Sports have traditionally been viewed as a force for good in the world, but the term ‘sportswashing’ describes how some authoritarian governments use them as propaganda to ‘launder’ their global reputations by diverting attention from their deplorable records on human rights and social justice. For example, by hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, China sought to ‘sportswash’ its violations of the human rights of its Muslim Uyghur minority.
For decades, Russia has deployed sports as a form of ‘soft power,’ but, now, some of the most high-profile condemnations of its war on Ukraine have been the decisions of sports federations banning Russian teams and Russian athletes from competition and reversing decisions to hold sporting events in the country.
Saudi Arabia also polishes its tarnished image through ‘sportswashing’, investing billions in football with its purchase of Newcastle United, plus Formula One, golf, and boxing. The kingdom has also hired the Boston Consulting Group to help lobby its interest in hosting a football World Cup event in the not-so-distant future. Currently, the spotlight is on Qatar and the forthcoming World Cup. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre says that more than 24,000 workers have suffered human rights abuses there, including curtailment of freedom of expression and freedom of movement, non-payment of wages and benefits, passport confiscations, excessive working hours, cramped living conditions, and frequent health and safety breaches leading to dangerous working conditions, injuries, and deaths. It is estimated that 6,500 fatalities have occurred there so far in the construction of the World Cup infrastructure. The following two sections also cover Qatar and the World Cup.