Sportswashing alive and well


The sporting world seems more concerned with money than with the the activities of the regimes who supply it

August 2022

Two sporting events took place more or less at the same time today : Newcastle United Football Club will be playing Manchester City today and Joshua Reynolds fought a boxing match in Jedda. The connection? Both events are heavily funded by the Saudis as part of its sportswashing activities. They hope by directing attention to the sporting activities, the gaze of the world will be deflected from the horrors of the regime itself: the beheadings and amputations, the use of torture and unfair trials, the brutal silencing of any opposition and the denial of equal rights to women in the kingdom.

A leader in the Observer newspaper today (21 August 2021) suggested that Newcastle United supporters should observe a minutes silence at the start of the match against Manchester City (whose own financing by UAE’s Sheikh Mansour also raised questions with its use of torture, abuse of migrant labourers and unfair trials) in recognition of the draconian 34 year sentence handed down to Salma al-Shehab for faintly ludicrous crimes of ‘disrupting public order’ and allegedly publishing ‘false rumours’. Perhaps the writer of the Observer editorial had not looked at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and in particular, the sports pages. Had they done so they would have observed (!) that nowhere in the pages of stories about the club, its players and assorted transfers, was there any mention of the goings on by their funders in Saudi or the fate of Salma*.

A successful policy

In most of the reports about the Joshua match, the focus was on his childish sobbing because he lost narrowly to the Ukrainian. Both Newcastle and Joshua Reynolds are in receipt of substantial sums from Mohammed bin Salman. One has to admit it is a largely successful policy. As far as the sports writers and supporters are concerned, it’s the sport that matters and the nature of the dirty money seems to be of little interest to them. Pages of print are taken up with the activities on the field or in the ring and the supporters are not exposed to the unseemly activities of the regime which makes it all possible.

Sport seems almost detached from the political world despite the fact that huge amounts of money to keep the football league in place comes from a variety of dubious sources and despotic regimes. The vast sums paid in eye-watering transfers do not just come from ticket prices or from thin air. Vast amounts are also available for golf, tennis, Formula 1 and horse racing.

The word ‘sportswashing’ is relatively new but using sport to enhance a regime goes back to the interwar years at least with Mussolini and the 1934 World Cup. Post war and the communist regimes of Russia and East Germany engaged in it to enhance their own prestige but with their own sports people. Many sports are involved including tennis, golf, cycling, F1 and horse racing.

The desire for success by football clubs in particular means that money matters more than anything else. If a club cannot populate its team with the best players, acquired at great expense, it cannot succeed in the league or in other competitions. A kind of dependency grows and questions of propriety and the sordid nature or source of the money get short shrift. When the Saudi funding of Newcastle first came to light, there seemed little concern among supporters about the regime as witnessed in the below-the-line comments in the Chronicle and other social media. Success was the thing and getting rid of Mike Ashley the driving force.

There is no getting away from the fact that sport is a significant element of our culture. Millions watch it on TV, attend matches, buy the kit of their favourite club and read the sports pages. Sportsmen and women and sports commentators are among the top earners in the media universe. They appear immune from any moral opprobrium. They appear on panel shows like the BBC’s A Question of Sport. The moral chasm however is alarming. Anthony Joshua for example, when asked about human rights before a previous bout in Saudi, said he hadn’t heard of Amnesty as he was too busy training at the gym. As the sums mount and more tyrants join in the game of sanitising their reputations by using sport, the question is, will there come a time when the money is so egregious that the political class, or even the sports authorities themselves, begin to take notice? So far, somnolence and heads remaining firmly in sand seems to hold sway.

*There were references in the paper at the time of the funding takeover.

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