Image credit:
Fauzan Saari/unsplash
Image credit:
Fauzan Saari/unsplash
Find the Balance/08/01/2023

Sportswashing: fair sponsorship or bought image?

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Skiing in Saudi Arabia, the World Cycling Championships in Rwanda, car racing in Azerbaijan: the map of mega-events in sports is becoming increasingly diverse. In the middle of it all are autocratic regimes and dubious investors who want to buy a positive image. A fierce battle is going on around sportswashing, the outcome of which is more open than ever.

Seriously? One billion euros for one year? The way in which the Saudi first-division soccer club Al-Hilal tried to break into the European transfer market made people shake their heads in disbelief: a 300 million transfer fee and 700 million annual salary for Kylian Mbappé! Even if the Frenchman ultimately turned down the offer that would have made him the best-paid soccer player of all time, it shows how excessive things can get in sports when money is not an issue. The main thing is that the world no longer looks so closely at democracy and human rights.

Opponents and supporters argue irreconcilably

Sportswashing is currently a hot topic. Is it a genuine promotion of sport or are investments aimed purely at image cultivation? Opponents and supporters argue irreconcilably. Are billions spent by autocrats destroying sport? The top three controversies:

  • Is it necessary to put the finger in the wound and get rid of moral criticism when federations, clubs and stars succumb to the lure of big money and ignore the issue of human rights? Or is sport allowed to retreat to a non-political position?
  • Do politically motivated sponsors - in soccer, for example - distort fair competition? Or is it only such new sources of money that make the even more spectacular next level in sport possible?
  • Should disregard for human rights be answered with a boycott? Or does sport play an important role in initiating sustainable social change for new regions and audiences?

Sportswashing widespread

The moves of Ronaldo, Benzema and other aging superstars to the top Saudi soccer league, and even more so the Mbappé offer, cast a spotlight on the strategy. Autocratic rulers, their sovereign wealth funds and corporations butter money into anything that promises high profile. They love soccer: For the World Cup in Qatar, the Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia, the rise of the Saudi league to soccer power in Asia, or sponsorship for Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain and other clubs, they dig deep into their coffers. When traditional circuits in Europe run out of cash, Formula 1 moves to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Azerbaijan. And skiing in the Arabian desert is something you have to come up with first - in any case, the 2029 Asian Winter Games will be held in Saudi Arabia. No major cycling race can do without the top teams with the sponsors Bahrain, VAR and Saudi Arabia on their jerseys. Rwanda as the venue for the 2025 World Cycling Championships also raises questions about the human rights situation there. The federation justifies the decision by saying that the first world championship in Africa should give a boost to cycling, which is slowly getting off the ground there.

Money prevails in the Gulf

Is it possible to resist big money from government coffers? The tradition-steeped US Golf Tour PGA has tried it. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, through his sovereign wealth fund, sent the two-billion-dollar rival Tour LIV to the tee in 2022, the PGA threatened to expel all golfers willing to switch. What good did it do? Nothing. The PGA had to give in and will cooperate with the LIV from next year on.

Sponsoring polishes up the image

Sports sponsorship is a tried and tested tool for autocrats. They use it to cement their power. Internally, they offer the sports-loving people identification, emotion and distraction. Externally, they use the events to distract themselves from politics and polish up their oily image - something that seems increasingly necessary in the course of the energy transition away from fossil fuels. At the same time, the billions flowing into sports promise to be a worthwhile investment in the long term.

The biggest south fall: Olympics in Nazi Germany

However, sportswashing is not a new phenomenon. Even in ancient Rome, rulers knew that they could buy the affection of the masses with bread and games. Without a doubt, the greatest sin of sport happened in 1936 with the Olympic Games in Berlin. Ruler Adolf Hitler and his propagandists abused the enthusiasm in Germany and all over the world to distract from the terror of the Nazi regime, which led to the Second World War and the death of six million Jews only three years after the Olympics.

IOC and FIFA pay lip service

As the most powerful sports federations in the world, the IOC and FIFA are under special scrutiny when it comes to awarding their events. Soccer lost its political innocence as early as the second World Cup: The 1934 title matches, with the host country winning the tournament, allowed the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini broad propaganda for his fascism. And while in 1978 the German national soccer team joined Udo Jürgens in singing a cheerful "Buenos Dias Argentina," numerous other European countries considered a boycott - but ultimately did not follow through - against the violent military dictatorship in World Cup host country Argentina. Human rights organizations also sharply criticized the past four World Cups: 2010 in South Africa, 2014 in Brazil, 2018 in Russia and especially 2022 in Qatar.

