What is sportswashing? Definition of the sports term, LIV Golf series and Newcastle United ownership

Saudi Arabia backed golf league becomes latest sporting event to cause controversy following takeover of Newcastle United in 2021.

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The LIV Golf Invitational series, which has finally launched this week, is the latest major sporting controversy in a long line of what many refer to as “sportwashing”.

It follows on from Newcastle United’s takeover, also directly tied to the Saudi Arabian state, which became official in 2021.

Both the golf series, touted by some professionals as a necessary alternative to the PGA, and the buying of the Premier League club have raised concerns about the money which is funding them due to alleged human rights violations in the Gulf state.

But what does that term actually mean and how long has it been going on? You might be surprised to find out the term goes as far back as the 1930s and 1940s and extend far beyond just football.

Here’s everything you need to know about the term:

Qatar's hosting of the 2020 FIFA World Cup is a prominent recent example of sportwashing Qatar's hosting of the 2020 FIFA World Cup is a prominent recent example of sportwashing
Qatar's hosting of the 2020 FIFA World Cup is a prominent recent example of sportwashing

What is sportwashing?

Although the term “sportwashing” is relatively new, the concept dates back almost a century and possibly beyond.

In short, the term is used when an individual, group, corporation, or nation-state uses sport to improve its reputation and public image.

At nation-state level, it is generally used to direct attention away from a poor human rights record.

Famous examples of sportwashing

The 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Nazi Germany, is one of the oldest and most notable examples of sportwashing - although the term did not exist at the time.

Boxing came under scrutiny in the 70s for notable bouts such as 1974’s undisputed world heavyweight title match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, known as The Rumble in the Jungle, held in Kinshasa, Zaire and 1975 world heavyweight title trilogy match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, known as Thrilla in Manila, held in Quezon City, Philippines.

As recently as 2019, the world heavyweight title rematch between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua, known as Clash on The Dunes, was held in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia and was marred by the term.

World Wrestling Entiertainment (WWE) have also held regular shows in Saudi Arabia in recent years including one event which featured British boxing champion Tyson Fury.

Formula 1 have also been accused of participating in sportwashing by holding or planning to hold Grand Prix events in countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan.

Sportwashing in football

Two years before the 1936 Olympics, the 1934 World Cup was held in Italy during the rule of Mussolini.

The Russian government has been accused of involvement in sport washing with some reporting that Roman Abramovich's ownership of Chelsea FC in 2003 was done at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian State-owned oil company Gazprom's sponsorship of soccer teams Zenit St Petersburg, events UEFA Champions League and kits has also come in for criticism.

Saudi Arabia is far from the only country in the middle east to be accuse of serious human rights violations among other concerns.

The United Arab Emirates, where Manchester City owners City Football Group are based, and 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar have also considered examples of sportwashing.

Is sportwashing illegal?

Sportwashing is not illegal but is widely regarded as being unethical.

The term sportswashing comes from the word “whitewashing”, it is essentially a costly form of propaganda.

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