A growing group of organisation and individuals have been constantly criticising how Qatar and Beijing have been allowed to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and Winter Olympics respectively this year.
Both countries have been accused of violating human rights, persecuting minorities and forbidding freedom of expression and the press. Both Qatar and China are also being accused of using the sports events to put themselves in a better light.
Malaysia and Serbia have been accused of racism when they refused entries from Israel and Kosovo respectively from participating in major sporting events in their countries.
The biggest critics in all these instances have been the USA and the western countries.
Sport has the power to unite people from different backgrounds, classes, ages and countries and due to these factors, sport is also being increasingly used to distract the world from various corrupt practices and human rights violations.
And this includes the very countries including the USA, whose human rights record is no better than those they themselves accuse others of.
The opportunistic appropriation of the positivity sports is now a norm, so much so that a new term was coined for this trend. In 2018 Oxford dictionaries included the word “sportswashing” into its ever-growing list.
The term was first used by the Sports or Rights Campaign in 2015, in its effort to call out Azerbaijan’s attempt to gloss over human rights violations by stepping up to host major international sporting events.
Critics of Vladimir Putin cite how the Russia World Cup in 2028, easily managed to steer away the various human rights issues and international conflicts away from media scrutiny.
It is a trend that has seen past hosts of major sporting events get away from all the scrutiny and criticism with impunity.
Qatar hosts the World Cup later this year despite similar issues including human right violations and allegations of atrocious working conditions where numerous stadium construction workers have died. While the issues get some, but never enough, attention, it would all likely be forgotten as soon as the World Cup starts.
Similarly, there are also concerns with the sudden growing interest in sports by Saudi Arabia. This comes in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the USA based Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
While the Saudi’s are said to have been actively engaging major sports organisations since 2016, the effort to bring high profile events to the kingdom has intensified lately.
Just a day after the murder of Khashoggi broke, a tennis spectacular involving Rafael Nadal and Novan Djokovic in Saudi Arabia was announced for later that year. While the players confirmed the event was planned much earlier, the timing did not endear to the critics.
British boxer Anthony Joshua came under criticism for agreeing to stage his rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr in the Kingdom in December for a purse said be in excess of £40m.
Amnesty International has criticized the decision as their study shows human right violations in Saudi Arabia has worsened while Joshua had deflected the criticism by claiming one man cannot change the situation.
Front Line Defenders, founded in Dublin in 2001 with the specific aim of protecting human rights defenders at risk, are among the organisation concerned with the sportswashing trend that are being increasingly supported by major sporting events and organisations.
Saudi Arabia is actively lobbying organisations including National Basketball Association, World Wrestling Entertainment, Major League Soccer and even the Los Angeles Olympic Committee to look into bringing major events into the Kingdom.
The Dakar Rally, held in South America in recent years, is now being held in Saudi Arabia from next year. The event this time, is not without controversy, with a blast targeting a car participating in the Dakar that badly wounded a French driver. It is now being investigated as a terror probe by the French authorities.
While the term sportswashing was only coined in recent years, the practice is widespread and needs the urgent moral stand from sports organisations.
Campaign groups including Sport and Rights Alliance and led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) have written to the UCI, cycling’s governing body, protesting at its licensing of the Bahrain-Merida team, and the team’s participation in the Tour de France, due to concerns for human rights.
The Guardian (UK) in a report outlined how football clubs are being used for sportswashing through sponsorship and ownership, namely Newcastle United and Manchester City.
They cited the case of Nasser al-Khelaifi, who is the newest member of the UEFA executive committee. Khelaifi is also chairman of BeIn sports, which pays UEFA for its Champions League TV rights. UEFA is said to be investigating claims of financial fair play breaches by PSG. Where he – do keep up – is the club chairman.
An interesting circle that does not augur well for UEFA, especially when justice may not be seen to be done.
While Beijing is being heavily panned for their treatment of the Uyghurs as well as the recent controversy surrounding the sexual intimidation case by tennis ace Peng Shuai, many of the critics are also sitting atop similar edged sword.
The Americans are leading the way, first to get the IOC to drop Beijing as the host of this year’s Winter Olympics and now failing to do so, taking it to the next level by demanding a diplomatic boycott of the Games.
How very different are the human rights stance in the USA, to start with?.
The continued racism faced by the blacks in the USA and the treatment of women’s rights are still projected as secondary through their well-oiled propaganda machine. It is the same machinery that goes on overdrive when the smallest of issues are unearthed elsewhere.
Malaysia and Ukraine are now being threatened by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with suspension if they continue with their policy of denying athletes from participation because of political reasons.
But, are these two nations the only party guilty of such transgressions?
India has stopped all bilateral sporting activities with Pakistan, especially in cricket, for almost a decade now. No Pakistani player is allowed in the lucrative Indian Premier League cricket or the Pro Kabaddi League.
Iran, are among a number of Islamic nations that balk at the idea of their own athletes going up against any Israeli opponents.
Former USA President Barrack Obama eased the restrictions on the Cuban athletes, especially baseball, to earn a living in the USA. But this policy was quickly declared illegal by Donald Trump, when he denied the 2019 deal between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have allowed Cuban athletes to play in the USA without having to defect.
Most of these incidents are swept under the carpet and quickly disappear from the radar.
Like any other facet of life, sport is inherently political. While it is often regarded as an equaliser, it can only work this way if conscious efforts are made to ensure it is otherwise.
The WTA was willing to take such a step when it decided to cancel all its events in China following the Peng Shuai controversy, despite an estimated 30% of its annual revenue coming from China.
Individual athletes are also stepping up the plate to make their voices count. Until there is a wave of such voices around the world, leading to changes, sport would still be tainted by those wanting to weaponize it.