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  • Elon Gothlin

Sportswashing: How Nations Hide Their Atrocities Behind the Glamour of Sporting Events

As featured in Edition 40, available here.

BY ELON GOTHLIN (3rd year - Management - Stockholm, Sweden)

With the Beijing Olympics well underway, the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia just around the corner, and the World Cup in Qatar coming later this year, it seems 2022 is a great year for authoritative regimes looking to cover up their atrocious human rights violations. ‘Sportswashing’, as it has been coined, has become increasingly prevalent as a method for nations and corporations to polish their public image and reputation through prestigious sporting events.

Although a relatively new term, sportswashing has been around for decades, with a notable historical example being Hitler’s attempt to showcase German and Aryan superiority during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. 86 years later, leveraging the glory of the Olympics to cover up human rights atrocities remains a relevant strategy. Fans are quick to forget the Winter Olympics host, China, continues to practice its inhumane internment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, among a long list of other human rights violations. Other examples include the enormous investments made by the UAE into Premier League club Manchester City and Saudi Arabia’s £305 million acquisition of Newcastle FC, both of which Amnesty International described as “brazen attempts to ‘sportswash’ a country’s deeply tarnished image through the glamour of the game”.

Qatar, next in line to host the FIFA World Cup, has become a central target for sportswashing allegations. Since Qatar first won its bid to host the World Cup back in 2010, 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country, the majority of which were involved in blisteringly hot, low-wage, and dangerous labour, according to a report by The Guardian.

Migrant workers, primarily from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, fall victim to what is called the ‘Kafala’ system, a sponsorship-based employment which legally binds migrant workers to their employers. This system prevents workers from changing jobs or even leaving the country, which, on top of late and non-payment of wages, prohibition of trade-unions, and failure to enforce labour laws on companies that abuse their workers, results in migrant workers getting trapped in a cycle of abuse. Although governmental reforms have been introduced to address these issues and placate international audiences, implementation and enforcement has been weak, and the reality for many migrant workers in Qatar remains harsh.

Other significant human rights issues in Qatar include restrictions on free-speech, criminalisation of same-sex relationships, and a lack of accountability for violence against women and minorities.

Despite the egregious reality faced by migrant workers involved in stadium construction, FIFA president Gianni Infantino stated the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is a “celebration of football and social inclusion”, and went on to claim that “FIFA is the only governing body that looks after and cares about the entire world”. The complete and utter lack of responsibility and near comical hypocrisy of such statements reveals the depth of the sportswashing committed in the chase of ticket sales and huge profits.

A number of national teams, including Denmark, Norway, and Germany, have spotlighted issues of human rights violations in Qatar ahead of the tournament, however, no real boycott has taken place yet. Player protests are likely to persist in the build up to the event, however Nasser Al Khater, the chief executive of the tournament's organising committee, is reportedly “not worried about it”, and insists “people must recognise the progress Qatar has taken”.

This progress, however, remains ever ambiguous, and independent investigations, such as one made by Amnesty International, provides evidence to suggest that human rights violations related to the World Cup are not being taken seriously enough.

As a lifelong football viewer and fan, the usual excitement and glamour preceding the World Cup is, for me, missing. Beyond the controversial decision to host the tournament during the Winter, which directly clashes with the usual football frenzied summers I have come to anticipate and cherish, tournament organisers and authoritative governments have simply not upheld the ever-inclusive, socially conscious image they have tried so hard to sell.

Although hosting the first Middle Eastern World Cup should be an exciting step in the widening of inclusivity within football, building this progression off the backs of exploited labourers in some of the least inclusive regimes in the world takes away any and all meaning from the progress made.

It remains unclear if sportswashing will be meaningfully addressed on an international stage. Governmental bodies remain hesitant due to their political affiliations, and organisations such as FIFA have no reason to change their ways as long as their quotas are filled.

What is clear is that 2022 is set to be one of the most politically charged years in sports in recent history.

Image - Unsplash (Rhett Lewis)



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