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The Sport Information Resource Centre

Sportwashing as a Justification for HarmBy Laura McPhie and Andrea Carey

As we have witnessed the World Cup of Soccer over the past few weeks, our team has been reflecting on the conflicting feelings we have about this event. We work with sports organizations every day.

We care deeply about the experience of athletes, participants, and people within these systems. Our system should be built on “doing good” through sport, and I think that our actual goal these days is to “do no harm” or maybe even “do less harm”. We were excited for Team Canada to be qualified and at the same time, we heard the athletes and their concerns both with Soccer Canada and the fairness of their relationship with the NSO, but also with where the event was being hosted and the human rights that are disrespected and disregarded by this host nation.

For years, sport leadership has been selling the idea that sports can make a change in individuals and cultures, while also insisting that sport be “removed from politics and identity politics”. The result -> Qatar, recent Olympic and Paralympic Games, Russia invading Ukraine on the heels of the Pyeongchang Olympics, and so many more examples. The results are also the explosion of reports of abuse in our sports systems here in Canada. Ultimately, both have the same source –a belief that competition should exist no matter the cost and a lack of accountability when people are harmed.

To focus on one example for the moment. Qatar is the epidemy of “Sportswashing”.

Sportswashing is a term used to describe the practice of individuals, groups, corporations, or governments using sports to improve reputations tarnished by wrongdoing. Sportswashing can be accomplished through hosting sporting events, purchasing or sponsoring sporting teams, or participating in a sport. At the international level, it is believed that sportswashing has been used to direct attention away from poor human rights records and corruption scandals. At the individual and corporate levels, it is believed that sportswashing has been used to cover up vices, crimes, and scandals.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sportswashing

Sportwashing is not a new phenomenon and the most famous example of it gifted us with the modern format of opening & closing ceremonies and a cultural festival around games – the Nazi Olympics. Nazi Germany specifically used those games to try to paint a prettier picture of Germany at the time. In recent years we have seen China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia do the same. But they are only manipulating a structure that is open to being manipulated. 

The narrative has been that allowing games to be hosted in these countries will help push their culture toward global peace and advance human rights. Instead, we get athletes, coaches, officials, workers, and fans put in danger when their human rights are put at risk by these countries. When that very real danger is brought up, the defensiveness is quick to show up with a “do your job, perform, sport is more important than the politics” and the threats that if you don’t do what we say, we will punish you (https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2022/11/21/world-cup-one-love-armbands-yellow-cards/). If sports are not political for you, you are lucky to be a person that does not have their life at risk for simply being themselves. The speech by FIFA President Gianni Infantino on November 19th demonstrated a complete lack of empathy for the situation that his organization had put us in, it was both insensitive and patronizing around the very real and harmful situations that hosting in Qatar had brought to the forefront “Today I have very strong feelings, today I feel Qatari, today I feel Arab, today I feel African, today I feel gay, today I feel disabled, today I feel a migrant worker,” he said. These comments not only dismissed the deaths of migrant workers, LGBTQI2S+ rights, people with disabilities, of Arab and African peoples, but they are also made from a place of privilege of never having your life, and your families’ lives put at risk for sport.

These narratives are not unfamiliar as the victims of abuse hear these regularly in the sport system – “but he is a great coach”, “you will ruin the team/club/other athlete’s careers”, and “if you do this, you can’t compete”. And it comes from the same systemic issue – power in sport is consolidated in a very small group of people who benefit from the current environments. Power and control are limited to a few, and whenever that is the case, then those tools are highly likely to be misused and lead to abuse and harms that are excused because it is very difficult to hold the perpetrators accountable for their behaviours.

How do we change this?

  1. Strong standards that center on empowering the community through advocacy and inclusion
  2. Decentralized power structures and reporting mechanisms
  3. Athlete-wellness-centered decision-making as a way to create peak performance environments
  4. Selection panels that more heavily weight diversity, equity, and inclusion standards
  5. A willingness to take courageous and divisive steps when needed

Our global sports system is learning from Safe Sport – but we are still early days of considering how these power structures and the “ways things have always been done” are actively harming people. We still have a few making decisions that impact many. We also have massive gaps in who is at those decision-making tables and in those roles. We have consolidated power and control to a few, and those few are usually not engaging or seeking input from the populations whose voices we need to be involved. We need to consider the diversity of who is at the table, the inclusion of the voices that speak up, and actively involve equity in each step we take. We are in a time of change in these spaces – but let’s push forward and be intentional about reducing harm and taking care of people. Sport has an important role in showing us how it can change the world – let’s work together to bring that to fruition.