Sportwashing promotes a good image, conceals the bad

2022 World Cup
adidas/MGN

The 2022 World Cup is well underway. But the human rights violations in Qatar, the host country—including the deaths of migrant workers, LGBTQ+ discrimination, and other controversial issues—are being talked about nearly as much as the games.

John Oliver on his HBO show talked at length about the migrant workers’ conditions in Qatar. There’s also a multi-part documentary on Netflix on FIFA, soccer’s governing body, and how it came to be that a Middle Eastern nation with no soccer pedigree or infrastructure got awarded the worldwide tournament. 

Miami University Sport Leadership and Management Assistant Professor Adam Beissel has been looking at how nations use sport to divert attention away from real issues and problems. He calls it “sportwashing.”  

“What I do is try and unpack the game behind the game,” explained Beissel. “I would start with any discussion of sportwashing…a worldwide view that we could call the geopolitical economy of sport. The geopolitical economy of sport is really a way to think through all of the connections between geography, politics, economics as it relates to production, trade, government and international relations.”

Sportwashing, continued the professor, is “a phenomenon whereby political leaders use sport to appear important or legitimate on the world stage, while often stoking nationalism and deflecting attention from chronic social problems and human rights issues…the same issues that have affected international sport mega events for almost a century.”

A classic example Beissel used was the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games where Adolf Hitler used them to whitewash what was really going on Germany at the time leading up to World War II. Russia did it decades later when it hosted the Games, and other nations similarly have used the World Cup. 

“Oftentimes these games getting placed in different locations,” continued Beissel, “is really all about the people in positions of power trying to protect their power and appeal to as many constituents as possible.”

Courtesy of Miami University Adam Beissel

Although many see sportwashing as something foreign, we asked if it could happen in the United States or other so-called democratic nations.  

“I think we should be equally upset…about the human rights abuses and inequalities that are happening in Western democracies, including our own country,” responded Beissel. There are “no bigger, more corporate, commercially saturated events on the international sport calendar than the U.S. Super Bowl, and that’s because it reflects the corporate capitalist economic structures of the United States.”

We vividly remember when the downtown homeless shelters here were moved for the convenience of the Super Bowl on claims of security concerns. Abandoned buildings located near one of the city’s major freeways were covered up during the Detroit Super Bowl so they wouldn’t be seen by visitors. And during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games there were reports of temporary cities created just for the homeless and other undesirables to keep them out of sight.

“We have our own issues in our country,” reiterated Beissel. “We effectively had a Muslim travel ban. We talk about human rights issues for migrants in Qatar, and lots of people are in cages at the U.S. Mexico border. 

“We’re not trying to excuse what’s happening in Qatar,” Beissel continued, “but I’m going to be curious to see if the same idea of using the World Cup [which will be hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 2026] and linking it to or explaining it though sportwashing leads to critiques about our own society in a way that we can expose and highlight some of these inequalities and human rights issues and make the United States a better place.”

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