposition. Any time any dodgy power attempts to use a sporting event as a means to launder their reputation and/or gloss over miserable records on human rights, that’s sportswashing.

The phenomenon it describes may be as old as sport itself, but the term is credited to 2015’s Sports or Rights campaign – a bid to call out Azerbaijan’s attempt “to distract from its human rights record with prestigious sponsorship and hosting of events” such as the European Games held in Baku.

Earlier this year, “sportswashing” earned itself the attention of Oxford Dictionaries, which placed it as part of an expanding range of coinages where the suffix “washing” is applied to suggest deceptive, insincere and opportunistic appropriation of some value or cause. (“Greenwashing”, or the misleading promotion of an environmentally friendly image, is another.)

There has been a rise in usage, perhaps inspired by this summer’s staging of the Fifa World Cup in Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian Russia – the outcome of a bidding process that sparked the interest of Swiss authorities, French prosecutors and the FBI. But while Fifa’s stack of indictments cost it a few sponsors, there was never any question that the Russia World Cup would not go ahead, nor was there much modification of the media coverage. This was football.

Sportswashing works on the principle that the grander the illusion, the more immune it is to criticism. World Cups and Olympic Games are the highest of high-level events, with long histories and nebulous power infrastructures. Sometimes the sportswashing stain, however, is distinct and easily attributable.

Tennis exhibition

The top two men’s tennis players in the world, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have ended up in what seems to be – for them and their management teams – a quandary. The day after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, it was announced that they would be participating in an exhibition match in Saudi Arabia on December 22nd.

Amnesty International duly warned the players that the event was “a form of sportswashing”. The lucrative match is one of a number of sporting events Saudi Arabia is hosting as part of an effort by heir apparent Prince Mohammed bin Salman to present an image of a “modern” kingdom to the world, even as repression within it intensifies.

News of Khashoggi’s murder then increased the pressure on Nadal and Djokovic to tear up their contracts and take a stance that would focus attention on a human rights record Amnesty describes as “truly appalling”. However, a long period of silence from the two players’ camps ensued until last weekend both issued statements indicating a “wait and see” approach.

Human rights abuses will have been made in constructing the very stadiums where the sportswashing takes place

Djokovic said it was “unfortunate” to be drawn into a political situation, that not enough information was available and that a decision would be made “soon”. Nadal noted he had made the commitment to play a year ago and that his team would take time “to analyse things”.

They will be surely watching the scale of the backlash meted out to wrestling body WWE, which is going ahead with an event in Riyadh this Friday, citing “contractual obligations” and “a very difficult decision”.

Respectability has been wrongly conferred on Saudi Arabia by profiteering business interests in the West for decades and has only just been (briefly) withdrawn. Sporting events are staged in all manner of dubious places. And yet the case of Nadal and Djokovic remains an unusually clear cautionary tale of what happens when a pay cheque is reclassified overnight as unpalatable greed.

Their exhibition match is untethered by tradition. They don’t have to do it. There is no diplomatic imperative or career glory to chase here. If they do shake hands across the Saudi net, the space governed by white lines won’t be the only court they are playing in. They should expect to pay a reputational price, as should anyone in a similar situation.

Co-opted gratitude

The “-washing” words are, of course, derived from whitewashing - a deliberate attempt to conceal unpleasant or incriminating facts. By definition, this means co-opting the backing, even the gratitude, of one group of people while riding roughshod over another. Divide, conquer, bask in the glow. Individuals and corporations have their own versions, bankrolling the feelgood factor of sport in the expectation that it will rub off on them.

Sportswashing thrives. Once, I’d have put money on the 2010 decision to stage the 2022 World Cup in Qatar being reversed, but it’s already 2018 and a great many people with a closer relationship to money than me remain keen to make this spectacle happen, whatever the human cost.

The heads of state and government of participating teams will take their place in the VIP stadium boxes, offering priceless diplomatic endorsement. Combined with the tacit approval of corporate partners, they will provide an intoxicating diversion from human rights abuses, and never mind that some of those human rights abuses will have been made in the name of constructing the very stadiums where the fervent sportswashing takes place.

A slow handclap, please, for those who naively or self-servingly claim that sport and politics do not mix.

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