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.

Boxing in Saudi


Mohammed bin Salman continues his sportswashing activity with a boxing fixture tomorrow in Jedda

August 2022

With its vast wealth, Saudi Arabia is pursuing its attempt to whitewash its reputation by sponsoring a boxing match today (Saturday 20th 2022) between British born Anthony Joshua and the Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk in Jedda. Each will share a purse of around £33m. This is not the first time and in a previous post we pointed out the human rights problems in Saudi to which Joshua gave a less than satisfactory answer.

Readers of this site will not be unaware of the many posts we have published concerning the dire human rights situation in Saudi. Mass executions including one of the largest ever of 81 men in one day in March. The use of torture is routine, children are not exempt and Mustafa al-Darwish was executed last year. Trials are in secret and often little more than rubber stamping confessions produced following torture.

Only today 19 August 2022, there was a report of a Saudi woman given a 34 year sentence for using Twitter. A terrorist court has imposed the sentence on the Leeds University student who has a mere 2,500 or so followers.

Saudi activities in Yemen also should be mentioned with bombing of non military targets commonplace. British and US arms including aircraft are used in these missions and British personnel – including RAF personnel – are in place to ‘advise’ the Saudis.

In an effort to sanitise this reputation, MbS has embarked on a programme of sportswashing which has included golf, boxing, tennis, F1, horse racing with the worlds richest prize. Even chess is supported. Money has also come to Newcastle United football club. According to a report by Grant Liberty, a massive £1.5bn has been spent on this sportswashing. And the money works with little sign of the hundreds of sports people being the least bit concerned about the country they are competing in. The sports pages are full of their endeavours with facile interviews of the stars. Beheadings? Torture? Mass executions? Yemen? No women’s rights to speak of? None of it seems to concern our sporting heroes so long as the money is right.

Sources: Amnesty, The Guardian, Grant Liberty

Sportswash – again


In a previous post we mentioned the case of Anthony Joshua, the boxer and the fight which took place in Saudi Arabia for which he received a multi-million pound purse.

Human rights groups were critical of his decision to fight there and said it was an example of Sportswash: using sport to try and sanitise a dubious regime. In the case of Saudi this involves executions by beheading; floggings; imprisoning opposition people, lawyers and human rights workers as well as their appalling bombing activities in Yemen.

Lo and behold, within days of this happening and the criticism which it produced, Joshua turns up on the Graham Norton Show on the BBC. This is a show which features actors and celebrities of various kinds who come on to promote their activities and seemingly have a good time. Joshua came on to great acclaim and was variously embraced and fawned over by the other guests. Joshua himself said at the time of the fight that he did not know about Amnesty as he was too busy training but one suspects that Graham Norton, his producers and production team know and must have been aware of the furore surrounding his fight in Saudi. Not a word was said about this.

So what do we call this? Is it Sportswash? The BBC has come in for an increasing amount of criticism for bias and to some extent this is understandable during an election. This is not bias however, it is simply not wanting to see. No doubt his promoters or PR people want to rehabilitate Joshua’s reputation – which took a knock – and what better than to parade him on a lightweight entertainment show like Graham Norton where no awkward questions were asked. But why did the BBC agree to this? Did the other guests know he was coming on and were they not concerned? If they were they did not show it with lots of kisses, backslapping and embracing – typical activity when celebs come together. We do not know of course if other potential guests were sickened by his presence and declined the gig.

So have the BBC been used as part of a plan to rehabilitate Anthony Joshua’s reputation?  Is what is happening in Yemen and Saudi of so little interest to the BBC that inviting this man on for our entertainment matters more than the suffering of people in those two countries?

 

 

Sportswash


Use of sport to promote interests of unsavoury regimes on the rise

The latest example is the heavyweight fight in Saudi Arabia involving Anthony Joshua.  The fight was approved by the WBA, the World Boxing Organisation and International Boxing Federation.

Readers of this site need no introduction into the unpleasantness of the Saudi Regime.  Its activities in Yemen we have featured many times on these pages.  With British and American support

Anthony Joshua (Wikipedia)

and armaments, it has carried out a bombing campaign in that country with little regard to international human rights law.  Schools, hospitals, wedding ceremonies and civilian areas generally have been bombed sometimes using what is called ‘double tap’ that is, going in for a second time when the aid workers arrive causing extra mayhem.

Human rights are low on the agenda with floggings, torture, amputations and executions the norm.  There have been 148 executions so far this year.  Women’s rights activists, lawyers and members of the Shia minority have all been targeted.  But never mind, there’s money to be made in them there dunes so lets go for it.

There has been a wide range of criticism of the boxer himself and the promoters, Matchroom Sport for taking the Saudi shilling for this event thus taking part in an attempt to sanitise the regime.  They denied the charge that they were sportswashing.

Never mind the stonings, public executions, or human rights, Eddie Hearn is more than happy to follow the money

Daily Telegraph, 16 August (Eddie Hearn is Joshua’s promoter)

What does Anthony Joshua himself say?  He is reported not to have known who Amnesty International was saying in a BBC interview that he spent most of his time in Finchley training.

I appreciate them [Amnesty] voicing an opinion.  And it’s good to talk about issues in the world.  But I’m there to fight.  If I want to put on my cape where I’m going to save the world, we all have to do it together.  The questions and the things that are happening in the world in general can’t be left to one man to solve.  We all have to make a difference.”

I’ve actually been to Saudi Arabia and I’m building a relationship,  Some of the questions that the world has to ask, maybe I could be a spokesman?  It’s a blessing and they can speak back.  And that’s relationship building, rather than just accusing, pointing fingers and shouting from Great Britain.  In order to ask questions, and people that may want to make change, you have to go and get involved.  Daily Telegraph 6 September 2019

Matchroom’s site makes only scant mention of the human rights aspect.  “We are an independent company of passionate individuals” it tells us on its site: presumably the passion is confined to sport.

Of course, Joshua is not the first and certainly not the last to be involved in the process of sportwashing regimes such as Saudi Arabia.  His ‘crime’ of agreeing to fight in the kingdom does not compare with the UK government’s support and agreeing to the supply of arms to this regime over many years.  Members of the Royal Family have been happy to get engaged with a fellow royal family.

The difference is that this fight will have been seen by millions hence the purse of £40 million that Joshua will earn (there are other higher figures).  Those millions of viewers are likely to be left with an impression that it is all right to engage with such a regime.  But they have been willing stooges in the process of trying to sanitise them and its attempts to make a comeback after the murder of Khashoggi.

Sport has had its fair share of scandals.  Doping, cheating, bribery: a seemingly endless stream of less than salubrious behaviour.  FIFA and the Olympics are replete with corruption.  To many, Joshua is a hero and on the sporting front he no doubt is.  But as a hero he has a responsibility, as do those behind him, to recognise the influence he has on followers.  Some day, the sporting fraternity are going to have to recognise the role they play in shaping people’s – particularly young people’s – minds and the influence they have.  And that may mean saying ‘no’ to performing in a country where women have few rights and are imprisoned for seeking them, where torture is a way of life, and hacking off heads and limbs part of the legal system.  Good way to earn £40 million.

Last word to Matchroom:

We got criticized for coming here but these people have been amazing. The vision they have for boxing in this region is incredible and they delivered.  [Accessed 8 December]

Sources: Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Amnesty

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