Ethical dilemma posed by “sportswashing”


Bahrain has been described as sportswashing with its grand prix. Photo: CaterhamF1 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sportswashing – defined as using sport to distract people from the wrongdoings of a country or organisation – is a feature of modern sport.

It exists in the sports industry because without it funding would dry up and the sports industry would struggle to continue outside of grassroots competitions.

People love sport, which allows many to step away from the mundane, forget the evils of the world and enjoy the satisfaction that comes from a victory by their favourite team.

Organisations and countries use this emotional link with sport to their advantage to try to cover up misconduct, by distracting people with sport and by giving sport an offer which is hard to refuse.

A significant problem

Sport is one of the few things on earth that can bring people together.

Through watching or playing sport, many people are at their happiest.

Sport’s ability to make people forget the bad leads to sportswashing, where countries or organisations that violate ethics use big events or put significant sums of money into a local team to cover up wrongdoings and continue unacceptable practices like human rights violations.

The effect of sportswashing is often positive on countries and organisations.

As an example, Bahrain has hosted a Formula 1 grand prix since 2004 but talking to some of my colleagues in motorsport they had only heard of Bahrain because of its hosting of a grand prix – none of them had heard of Bahrain’s extensive history of human rights violations.

On top of covering up its misdoings Bahrain receives a significant boost to its economy from hosting the grand prix – the Bahrain International Circuit funded research into how much F1 boosted its economy, and it found Bahrain benefitted from a $394 million gross boost.

Clearly, sportswashing works and gives these countries the positive views they’re after – so why do different sports leagues support this?

Sponsorships and hosts are extremely important to the functioning of sports.

Without sponsorship sport has no funding in order to function, and without host countries, there’s nowhere for sporting events to be held.

Ethical partnerships?

When money is concerned corruption is sure to be lurking, but is it possible for sports to partner with organisations or countries without corruption?

Artistic director of the Sydney Festival, Wesley Enoch doesn’t seem to think so.

“If people can find clean money, I’m there!” he told a forum by the Ethics Alliance.

“But I can’t find it, I’ve never found it and so therefore I need to find in my heart the right way forward, and that’s the ethical dilemma.”

Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup is another prominent example of sportswashing – Qatar has an extensive history of violating human rights, from forced labour to exploitation and abuse, and despite being a small country, it is a very wealthy monarchy which has allowed it to get away with rights violations, (although these have become very publicised recently).

So, if Qatar is a known violator, how did it get to host the World Cup?

For a start, FIFA’s secretary general Jeremy Valcke once said it was better to have less democracy when planning a World Cup

“When you have a very strong head of state who can decide…that is easier for us organisers,” Valcke said, even citing Vladimir Putin of Russia as an example.

There were also allegations of FIFA having accepted a bribe from Qatar to allow the sportswashing – although no concrete evidence has surfaced, statements like that of Valcke generally gives a bad look to sporting organisations if these are the kinds of justifications given for overlooking ethics.

But what about the people who make sport tick – the players and fans?

When it came to China hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022, the players remained mostly silent, except for figure skater Timothy DeLuc who described China’s track record of “horrifying human rights abuses”.

It is possible that athletes are choosing to follow the direction of the IOC, whose official stand is that sport and politics don’t mix, as they focused on the sport rather than Chinese politics.

But in Qatar, multiple teams took part in on-field protests before matches – for example, players from Denmark made an agreement with their sponsors to replace logos with messages of human rights – and in Saudi Arabia, Lewis Hamilton of the Mercedes AMG Racing Team within Formula One spoke about how he “felt uncomfortable” about having to race there.

For some supporters, there is disappointment that their pain and suffering is overlooked by sports organisations that could be helping them.

Others are angered by seeing their team get involved in sportswashing as recipients.

And finally, some may be indifferent as sportswashing continues to work.