Symbolic concessions, but no symbols

FIFA President Gianni Infantino is revving up the money printing machine started by his predecessor Sepp Blatter. The soccer boss speaks of a future vision of FIFA 2.0, but the beautiful distraction did not work as hoped. After all, the external pressure initiated a process in which the powerful federation indirectly admitted that its activities in the social and political environment can certainly be problematic. In 2016, FIFA became the first sports federation to present a strategy for systematic respect of human rights, based on the corresponding UN Guiding Principles. In the discussion about the tournament in Qatar, Infantino saw no contradiction between his own human rights charter and the flow of money from the autocratic Gulf state and the exploitation of foreign workers in the construction of the stadium. Internally, he prevailed over critical voices, especially from European associations, as the farce about the rainbow-colored captain's armband of some European teams and the one-love armband of the German team made clear.

Can sport trigger change?

In this context, the FIFA President points to the power of sport to trigger change in countries like Qatar: "Of course, there are things that don't work yet. It is a process. Let's try to convince others through exchange, not through one-sided morality," he said. For Infantino, it was a foregone conclusion in Qatar anyway that the debate had been sparked mainly by the media and a "woken" minority, and that the sport would drown out any troublesome debates. "Of course it will be the best World Cup ever. As soon as the ball rolls, people will focus on it. Because that's what they want, that's the magic of soccer."

"Athletes only play an extra role".

At the IOC, President Thomas Bach continues to smile away the conflict over dubious sources of funding, responsibility for human rights and his proximity to the powerful with his thesis of apolitical sport. Which, of course, has never been true: At the 1976 Olympics, it was mainly African delegations fighting against the apartheid regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia that departed from the Games in Montreal. In 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 65 Western countries stayed away from the Olympics, which was answered by the Eastern bloc four years later by boycotting the Los Angeles Games. And most recently, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and 2022 in Beijing were accompanied by accusations of sportswashing, with reference to the human rights situation. Olympic biathlon champion Arnd Pfeiffer, as a TV pundit, was sharply critical: "Thomas Bach always argues that the Olympic Games are apolitical. In my view, that is window dressing. Sport is always closely intertwined with politics." And in view of the gigantism of the Games, biathlete Erik Lesser stated soberly: "States want to present themselves with the Games and emphasize their own strength. The athletes only play an extra role there." An exciting discussion is to be expected if Saudi Arabia - as rumoured in the media - applies to host the Olympic Games.

Athletes and fans between enthusiasm and criticism

And in the middle of the opponents are athletes and fans. In the discussion about sportswashing, they intuitively seek their way between necessary funding, carefree enthusiasm for great competitions and political correctness. Above all, the federations have a responsibility not to sacrifice sport to dubious financial sources without a second thought. After all, fans want to live out their love of sport with its unique wealth of emotions as carefree as possible. Joyful events around the globe prove the peaceful, people-connecting character of sport in its many facets. Cross-border tournaments, such as those organized by FIFA and UEFA on several occasions, connect neighboring countries - as is currently the case with the Women's Soccer World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Run-up for 2036 Olympic Games in Berlin

The 2024 European soccer championship in Germany raises hopes of a repeat of the 2006 summer fairy tale. Whether such a wave of enthusiasm will once again sweep the entire country and its guests probably depends more on the performance of the German national team than on people's willingness to cheer. The fans in this country prove almost every weekend how well sport can be used to celebrate big parties. It is only with the Olympics that parts of politics, the media, the associations and the public are unfamiliar. This is certainly also due to the image of the IOC, which has been tarnished by sports washing, unchecked financial growth and corruption scandals. Munich's bid for the 2022 Winter Games and Hamburg's bid for the 2024 Summer Games failed miserably in referendums. Now the Rhine-Ruhr region and Berlin are making a new attempt for 2036. A broad-based information campaign by the German Olympic Sports Confederation is to help. The country and its fans are certainly ready for emotional, sustainable Games that unite nations - exactly 100 years after Nazi propaganda betrayed the Olympic idea.

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