The use of sport to sanitise regimes with atrocious human rights records may be increasing
The use of sport and ‘sports wash’ to give favourable publicity to regimes engaged in a range of human rights abuses is probably on the increase and has been particularly noticeable this year. Sport is now a major international business and involves huge amounts of money. Some sport is international in scope and has audiences numbered in the millions. With such a captive audience, it is small wonder that countries who want to sanitise their reputations and present wholesome images of themselves, turn to sport to deliver those images.
Sport is also closely connected with the media and there are sometimes frenzied negotiations to get rights to publish or transmit sporting events. With so much invested in securing rights and harvesting the advertising which goes with it, there is little time, space or inclination to question too much what goes on behind the scenes. Sports pages live at the back of most newspapers and exist in a kind of private world. Pages of dramatic photos of footballers, cricketers, rugby players and others are displayed seemingly detached from the rest of the world.
Abuses are many and include the terrible conditions workers endure building stadia in the Gulf for the football world cup. Athletes themselves are subject to abuse by their trainers and coaches and British Cycling has been subject to allegations of this kind by a whistle-blower. Drugs have been a perennial problem and infect many sports.
In recent years, we have seen more examples of sports wash. We featured the attempt by Saudi Arabia to fund the Newcastle Football Club as part of its campaign to present a better image of the country. A feature of that campaign was the encouragement it received from the the club’s supporters.
Holding this rally is ‘grotesque’
Today (6 January 2021), attention has focused on the Dakar rally which will pass close to the prison where Loujain al-Hathloul is held for campaigning for the right of women to drive. The regime has been going through some contortions to get itself out of a PR mess of its own making. The threat to imprison her for a lengthy jail term were dropped and with suspended sentences she should be released in a few months. Loujain was kidnapped, held without access to a lawyer and tortured. The rally is organised by the Amaury Sports Organisation whose website does not appear to make claims about human rights adherence.
A tweet from Grant Liberty says:
It is utterly grotesque that at the same time Saudi authorities will host a motor sport event — including women drivers — the heroes that won their right to drive languish in jail. 5 January
Loujain’s sister said in a tweet:
No-one should be fooled by the Saudi regime’s attempts at sportswashing … Racers might not know it, but their participation there is to hide and whitewash the host’s crimes. Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain’s sister 5 January
These trends suggest that sport needs to take greater interest in human rights and what is happening in the countries they compete in. If they are being used to sanitise the reputation of regimes who torture, arrest opposition leaders, human rights defenders, lawyers and generally ignore the human rights of their citizens, they must ask themselves ‘is this what sport is for?’ Huge interest was generated when the footballer Marcus Rashford was influential in forcing the government to change its mind over school meals. In some areas therefore, sport is beginning to use its power and its huge following to effect change.
But all too often, the lure of big money and a willingness to look the other way, seems to be the prevailing ethos.