Sportswashing, a History

Sports, Politics, and Autocracy

Photo Credit: AP News/ Jon Super

By Kurt Johnston
Staff Writer

Qatar has a higher FIFA world ranking than Global Freedom Score. It is also hosting this year’s edition of the biggest sporting event in the world: the football World Cup. From a purely sporting perspective, Qatar’s appointment as host is already strange; unlike most World Cup hosts, Qatar has very little football heritage, and the tournament has been shifted to winter to accommodate extreme summer heat. The Gulf state’s appointment becomes even more problematic in light of its human rights record. In the haze of the football frenzy, at least 6,500 migrant workers have died while building up Qatar’s infrastructure in preparation for the event. Human Rights Watch recently published a report documenting the arbitrary detainment and beating of several LQBTQ+ Qatari citizens. Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup has shed light on human rights abuses, government corruption, and silenced protesters– so why bother?

The answer is “sportswashing”: the use of sport to enhance one’s international image and political standing. Qatar’s hope is that, by the time the final whistle is blown in Doha, the world will forget about human rights and simply discuss the excellent display of football. Hosting the World Cup also gives Qatar international prominence – the country smaller than Connecticut will be a household name for the billions of people who watch the event. However, sportswashing is by no means a new idea; Qatar is simply the most recent example of using sports for political gain. While the 2022 World Cup has introduced “sportswashing” into the vernacular, the history of the practice deserves examination.

The Origins of Sportswashing

The most prominent example of sportswashing in history is the 1936 Olympics, held in Nazi-era Berlin. Before the event, Berlin was glamorously “transformed” to dazzle fans and tourists; the city’s infamous anti-Semitic posters were removed from shop windows and walls. By some accounts, the Berlin spectacle impressed fans so thoroughly that they believed Hitler to be “rational and tolerant,” incapable of committing the atrocities of the Holocaust. The Nazis distracted the world; for at least a few months, fascism took a back seat to sports. 

The 20th century as a whole can be seen as the unveiling of sportswashing to the world. In 1934, the second edition of the FIFA World Cup was hosted in Mussolini’s Italy, a showcase of fascist corruption in which the regime allegedly influenced results in the hosts’ favor. In 1974, the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman was held in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. President Mobuto Sese Seko executed over one hundred people in an attempt to ensure a crime-free fight. Philippine Dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s rule lasted from 1965 to 1986; amidst the brutal atrocities committed under his administration, the Philippines hosted the 1978 FIBA (International Basketball Federation) World Championship and another well-known boxing match, the “Thrilla in Manila.” South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks, were long held as a token of apartheid and white rule— a legacy that holds firm today. All of these regimes used sports as a distraction, justification, or vindication for oppression and crime. It brought credibility to their nations and their actions– a dangerous precedent that has continued, and expanded, into the 21st century.

Advertising and Corporate Interests

A new form of sportswashing took hold at the turn of the century: publicity via corporate sponsorships. Gazprom, a corporation essentially owned by the Russian state, is the world’s largest producer of gas. It is the majority shareholder of both Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, gas pipelines which have been leaking greenhouse gasses in potentially devastating quantities. Since invading Ukraine, Russia (and therefore Gazprom) has drastically reduced Europe’s gas supply, contributing to rising prices, an energy crisis, and furthering the path to recession. Until Russia’s war, however, Gazprom was best known in the world of football. Its logo was emblazoned on the chest of one of Germany’s most popular football clubs, Schalke 04. Its branding has been on ad boards in the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League since 2012, the most popular club football tournament in the world. In 2021, 328 million people watched the UEFA European Championship final, another event sponsored by the gas giant. Gazprom successfully infiltrated the minds of football fans around the world as their brand became associated with the joy and passion of sport rather than greenhouse gas emissions and Russian corruption. While Gazprom’s branding has been removed by several sports associations, it seems like a case of too little, too late.

Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways are two more brands that are notorious examples of corporate sportswashing. Emirates proudly sponsors several of the biggest names in global football: Real Madrid, Arsenal, Inter Milan, and Benfica. Qatar Airways sponsors Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Boca Juniors, and until 2017, FC Barcelona. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have flown to global prominence through their luxury airline brands, particularly in relationships with major football clubs. Jersey sponsorships are one of the most effective ways states and corporations have participated in sportswashing, particularly because of its incredible scale and its success in linking their brands to the emotion of sports. This branding is not limited to the Persian Gulf. Azerbaijan featured in the 2014 Champions League final, not as a participant, but as Atletico Madrid’s main jersey sponsor. “Visit Rwanda”— one of Africa’s most oppressive countries— is absurdly featured on Arsenal’s kits and stadium insignia. Every jersey sold is an advertisement for an unjust, corrupt state, and for the most part, corruption does not deter any sales. London’s biggest club, Arsenal, made over 1 million pounds on the opening day that their 2022 away kit was sold.

The PR Campaign of Ownership

A final method of sportswashing that has recently emerged is team ownership. Like corporate sponsorship, team ownership as a method of “sportswashing” is most common in football. Football’s uniquely global reach gives autocrats the most visibility and credibility compared to other sports. According to, Chelsea Football Club is the fifth most supported football team in the world, with over 90 million fans. Roman Abramovich, who owned the team from 2003 to 2022, is an adored figure by fans of the London club. He is also a prominent oligarch within Putin’s inner circle, and has faced sanctions by the United States and the United Kingdom due to the Ukraine invasion. Through his ownership of Chelsea, Abramovich was able to both enhance his reputation and skirt allegations of ties to Putin. He remains a beloved figure at the club, with fans even singing his name during a tribute to lives lost in Ukraine. 

Similarly, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) is owned by Nasser Al-Khelaifi, CEO of state-sponsored Qatar Sports Investments. Manchester City F.C. is run by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a prominent member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Both of these teams have gone from perennial losers to dominant forces, spurred on by oil money coming from their respective Gulf state benefactors. As of 2021, Newcastle United F.C. is majority owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). Despite various atrocities, notably the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia, Newcastle fans opened the 2022-23 season wearing Arab-style dress and waving the green and white flags of the Saudi regime. The city of Newcastle joined in an unequivocal celebration of Saudi Arabia – a stunning spectacle illustrating the successes and dangers of sportswashing.

As Qatar 2022 kicks off, the spotlight will undoubtedly be on human rights and democratic freedoms. When the World Cup ends, it is doubtful anyone will be discussing anything but the athletic achievements of the players; one must only look to the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and 2022, the Sochi Olympics of 2014, and the Russian World Cup of 2018. Sportswashing’s legacy– and success– has charted a course for autocracies around the world to gain legitimacy and validity in global politics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: