PtG Article 27.06.2022

Saudi Arabia is filling the vacuum after Russia in a year of sportswashing

The idea of sportswashing has long historical roots, and in 2022 it is everywhere according to academic Jules Boykoff. Investigative reporter Jens Weinreich pointed out that Saudi Arabia in particular is actively pursuing the vacuum left by Russia.

Man presenting at conference

Jules Boykoff presenting at Play the Game 2022. Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game

According to author and academic Jules Boykoff, 2022 can accurately be described as “the year of sportswashing.” Early in the year, Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics, while in November, Qatar will host football’s top event, the FIFA World Cup. These and similar events, Boycoff said, are classic examples of so-called sportswashing - a term used to describe undemocratic regimes using sport to enhance their reputation and legitimacy.

Sportswashing is not a modern phenomenon, Boykoff pointed out. In 1936, Western media fawned over the spectacular opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in Berlin which was choreographed by the Nazi regime.

“The games burnished Hitler’s reputation at home and abroad and can be seen as a step on the road to war,” he said.  

Furthermore, he pointed out, Vladimir Putin’s achieved unprecedented popularity in the wake of the successful 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which finished shortly before Russia’s invasion of Crimea.  

“Authoritarian countries can also take their show on the road,” Boykoff said, pointing to the 2021 takeover of the English Premier League Club Newcastle United by a fund linked to the Saudi Royal Family.

“They are effectively renting sportsmen as de facto ambassadors and relying on previously established fandom for legitimacy. Sportswashing can target a country’s internal population as much as a global audience.”

Weinreich: Saudi Arabia is filling the vacuum

“Let’s not fool ourselves,” said investigative journalist Jens Weinrich. “Sport’s next rogue states are already in line. We all know that. Saudi Arabia in particular is filling the vacuum left by Russia. It is pumping billions into the sports sector.”

Some of the highest sports officials in the world, Weinrich pointed out, have recently met with Saudi heads of state. In addition to a meeting with the IOC President, the heads of less popular Olympic sports such as handball, bobsleigh, equestrianism, canoeing, and modern pentathlon have also mingled with the Saudi Arabian elite.

“There is only one reason for these visits,” he said. “That is money.”  

“Nothing has changed,” Weinrich added. “They talk about Olympic values but they constantly trample on them. This itself is an Olympic tradition spanning over a century. They were also talking about Olympic values in 1936.”

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