Athlete activism faces stress test amid claims of sport washing

4 février 2021
By Prof. Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

Two of the world’s best male footballers, Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo and FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, have both reportedly turned down recent approaches from Saudi Arabia to take part in the country’s latest tourism.

With the government in Riyadh having embarked upon a multi-billion dollar investment programme, tourism and sport are key components of an attempt to transform the country, its economy and aspects of its society and culture.

Nevertheless, the kingdom continues to carry with it an unenviable reputation, earned because of its approach to human rights, the treatment of women, as well as high-profile episodes including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Seen from a commercial perspective, it is little wonder that Ronaldo and Messi’s representatives viewed the opportunity to endorse Saudi Arabia as problematic. It would inevitably have inflicted both reputational and financial damage upon what are two of the world’s most marketable professional athletes.

It is unknown what views the two footballers have about the country’s crimes and misdemeanours, though the hazardous morality associated with engaging in Saudi Arabian activities is one that is increasingly set to confront professional athletes in the coming years.

Having spent last year championing a multitude of causes, F1 driver Lewis Hamilton is rapidly heading towards a serious dilemma. As many athletes have become important activists and advocates, associating themselves with all manner causes, Hamilton last season appeared on a race winners podium sporting a t-shirt upon which his support for human rights was emblazoned.

Later this year, an F1 Grand Prix heads to Saudi Arabia for the first time, a race that will surely prove to be a stress test for both Hamilton, athlete activism and, for that matter, the host nation that could be faced with outward displays of criticism and dissent.

It won’t be the first time that F1 has faced such problems, races in nearby Bahrain having been frequently disrupted by demonstrations, often prompted by perceived human rights violations. Similarly, athletes have been confronted by ethical moral dilemmas, for instance in the case of China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.

Germany’s Mesut Özil has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government, whilst Antoine Griezmann of FC Barcelona terminated an endorsement deal with Huawei stating that the tech company has developed Uyghur facial recognition software.

Yet FIFA’s current World Player of the Year, Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich, continues to retain his endorsement deal with Huawei. This inevitably leads one to question why, but also suggests that the Pole may be complicit in helping China to sports wash its image and reputation. That is, if one believes that sport washing exists and is a deliberate attempt to divert attention away from or change attitudes towards a country.

Over the last twelve months, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly been labelled a sport washing nation. Numerous sporting events have headed to the country, Spanish football’s Super Cup being one example, though they have often served to highlight the country’s issues rather than hoodwinking people into forgetting them.

One episode thrusting the kingdom into an international spotlight was its sovereign wealth fund’s apparent attempt to acquire football club Newcastle United, of the Premier League. Rather than blind acceptance of the deal, many critics felt compelled to conceive of the deal as being a deliberate attempt to sport wash.

However, in this instance, Saudi Arabia’s association with an opportunistic attempt to buy United did not seem to be a deliberate attempt to mislead. At one level, it was a clumsily managed episode in which the country inadvertently found itself centre-stage in a storm of scrutiny, with labels being carelessly used to characterise its activities. At another level, the country, a rentier state committed to spending on sport, seemed merely to be attempting purchase of an overseas asset in its usual avaricious way.

However, this does not mean that Saudi Arabia, or China, or perhaps even countries like Great Britain, have never sport washed and do never sport wash. Central to such an accusation is the nature of intent; some countries will deliberately set out to divert attention and suppress views through event staging, a clear attempt to sport wash. In other cases, sport washing may be accidental, though perhaps no less effective in achieving its ends.

Yet there may be instances as well where sport washing is neither deliberate nor accidental, but instead becomes a notion created by and held in the eyes of a beholder, which is arguably what happened in the Newcastle United case. The fractious, though ultimately unsuccessful takeover of the English club raised some interesting questions for observers of sport washing.

It was notable that some fans of the club engaged in behaviours that actively legitimised Saudi Arabia, some going so far as to argue in social media posts that Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée was actually a Qatari spy and should be killed. Most fans were, however, nowhere near so vicious, cruel or unwarranted in their views.

Yet rather more fans seemed indifferent to or ignorant about the wider, troubling political context in which the proposed takeover of Newcastle was taking place. In such instances, significant numbers of fans adopted photographs of Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as their social media avatars, whilst others spoke in glowing terms of the financial windfall that Saudi Arabian investment would bring to their club.

There were some fans who did resist the temptation to speak positively about MBS and his country. These were United fans who remained deeply concerned about Saudi Arabian investment in their club but who remained passionate about their support for ‘their’ club. One imagines that Lewis Hamilton will possibly feel the same way about racing in at this year’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

All of which raises further issues – if sport washing does exist, whether intentional or not, it is appears to have links with legitimacy and legitimisation. But it also poses the question of whether sport washing is associated with psychology and attitudes, with behaviours or with possibly both?

Yet what the Newcastle United case suggests is that sport washing may take place by proxy, the activity being franchised out to third parties (in this case, fans) to undertake laundering on behalf of a state.

Whatever the truth, sport is heading into interesting new territory where athletes are becoming more vocal about injustice and mistreatment, whilst countries and organisations are increasingly using sport for ends that sometimes go way beyond tracks and fields.

This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.


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