Population & Society

The Sportswashing Blame Game is not Always Fair

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Many in the West accused Qatar of “sportswashing” its human rights record when the Gulf nation put on the men’s football World Cup finals in 2022. Australia and New Zealand, the hosts of the Women’s World Cup, which ends on August 20, have so far escaped similar scrutiny, even though they too have human rights problems. Simon Chadwick of Skema Business School in France, co-founder and co-director of the China Soccer Observatory, considers why.

The Sportswashing Blame Game is not Always Fair

Thrill of victory, August 3: The 2023 Women's World Cup co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand has delivered drama and sporting spectacle (Credit: @FIFAWWC on Twitter)

The FIFA Women’s World Cup has broken new ground in first-time host nations Australia and New Zealand, much like the men's competition did in Qatar in 2022. But despite both finals being milestone events for the three countries, the mood leading up to and during the women’s tournament, which was scheduled to wind up on August 20, has been different from last year’s football jamboree in the heat of the Gulf region — namely, the complete absence this time of “sportswashing” accusations.

Sportswashing is the attempt by a country and its institutions to cleanse its image and reputation by investing in and drawing attention to their activities in sport. The common belief (and usual media narrative) is that a big sporting event – and few are bigger than a World Cup – will distract audiences and shift their attitudes and perceptions of the host.

But sportswashing allegations may be more subjective than objective, more about power relations between an accuser and the accused. The Qatar World Cup was marked by intense scrutiny practically from when it was awarded the right to host in 2010. In the run-up to the event, the country was repeatedly denounced in the media and by civil society groups for sportswashing its treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ groups. The Australian men's national team released a video addressing human rights and labor conditions in the Gulf nation. Meanwhile, few have raised objections to Australia and New Zealand’s hosting of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, despite facing human rights issues of their own.

 Australia's high rates of incarceration and deaths in custody of indigenous people have drawn criticism at home and abroad. As of October 2022, almost every child in Australia's Northern Territory youth jails is indigenous. Australia has also been condemned for its “stop-the-boats” approach (which did stop boats arriving, with no person sent offshore since 2014) and indefinite detention of asylum seekers and immigrants, which the UN's torture watchdog labeled "inhumane" in May 2023. This is set against the backdrop of Australia being one of the only Commonwealth nations that does not formally recognize indigenous people in its constitution. (A referendum on a constitutional amendment is planned for later this year.)

World Cup 2022 finale in Qatar: Accused of sportswashing, the Gulf nation came under Intense scrutiny for its human rights record and labor conditions (Credit: HasanZaidi / Shutterstock.com)

Yet, in the three years since Australia and New Zealand won the right to host the World Cup, organizers have had a relatively easy go on the reputation and public relations front. The biggest scandal, a brief blip in January 2023, arose when FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) announced that Visit Saudi, Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority, would be a sponsor of the event. FIFA was widely condemned by rights groups, activists and others critics of Riyadh. Football's global governing body was accused of averting its eyes from Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and treatment of women, with many claiming the kingdom was engaging in sportswashing by associating itself with the tournament. FIFA and Visit Saudi eventually canceled the deal.

As the competition has played out since the group-stage matches began on July 20, neither the Australian nor the New Zealand government has faced any serious criticism of their human rights policies.

Sportswashing has emerged over the last decade, first used by rights groups and later appropriated by journalists, fans and governments to condemn certain nations. It is not a term that has been universally or retrospectively applied. Sport delivers image and reputational benefits to countries that enjoy some form of sporting prominence: Britain’s killing and persecution of people across the empire was often sanitized through deployment of, for instance, cricket teams to India.

It can be argued that sportswashing is a form of “othering” used by people in the Global North – it is what other people in other countries do, not something we ourselves engage in. This is perhaps why Qatar’s World Cup was condemned, whereas Australia and New Zealand have avoided sportswashing criticism, as the United States, Canada and Mexico may well do when they host the men’s World Cup in 2026.

But times are changing. There is a major pivot underway from the Global North to the Global South, influencing how both sides see the other. New centers of power are emerging – countries such as China and Saudi Arabia – that are challenging the Global North’s dominance, whether in geopolitics, geo-economics or sport. Some in the Global North may not like what they are encountering – labelling certain events as sportswashing may help them deal with the discomfiting shifts taking place which are being driven by people who do not look, think or behave like them.

Briefing on sportswashing by Washington-based think tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (Credit: QIRS on YouTube)

This does not mean that China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or any other country that bids to host a major sports festival are innocent of sportswashing. But many who view these nations through the lens of sportswashing would no doubt be horrified if were subjected to the same intense scrutiny and criticism.

As the Women’s World Cup draws close to its finale, the hope is that people around the world will have spared a thought for Australia’s Indigenous citizens and their treatment. And one also that hopes any country that engages in sportswashing will be called out, no matter their power, influence, prevailing image or stone-carved reputation.

This article is published under Creative Commons with 360info.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Simon Chadwick

Simon Chadwick

Skema Business School

Simon Chadwick is a researcher, writer, academic, consultant and speaker with more than 25 years’ experience in the global sport industry. His work focuses on the geopolitical economy of sport. He co-founded and co-directs the China Soccer Observatory (University of Nottingham, UK). He is founding editor of GeoSport, a digital sports platform created with the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. Chadwick previously founded and directed the University of London's Birkbeck Sports Business Centre and Coventry University's Centre for the International Business of Sport. In addition, he has worked at several of the world's most prestigious business schools, such as IESE in Spain, Otto Beisheim in Germany, Tsinghua in China, COPPEAD in Brazil and Waseda in Japan.

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