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The Complex History of Sportswashing 

Are international sporting events designed to draw attention away from controversial issues facing the world?

photo of Adolf Hitler at 1936 olympics in Berlin.
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  • Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Sportswashing” is a relatively new term to describe an age-old activity—that of “using major international or national sporting events, teams, or players to divert attention from a country’s unethical conduct inside and outside of its borders.” The term itself was probably coined sometime in 2015, possibly by members of the Sport & Rights Alliance or by Padraig Reidy and Mike Harris of the London-based agency 89up to describe the efforts of Azerbaijan to host the 2015 European Games in order to cover up their “appalling record in arresting journalists and human rights activists.” However, the activity itself has been going on for decades, if not longer.

“The 1934 World Cup in Italy painted a gloss over Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime,” writes Sam Cunningham at iNews, “and Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to spread Nazi propaganda.” Of course, the latter attempt famously backfired somewhat, as Jesse Owens won four gold medals and “single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy” while the Nazis looked on.

For as long as there have been attempts by countries to use sporting events to improve their image, there have been attempts to organize protests and boycotts against them. In 1936, the NAACP urged Owens to make a statement suggesting that the U.S. should shun the Games, saying, “If there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics.” The president of the American Olympic Committee, however, denounced these actions as those of “un-American agitators,” and Owens and other athletes ultimately competed in the Games.

While Hitler’s notorious propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had been at least partly responsible for Berlin hosting the Games in 1936, arguing that they would be a “perfect opportunity to showcase the superiority of Aryan athletes,” this early attempt at sportswashing probably did more harm than good to the Nazi cause.

photo of Jesse Owens at 1936 Olympics
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  • Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, it wasn’t the first time that a boycott of the Olympic Games was suggested. When the 1920 Olympics took place in Antwerp, the nations of Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, and Turkey were not invited, as a direct result of their actions during the First World War. In 1952, Taiwan staged the first confirmed Olympic boycott in response to China sending a team for the first time following the Chinese Communist Revolution.

By 1976, boycotts of the Olympics were relatively common forms of protest, as 25 African nations engaged in a boycott relating to apartheid in South Africa. In 1980 and 1984, during the height of the Cold War, the United States and Russia each led boycotts against the other when the Games were held in Moscow and Los Angeles. Thomas Bach, the current president of the International Olympic Committee, has since said that these boycotts taught him that “a sports boycott serves nothing.”

The years since 1936 have seen many changes, however, and modern attempts at sportswashing have become more sophisticated, even as boycotts and protests have become more prevalent. Since 2015, the term “sportswashing” has seen regular use to describe everything from Qatar’s hosting of Formula One races and the 2022 World Cup to Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia’s acquisitions of Manchester City and Newcastle United football clubs, respectively.

photo of formula one protest sign
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  • A Bahraini protester holding an anti-F1 sign.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, the Irregular Warfare Center argues that modern day “sportswashing” differs in a significant way from earlier practices such as the 1936 Olympics or the boycotts of Olympic Games by the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War. True “sportswashing,” according to the Center, “is when governments or high-powered individuals start buying controlling interests in teams outside their own. This allows the owning country to change the narrative and instead use sports as a tool of control.”

The U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, the Center argues, was an example of international diplomacy—essentially, a form of politics as usual. “Sportswashing” is something newer, involving foreign investment in national or international sports teams and events, “often as a means to exert influence or further their interests.”

The goals of this new kind of “sportswashing” are not always as clear-cut as in the earlier diplomatic examples of Olympic Games and accompanying boycotts. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has invested more than $1 trillion into sports of various kinds in what Jules Boykoff of Pacific University described as “a clear-cut, unadulterated example of sports washing. It’s stoking nationalism at home, deflecting attention from human rights problems and trying to garner national prestige.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had a simpler explanation when speaking to Fox News, however. “If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%,” he said, “then I will continue doing sport washing.” This obfuscation helps to illustrate that “sportswashing” can often serve multiple purposes, making it difficult to determine when an act is “sportswashing” and when it isn’t.

While the goals and methods of modern-day sportswashing may have become more complex and obtuse, the action itself is still familiar. Sporting events are among the most publicized events in the world, watched by millions all around the globe. They are also big business, bringing in huge sums of money to those countries who can afford to stage them. Those who can control such events have a massive stage and a unique opportunity to shape public perception.

However, not everyone believes that sportswashing accomplishes its goals. Just as the 1936 Berlin Olympics may have done more to harm Hitler’s regime than help it, Professor Simon Chadwick of the Emlyon Business School argues that attempts at sportswashing may have the opposite effect, highlighting a country’s less salubrious qualities. “We know more about Qatar’s immigrant rights than we ever did, more about the Saudi PIF. It’s shining a light on it. This is not sportswashing, it is sports-staining.”

Effective or not, sportswashing doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact, when asked about the phrase that he may have helped to invent, Padraig Reidy of 89up said, “The sad thing is, since we coined the term the practice seems to have become more and more prevalent, with international sports bodies willing accomplices.”