By: Trayambak Chakravarty
In February 2021, during the Formula E race being held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, missiles were flying overhead, their target obvious. Although the Patriot missile shield system of the country proved effective in thwarting the missiles launched by Houthi rebels, it was a wake-up call to the dangers of hosting an international event in a dangerous region. Notably, this situation arose despite, or even because, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was in attendance for the race. In December of the same year, Formula 1 visited two new countries for the first time in its history. The Qatar Grand Prix and the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix were not the first time the sport has visited a country in the Middle Eastern region (Bahrain was the first in 2004, followed by Abu Dhabi in 2009), which has become a cornerstone of the racing calendar. It follows MotoGP visiting Qatar in 2004 and the selection of Qatar as the host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. There is also the rise of middle eastern investment in sporting concerns all around the world, be it teams (such as the enormously wealthy football teams in England), sports (such as the NBA and NFL) as well as other commercial interests. The growth of this region as a sporting powerhouse has inspired debates about the phenomenon, named ‘sportswashing’.
Progress of Sportswashing
While the specific idea of sportswashing as a subject of research has only existed for less than a decade, there has been discussion over the idea of countries using sports as a way to hide their rights abuses, image problems and other negative attributes since the mid-1970s and perhaps since even the 1930s, when Hitler used the Olympic Games and motor racing as a way to promote the organisational and promotional supremacy of Nazi Germany to great effect. The former was a platform for the regime’s propaganda mechanism, with Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympia’ still recognised as a masterpiece of cinema history.
Image source: Getty Images
Hitler also used motor racing to promote the engineering prowess of the German companies as well as the infrastructural investments that he was making in the country, with the Autobahn highway system being a particular achievement. The sporting honours won by Germans around the world in this way worked wonders to minimise the perceived threat that the world seemed to face from the country, because of which Neville Chamberlain et al were so intent and confident of securing peace with them before the onset of the Second World War.
Of course, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are no Nazi Germany, and comparing their rights issues are a gateway to the ideologue that reviles a non-capitalist non-western culture. Although many influential countries have their human rights issues, the singling out of Middle Eastern nations, which often escape any sanctions from the same Western countries which constantly criticise them because of their oil interests, portrays a dangerous generalisation of regional dynamics.
There is an argument for the region hosting these world-class sports, and that is to expand the reach of these international events to allow the world to participate and cooperate more through organisations in which they are stakeholders, and indeed, to increase the number of global stakeholders and scope of the events. The “World Cup” is not as much of a “world” cup if only two regions in the world continuously host it. Any “World Championship” loses its lustre if it is limited to European or American countries, ignoring parts of the world that have the largest populations.
Assessing the Impact
The ‘resource-rich autocratic states’ such as Russia, Azerbaijan, China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Søyland, 2020), however, represent a worrying trend that in absolute terms, the influence of money can overtake any bureaucratic obstacles. The 2018 FIFA World Cup had a viewership of 3.572 billion people, including more than 1.12 billion viewers only for the final. The annual viewership for F1 as a sport is more than 2 billion people each year, with each Grand Prix averaging nearly 90 million viewers on TV.
MotoGP, although smaller than the previous two sports, still has a healthy viewership of nearly 500 million people annually. The eyeballs attracted to a specific country because of a sport’s presence there is a huge benefit to its tourism and marketing, and there are many sports enthusiasts who would attest to the fact that following a sport has increased their knowledge and understanding of the country that sport visits much more than they would have gained by their initiative. The commercial value of this aspect of sportswashing cannot be ignored.
Image source: Getty Images
A further positive aspect of these countries hosting events is that they are forced to adopt international standards concerning many issues. For example, when it was discovered that Qatari contractors were using indentured labour, essentially a modern form of slave labour using South Asian immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to build the stadiums and other essential infrastructure required for the 2022 World Cup, the country was forced to amend its labour laws as well as enforce a strict watchdog to ensure that the issue did not occur again. These changes will inevitably reaffirm their presence in the laws of that country for years beyond the World Cup, and in this way, these international events present an opportunity to uncover and force humanitarian change in policy and ideology in certain situations.
Sportswashing is an idea that can be used for both positive and nefarious purposes. But there is no denying the impact that the idea has on the perception of a country. For now, there has not been as much of a tangible negative impact in any country because of sportswashing, except for the close-call that Formula E almost suffered that fateful day in February. In any discourse about the subject, there are immediate concerns about personal ideologies and biases skewing any objective viewpoints, and so it is important to hold a dynamic and holistic debate about the phenomenon without making any judgements.
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