The dirty side of sports – sportswashing – is not new

The dirty side of sports – sportswashing – is not new
Amnesty International has been heavily critical of the success of English soccer club Manchester City under the ownership of City Football Group – which is headed by United Arab Emirates politician and royal Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. (Photo: James Gill - Danehouse / Getty Images)

With Saudi Arabia stamping its authority on global sports by luring some of the most affluent soccer players in the world to their league, as well as a merger with the PGA Tour recently, the term ‘sportswashing’ has come to the fore again.

In the human ecosystem, sports have various meanings for different groups and different individuals.

For South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, sport had this particular meaning: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.

“Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”

Of course, before Mandela’s ascension to power, various sports in South Africa were all about perpetuating the discrimination and the exclusion of people who were not white in skin colour.

This was in keeping with the prevailing dogma at the time (apartheid), which painted people not belonging to the white race as inferior and second-class human beings.

For the “woke” throngs in society, sports are seen as an instrument to dumb down the masses; to distract them from the constant and necessary pursuit of revolution. Sports exist to bar them from challenging the status quo.

As for the athletes themselves, sports can be crucial in flipping their lives 180 degrees. 

Yasir Al-Rumayyan, chairperson of Newcastle United and the man behind a Saudi golf merger with the PGA Tour. (Photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Their experiences can take them from a poor background to having a voice in a world that can sometimes have a one-dimensional and overly academic viewpoint on intelligence and brilliance.

Nevertheless, through sports these individuals can change their own lives, those of their families and immediate communities for generations to come, directly or indirectly.  

One common theme reigns supreme across all these varying perceptions: sport is a tool, an instrument. It is also extremely powerful.


Of late, Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been accused of using sports to paint colourfully over their humanitarian transgressions and attempting to erase a tawdry reputation. 

This is known as sportswashing, a tool mostly used by some governments, corporations and even individuals to achieve the aforementioned goal. 

In the past, global human rights watchdog Amnesty International has been heavily critical of the success of English soccer club Manchester City under the ownership of City Football Group – which is headed by United Arab Emirates (UAE) politician and royal Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

This is not a new phenomenon. As early as 1934… Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy hosted the second edition of the soccer World Cup.

Amnesty International has accused Sheikh Mansour and his compatriots of sportswashing.

“The UAE’s enormous investment in Manchester City is one of football’s most brazen attempts to sportswash a country’s deeply tarnished image, through the glamour of the game,” the organisation has said.  

“As a growing number of City fans will be aware, the success of the club involves a close relationship with a country that exploits migrant labour and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders.”

Similar utterances dominated conversations when Russia was awarded the 2018 soccer World Cup by global governing body Fifa.

The mother body of international soccer once again came under the cosh when they awarded the next edition of the showpiece to another globally unfancied regime four years later – Qatar.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Qatar 2022: football can never be the only focus

However, this is not a new phenomenon. As early as 1934 – long before the term “sportswashing” existed – Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy hosted the second edition of the soccer World Cup.

In 1936, Nazi Germany was the host of the Olympic Games. Another early instance of what is now known as sportswashing. Those Games became a political vehicle for Germany’s dictator, Adolf Hitler, and his accomplices.

Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin to promote the Nazi party. (Photo: Getty Images)

Saudi effect

Gulf country Saudi Arabia is the latest country to fall under the spotlight and be accused of using sports for selfish gains, although the country has vehemently denied this.

“I don’t agree with that, with that term [of sportswashing]. Because if you go to different parts of the world, you bring people together. Everyone should come see Saudi Arabia, see it for what it is. Then make your decision. See it for yourself. If you don’t like it, fine,” the kingdom’s minister of sport, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud, was quoted as saying by CBS News recently.

“The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events. Which not only introduces Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes, but also showcases the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in the US, has said.

All this is part of the country’s attempt to diversify its portfolio and move away from being known as merely an oil hub. The endeavour, launched in 2016, is known as Vision 2030. It is the brainchild of Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

To this end, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) recently initiated an audacious and unexpected merger with golf’s PGA Tour – after forming the breakaway LIV Golf league. This surprise merger includes the PGA and DP World Tours.

The PIF also led a consortium that bought English soccer club Newcastle United in October 2021.

Karim Benzema hugs Anmar Al-Haili, president of Al-Ittihad, after being presented to fans at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah on 8 June 2023. (Photo: Khalid Alhaj / MB Media / Getty Images)

A little over a year later the country lured one of the most important sports figures of the past two decades – Portuguese soccer legend Cristiano Ronaldo – to the Saudi Pro League with a reported seasonal pay cheque of about $200-million (R3.8-billion).

Since then the league has wrangled Ronaldo’s former teammate at Real Madrid, Karim Benzema. The 35-year-old French forward has joined Al-Ittihad, which won the league ahead of Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr in the recently concluded campaign.  

“Oil is still the main source of income for the state,” Prince Mohammed said. “My intention is to make sure that the country is secure, safe and has a better future to look forward to.

“The increase in population will not be able to depend on oil production, at the rate we are going.”

In 2016 the Chinese Super League also splashed out large amounts of money to entice soccer players based in Europe. However, the project was not sustainable and that flame (along with its initial hype) has since been extinguished. DM


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