Formula 1 claims about change questioned
There is increasing interest in the question of sportswashing – that is the increasing use by despotic regimes to sanitise their reputations through funding sports events. The World Cup was a recent example where the Qatar regime spent billions to host this event a major part of which was to give the country a good image. There were many concerns surrounding the event and the treatment of the workforce used to build the stadia and other projects. According to Amnesty and other human rights observers:
On sites both connected and unconnected to the World Cup, migrant workers have encountered:
- recruitment fees, wage theft, debilitating debt and broken dreams, including for impoverished
families back home;
- abuse by employers emboldened by excessive powers and impunity for their actions, sometimes
trapping workers in conditions that amount to forced labour; and
- unbearable and dangerous working and living conditions, with thousands of workers’ deaths
remaining unexplained, and at least hundreds likely to have been linked to exposure to the country’s
Qatar was an example of a regime with a poor human rights record, hosting an international sporting event. Regimes and oligarchs have used their massive wealth to acquire sporting assets in the UK and elsewhere. Recent examples have included the purchase of Newcastle Football Club by Saudi interests. It is true that sport has always had some kind of ‘display’ function and during the cold war years, the Soviet government and its satellite countries devoted enormous energies to win Olympic medals. It has now seemed to have grown with a large range of sports visiting countries with poor or very poor human rights records to compete in well-funded events.
There does not seem to have been much of a reaction to this. Tens of thousands went to the World Cup and although there were some limited attempts to wear arm bands in support of LGBQ rights, generally protests were extremely limited.
Sporting interests like to claim that sport has a role in stimulating change. There seems little sign of this. There is encouraging news however that people are questioning the F1 event in Bahrain. It is reported that a group of 20 cross party MPs have written to the governing body, FIA, to call for an independent inquiry into the sport’s activities in countries like Bahrain with questionable human rights records. The FIA claims apparently that they are committed to improving conditions and the best way is through dialogue and its continued presence in the grand prix. Unfortunately, the human rights situation shows no sign of improvement with torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings still taking place there according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
It is difficult for individual sportsmen and women to take action especially if they are professional. They go where the competitions are and where the contracts require them to.
Sportswashing is essentially about laundering regime’s reputations using PR firms and masses of money. It is used to hide atrocious human rights records and corruption. At its heart is money but also, a willingness of those involved in sport – including fans and spectators – to look the other way. Sport sits at the back of most newspapers and in reporting events, the money and what lies behind the sport seldom gets discussed. It seems detached from other political reporting making it ideal for the process of sanitising reputations. The funding of arts institutions by fossil fuel firms for example has come under scrutiny and has attracted a lot of criticism and the ending of some relationships. The Sackler family, of Oxycontin fame, have seen their name removed from many galleries and arts venues. So the spotlight can work.
Lewis Hamilton has queried the claims by Formula One that it is bringing positive change so perhaps a greater awareness of the role of sport in sanitising these regime’s reputations might happen.