The Threat of Sportswashing

Blog by Michael Minasian, Junior Associate

Sportwashing occurs when a state sponsors a sports team or sporting events to rehabilitate the image of a political regime or operation.[1]  Regimes that are most commonly linked to sportwashing are ones responsible for atrocious human rights violations or corruption scandals.[2]  Sportwashing is particularly dangerous because it is a successful PR tactic that allows countries to rehabilitate their imagine by “piggybacking off the mass appeal of sports.”[3]

Many critics have viewed Saudi Arabia’s Public Interest Fund (“PIF”) as the most recent example of sportswashing.[4]  The PIF is a sovereign wealth fund (“SWF”) that manages over $700 billion of Saudi government money. [5]  Saudi Arabia has recently used PIF funds to lure star golfers to present “a benign image of their country.”[6]  This partnership has caused professional golfers, such as Bubba Watson, to praise Saudi Arabia’s involvement to increase popularity in women’s golf, yet Bubba Watson failed to mention that women in Saudi Arabia still have limited rights.[7]  Furthermore, on June 12, 2023, Saudi Arabia issued a new Sports Law for Public Consultation to increase the attractiveness of Saudi Arabia as an investment opportunity for sports businesses.[8]  However, many human right groups have labeled this as another example of Saudi Arabian sportswashing.[9]  A few months after this law was passed, FIFA announced that Saudi Arabia was the “sole bidder” for the 2034 World Cup.[10] While FIFA will not make an official announcement until 2024, this basically ensures Saudi Arabia will be the host of the 2034 World Cup, as they are the only eligible candidate.[11]  While Saudi Arabia has been accused of numerous human rights violations, such as the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the execution of 81 people in one day, and the imprisonment of women right advocates, sportswashing has allowed them to “clean their image”.[12]

[1]Jonathan Purcell, What is sportswashing and why is it such a big problem, Greenpeace (Mar. 23, 2023); Michael Rosenberg, Sportswashing is Everywhere, but It’s Not New, Sports Illustrated (Dec. 29, 2022)

[2] Jonathan Wilson, Sportswashing and Global Football’s Immense Power, Sports Illustrated (Mar. 11, 2022)

[3] Purcell, supra note 1; Rosenberg, supra note 1.

[4] FIFA Club World Cup Saudi Arabia 2023 host city confirmed, FIFA (June 26, 2023)

[5] George Hay, Karen Kwok, Saudi’s $700 billion PIF is an odd sort of sovereign fund, Reuters (Sep. 21, 2023),for%20its%2032%20million%20people.

[6] Rosenberg, supra note 1.

[7] Id.; Minky Worden, Saudi Arabia’s Newest Sportswashing Strategy: Sponsorship of Women’s World Cup, Human Rights Watch (Feb. 16, 2023)

[8]Saudi Arabia Continues Sports Landscape Developments with New Draft Sports Law, Albright Stonebridge Group (June 1, 2023),Saudi%20sports%20teams%20and%20athletes.

[9] Natalie Kainz, Saudi crown prince unbothered by ‘sportswashing’ label: ‘Call it whatever you want’, CNBC News (Sep. 21, 2023)

[10] Saudi Arabia sole bidder to host 2034 World Cup, FIFA says, Reuters (Oct. 31, 2023)

[11] Id.

[12] Kainz, supra note 9.

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