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Sportswashing - What does it mean?

What is sportswashing simply explained?

What is sportswashing, anyway? If you are looking for a clear answer to this question, you are absolutely right here. Sport helps us to reduce stress, to stay healthy and fit and to be happy. It is fun and is able to inspire millions of people. Whether it's soccer, basketball, handball, motor sports, ski jumping, track and field or American soccer - major sporting events in particular have an incredible appeal that doesn't stop at national borders. It is precisely this characteristic that corrupt or authoritarian regimes use to polish up their image.

In this article, I would like to give you everything you need to know about sportswashing. From the definition, motives and examples, to possible solutions. Let's go!

  1. Definition
  2. Background
  3. Examples
  4. Solutions
  5. Closing words

Definition: What is Sportswashing?

Countries or companies that engage in sportswashing attempt to enhance one's own reputation with the help of the positive image of a popular sport. The aim is for the approval, attention and, not least, enthusiasm for a sports event to be transferred to the organizers.₁.

The now firmly established term is a combination of the self-explanatory word "sport" as well as "whitewashing," which means as much as Whitewash means. Similar to the Greenwashing (Attempt to gain a "green image" through marketing and PR measures) one tries to make an actually bad thing look as good as possible.

Background: For which goals are sporting events exploited politically?

Women enjoy few rights in Qatar

It is primarily autocratic states, such as Russia and China - and also the Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar - that engage in sportswashing. The latter are particularly rich, not least because of their huge gas and oil reserves, and thus also particularly powerful and influential. In Islamic, authoritarian regimes, however, other rights prevail that are far removed from the basic democratic values we exemplify in the Western world. There, for example Religious freedom, gay rights or women's rights trampled underfoot. They are either limited or simply non-existent.

Therefore, one would like to report on corresponding human rights violations to the euphemistic, friendly and cosmopolitan veil of a bought sports event and improve the reputation in the world in this way, while changing nothing about the inhumane deplorable conditions.

Examples: Who is sportswashing - and how?

You organize a big sporting event and people forget all the ills of your country or organization. Does it really work that easily? In fact, there is something more to it, especially system! The longer they are involved within a sport and make a name for themselves, the more dependent the respective sport is on them - and the higher is also the social acceptance despite human rights violations.

Here are a few of countless examples that show in more detail how countries use sporting events to give themselves a clean image.

Purchase of a sports club

  • Manchester City: The world-famous club is owned in large part by the Abu Dhabi United Group Investment & Development Limited, as well as the China Media Capital Football Holdings Limited. Played in the Etihad Stadium, named after the national airline of the United Arab Emirates.
  • Paris St. Germain: The French series champion belongs to the company Qatar Sports Investments around President Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who now enjoys great influence in world soccer. The airline Qatar Airways also adorns the club's jerseys. Players like Kilian Mbappé and Neymar were signed for around 400 million euros.
  • Newcastle United: A company set up by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund Public Investment Fund led consortium acquired the rights to the long-established Newcastle United soccer club in October 2021.

Sponsorship of a sports team

  • FC Bayern Munich: Since July 2018, for example, the Qatar Airways logo has adorned the jersey sleeve or the spare benches of FC Bayern. But public pressure is growing. Not least because many club members despise the human rights situation in Qatar and are urging the club to take action.
  • Paris St. Germain: The French club is not only owned by Qatar, but also by Qatar Airways sponsored.
  • FC Barcelona: The airline also adorned the jerseys of FC Barcelona players.
  • Formula 1: The Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco is one of the main sponsors of the international Formula 1 racing series and also the main sponsor of the Aston Martin team.

Sponsorship of sports events

  • Summer Olympics 1936 in Germany: When Nazi Germany hosted the event in 1936, the organizers saw it as a pep rally for the Aryan race.₂
  • 2008 Summer Olympics in China: The Chinese government placed more emphasis on its superficial image at the event than on fundamental changes. The persecution and punishment of human rights defenders and media workers continued during the games.₃
  • Soccer World Cup 2018 in Russia: The World Cup in Russia was criticized mainly because of the miserable working conditions of the workers, as well as because of doping allegations and other scandals.
  • World Athletics Championships 2019: The sporting event took place under extreme climatic conditions in Qatar. Due to the enormous heat, many athletes had to seek medical treatment.
  • Spanish and Italian Supercup 2020: The two matches between last year's champion and last year's cup winner from the Spanish, as well as from the Italian league, both took place in Saudi Arabia.
  • 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar: The World Cup in Qatar was bought - the desert state won the bid in 2010. During the construction of the stadiums at least 6500 people have died.

Solutions: What can be done about sportswashing?

What to do about sportswashing?

The solution can only lie in threatening, social acceptance of sportswashing to be criticized more and more. It is important not to gloss over the euphemistic attempts at image polishing.

Measures against corruption for example, are a suitable political tool. Consumers, on the other hand, can be protected by a Boycott can stand up for not accepting human rights violations and other social ills. Personally, from these and some other reasons not to watch a match of the World Cup in Qatar.

Can you think of other ways to do something about sportswashing? Then I look forward to your comment!

Sportswashing - Targeted image campaigns with consequences

Personally, I find the motives of the countries addressed simply far too obvious to be happy about, for example, a goal by the German national team at the World Cup in Qatar. Inhumane working conditions, exploitation, thousands of deaths during the construction of the stadiums, hatred towards homosexuals, oppression of women... all these abuses would be accepted by turning a blind eye and cheering.

I really hope you were able to take away something from this post about sportswashing. Do you have any questions, tips or do you know of any other instructive examples? Then just write me a comment below this article.

Stay critical,

Christoph from CareElite - Plastic-free living

PS.: Do you actually know what Conspiracy Theories and how they work? I explain it to you in the linked article.

₁ Benjamin Knaack: Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia Wash in the Desert (as of 05.01.2020), available at [11.11.2022].

₂ M. Rosenberg: Sportswashing - Why Regimes Exploit Sports for Their Dirty Purposes (as of Apr. 12, 2022), available at [11.11.2022].

₃ Beijing 2008 - Human rights organizations take stock, available at [11.11.2022].

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Christoph Schulz

Christoph Schulz

I'm Christoph, an environmental scientist and author - and here at CareElite I'm campaigning against plastic waste in the environment, climate change and all the other major environmental problems of our time. Together with other environmentally conscious bloggers, I want to give you tips & tricks for a naturally healthy, sustainable life as well as your personal development.

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