IT has long been part of the lexicon, but “sportswashing” once again came to the fore last week.
While it may be decades, perhaps even centuries old, it was only in 2015 the word was coined to describe the phenomenon that is, with increasing regularity, being adopted by some of the most corrupt, totalitarian and tyrannical regimes across the world to improve their reputation or gloss over their diabolical record on human rights by using a sporting event or team.
We saw a textbook example last week, with the £305-million Saudi Arabian-backed takeover of Newcastle United. The backlash has been swift and furious with the morality being questioned of allowing the takeover when the list of human right abuses by the Saudi government is terrifyingly lengthy.
The most notable offence is the alleged state-ordered killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, reportedly approved by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The human rights group, Amnesty International, has called the deal “image management” for the middle-eastern country but the Premier League issued a statement saying they had “received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club”; this despite the fact the leaders of the consortium, the PIF, list the aforementioned Crown Prince as their chair.
The Premier League and Newcastle may be getting the brunt of the criticism, and rightly so, but this abomination should not overshadow that this takeover is merely the latest in a long list of attempts at sportswashing.
Football is eminently guilty; Paris Saint-Germain are owned by Qatar, a state with a seriously questionable human-rights record. Qatar also sponsors Bayern Munich and Roma and has a “foundation project” with Real Madrid.
And of course, the World Cup will be held in Qatar in November next year.
The list goes on; one of boxing’s recent “super-fights”, Anthony Joshua’s world title bout against Andy Ruiz Jr, took place in Saudi Arabia in 2019; the day after Khashoggi disappeared three years ago, it was announced Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic were due to play an exhibition match just two months later in Saudi; Qatar has a long-term race deal with Formula One in the pipeline, with races also held in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi; Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics as well as the 2018 World Cup, and next year’s Winter Olympics will head to Beijing despite the countless allegations of human rights abuses by the Chinese government.
Despite constant denials by all parties involved that sportswashing is at play here, it is impossible to buy that defence; even casual observers are well aware there is little financial gain from owning a football club (especially one which is all too familiar with relegation battles in the manner Newcastle is). Similarly hosting the Winter Olympics is far from a money-spinner for the host country.
Sport has to take a greater stand.
The argument that it’s not for the sporting world to get involved in the politics of human rights abuses is futile and preposterous.
Agreed, the sporting world can do little to put a stop outright to these abuses, but it can do much, much more to stop aiding the attempts at reputational repair that comes with sport at the highest level visiting these places with such regularity.
The suggestion the athletes themselves could do more is disingenuous in the extreme; these individuals cannot be expected to cause significant damage to their own careers when those with the real power do nothing.
Takeovers and awarding major events to these nations may be legal, but it is far from moral.
While sportswashing continues, the world of sport must accept it is complicit in brushing under the carpet the horrific human rights abuses that take place in many of these places.
This must stop, and soon.
AND ANOTHER THING
WHAT was striking about the announcement last week from track cyclist Elinor Barker, who rode alongside Scots Katie Archibald and Neah Evans to Olympic silver this summer, about her pregnancy and the fact she intends to return to competition next year was the lack of comment about her plans.
For so long, a female athlete’s intention to return to elite sport after having a baby was hailed as miraculous and heroic.
But the absence of any surprise about Barker’s plans indicate that, perhaps, a corner has been turned.
Returning to top-level sport after having a baby is becoming increasingly common; in British cycling alone, Lizzie Deignan, Laura Kenny and Sarah Storey have made successful comebacks in recent years.
Of course, returning to international competition following the trauma of giving birth, plus the physical and emotional strain involved in bringing up a baby, make a comeback a significant effort.
But the newly-found widespread belief it is possible makes it a far more achievable prospect than previously.
Perhaps this will give Lynsey Sharp, who gave birth last week and has expressed a desire to return to athletics, welcome encouragement that the landscape is well and truly changing for new mums.