‘Grim game of our times’: what is sportswashing?

Saudi Arabia is facing more allegations of “sportswashing” – in both Premier League football and in elite golf. 

The ownership of Newcastle United by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has come under further scrutiny this weekend following leaked pictures of what could be the club’s 2022-2023 away strip, which is the same white and green colours of the Kingdom’s national team. 

Questions over the “proximity” of PIF to the Saudi state have “persisted” since the Premier League allowed a takeover to go through last October, said The Guardian. The league had guarantees that Saudi Arabia would not control Newcastle, but Amnesty International said the images “suggested otherwise”.

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns, said that if it is true that Newcastle are changing their kit to match Saudi’s national colours, it “exposes the power of the Saudi dollar and the kingdom’s determination to sportswash its brutal, blood-soaked human rights record”. 

‘Provocative sportswashing at its very worst’

Saudi Arabia’s association with sport has become an “integral, and contentious, part of its efforts to rebrand”, said The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov. But the takeover of Newcastle was the kingdom’s “boldest move yet, placing it firmly on the world’s sporting stage, and squarely in the crosshairs of its critics”.

When the Premier League confirmed the approval of the takeover it had “legally binding assurances” that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle. Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, is listed as chair of the PIF, but the Premier League was satisfied that the state would have no dealings with the football club. 

Newcastle’s new Saudi strip is “provocative sportswashing at its very worst”, said Luke Edwards in The Daily Telegraph. And the design and colour “appear to make a mockery” of the idea that Newcastle is not controlled by the Saudi state. 

“Are you Saudi in disguise?”, asked Craig Hope in the Daily Mail

Taking over the world of golf 

On the eve of the US PGA Championship golf major, a “civil war” is brewing at the elite level of the sport, following the launch of the controversial LIV Golf Invitational Series. The series is backed by LIV Golf Investments, whose CEO is former world No.1 Greg Norman, and the shareholder is the PIF, the sovereign wealth fund that also owns Newcastle.

Because of the PIF’s links to the Saudi government, LIV Golf has also faced accusations of sportswashing, said Rob Jerram on Today’s Golfer. And last week Norman came in for “huge criticism” as he “rebuffed intense questions” over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. 

The two-time major champion said “we’ve all made mistakes” when asked about the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. And in response to a question over 81 Saudi Arabian citizens being executed in a single day in March, he added: “I’m not going to get into the quagmire of whatever happens in someone else’s world. I heard about it and I just kept moving on.”

‘Bitterness and greed’

Golf first came to Saudi Arabia in the 1930s and today the nation “wants to take over the sport”, said Max Jeffery in The Spectator. It’s “trying to poach” the world’s top golfers to play in its new competition – a series of eight tournaments which will be held in England, America, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. Each tournament will have a $25m prize fund, and players have been offered up to $100m. “It’s a long way from playing around on oil slicks in the sand.”

Driven by “bitterness and greed”, this civil war is tearing golf apart, said Derek Lawrenson in The Mail on Sunday. And the sport is “fast becoming bitterly divided along distinct lines: the young and the old”. 

The PGA Tour has refused to release players who have asked to take part in the first event of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series. And the DP World Tour, formerly the European Tour, is following the PGA Tour’s lead, The Telegraph reported. Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood are among the stars who have been “denied permission to play in upcoming breakaway event”.

Sportwashing defined 

The Macmillan Dictionary defines sportwashing as “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation”.

In the past few years Saudi Arabia has emerged “over and above” its Middle Eastern neighbours in trying to “paint a rosy picture of the country while prosecuting those for standing up to it”, Firstpost explained. And it is not a new concept. The 1934 Fifa World Cup in Italy and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were both tools to spread propaganda by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler respectively.

Saudi Arabia has gone from hosting boxing bouts, horse racing and wrestling to owning Newcastle United and having a grand prix on the Formula 1 calendar. This “sportswashing programme” all comes at a huge cost, said human rights organisation Grant Liberty. In a report published last year it estimated that Saudi Arabia has spent at least $1.5bn (£1.1bn) on high-profile international sporting events.

Sportswashing is the “grim game of our times”, The Irish Times said in 2018. And that same year the term “earned itself the attention” of Oxford Dictionaries, which placed it as part of an “expanding range of coinages where the suffix ‘washing’ is applied to suggest deceptive, insincere and opportunistic appropriation of some value or cause”.

Could 2022 be sportswashing’s “biggest year”, asked Karim Zidan in The Guardian. “Bookended” by the Beijing Winter Olympics and the Fifa World Cup in Qatar, 2022 is set to be “a great year for authoritarian regimes looking to cover up their atrocious human rights records”.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.