The Qatar World Cup has refocused attention on the term “sportswashing”, but what does it mean? Michael Skey writes that the term moves away from the idea of a cover-up associated with whitewashing. Connections with sports, instead, are used in processes of consociation and deflection. A country associated with a poor human rights record will also be associated with a high profile sports tournament. He says scrutiny must be applied in the West too, not focusing only on a narrow range of non-Western actors.
Sportswashing is a neologism that has become a mainstay of media reporting around the current World Cup in Qatar. It refers to the ways in which a country invests in sports to promote its reputation on a global stage and deflect attention away from less favourable perceptions of its actions and institutions.
Yet, despite its current high profile, sportswashing has a relatively recent history. It first appeared in relation to a sporting event just seven years ago, when the human rights campaigner Gulnara Akhundova wrote an article for a UK newspaper criticising the fact that the European Games, a high-profile athletics event, were being held in Baku, Azerbijan, despite the country’s poor human rights record. In the last two years, the use of the term has skyrocketed in the English-language media, with 550 mentions in 2019 and over 800 in 2021. In this comment piece, I first briefly outline the antecedents of sportswashing, before discussing the possible reasons for the rise of the term as well as its utility and shortcomings.
Washing as metaphor
The metaphor of washing has a long history when it comes to foregrounding notions of deception, cover-up, and distraction. For instance, whitewashing refers to the covering up of crimes, crises, and forms of corruption involving both political and corporate actors. Next comes greenwashing, which rose to prominence in the early 2000’s, and points to forms of communication that are designed to generate positive beliefs about an organisation’s environmental record. Greenwashing is now an established term in both academia and mainstream media reporting and has been used to reference everything from the cover up of defective systems (as in the case of the car manufacturer Volkswagen in 2015) to attempts by companies to sow confusion by setting up their own activist groups to support their endeavours. The growing visibility of ‘greenwashing’ has encouraged others to adapt the washing metaphor and apply it to new areas of socio-economic and political life. Most recently, this would include pink- and vegan-washing, which refer to corporations and governments that emphasise their support of LGTBQ and animal rights issues, respectively, to brand themselves as tolerant and progressive, and thereby appeal to key consumer markets.
When assessing the use of the ‘washing’ metaphor over time, we see that it has shifted in two interesting ways. First, it has moved from a primary concern with the activities of corporate actors to also focus on governmental organisations. This highlights the extent to which building reputational capital has become a key objective for a growing range of non-commercial institutions in an era of intensifying globalisation and digitalisation. Second, there has been a shift away from attempts at outright concealment to practices of consociation, that is, attempting to associate a country with more positive events, activities, or people. This latter shift partly explains why sport has become such an attractive proposition to a variety of states across the world who are looking to (re)build their reputation or engage key constituencies, whether policymakers, socio-economic elites, or consumers.
Why sports, why now?
The rapidly growing profile of sports and sporting mega events, such as the World Cup, is a partial response to both political, economic and technologies changes since the second world war, but particularly since the advent of digital technologies in the late 1990s. Sport matters because it plays a significant role in the lives of large numbers of people around the world and can be used to target the attention of particular groups, national, class-based, gender, age and so on. Moreover, in a fragmented media landscape, it is also one of the few remaining forms of ‘content’ that can bring together large audiences. This makes it as attractive to media companies and sponsors as it does to governments and states.
Therefore, when trying to assess the value of sportswashing as a concept, we can first point to the way it highlights the growing significance of image and reputation management in an era defined by intensifying global integration and, above all, the impact of digital technologies. In the latter case, the flow of information associated with these technologies makes concealment much more of a challenge, even for the most powerful of states. Therefore, as we briefly noted above, one of the key contributions of sportswashing is that it moves away from the idea of concealment or cover-up associated with whitewashing and earlier conceptions of greenwashing and specifically draws attention to the ways in which connections with sports are used in processes of consociation and deflection. In short, if Saudi Arabia is being discussed in relation to a well-run, high-profile golf or tennis tournament, then it isn’t only being associated with an appalling human rights record, an inequitable political system or resource exploitation.
Indeed, the role of various media organisations and platforms in these wider debates, whether as advocates or critics, is worthy of further attention. This is particularly the case in relation to sports fans who can play a key role in supporting an owner or organiser that they believe is likely to offer their athletes, team, or sport greater success.
A critical approach, in calling into question the records and activities of states, is also important but such a perspective cannot, however, only be limited to particular actors. For instance, it is notable that the term sportswashing tends to focus on a narrow range of non-Western actors, the most notable of which are Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China. This does not mean failing into a dangerous form of relativism, but if sportswashing is to become more than an empty slogan, it needs to be applied to other parts of the world as well, where salient. For instance, we need to ask whether an event like the 2012 London Olympics could ever be labelled as sportswashing, given that it arguably involved a former imperial power looking to raise its profile abroad and domestically, perhaps, deflect attention away from a deeply unpopular programme of austerity?
We also require better ways of evaluating the impact (or otherwise) of sportswashing. Some of the current debates seem to assume that the hosting of an event or purchase of a sports club naturally leads to favourable reviews or attitudes, whether among fans of a given club or the sport in general. Research around the hosting of mega events has shown a good deal of resistance from a range of sources. Therefore, we need to actively investigate who supports and who resists, through what means and channels and to what ends. It would also be good to know more about the kinds of reputational capital that are generated by such associations with sporting events, organisations, and personalities and to what extent they persist over time.
Whether it can clearly add to our understanding of these processes, beyond a few news headlines, requires longer-term studies to assess public attitudes over time. But in helping to focus more attention on the ways in which sport is used to deflect and distract from the sometimes-heinous activities of governments and other stakeholders around the world (both Western and non-Western), it has already served a useful purpose.
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LSE Middle East’s Madawi Al-Rasheed addresses Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and explains the motivations that drive oppressive regimes and rival Middle Eastern states to compete for ownership of such assets in Britain and the West.
- This blog post is based on Sportswashing: Media headline or analytic concept?, International Review for the Sociology of Sport.
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Fauzan Saari on Unsplash
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