Beijing Olympics: sport as smokescreen
The Winter Olympics in China are the latest in a long series of attempts by repressive states to launder their international reputations by hosting high-profile sporting events. Through sportswashing, authoritarian governments seek to look good by focusing attention on sporting prowess and diverting it from their human rights abuses. This is what motivated Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 football World Cup and Saudi Arabia’s recent takeover of English Premier League football club Newcastle United. But increasingly campaigners are working to turn the power of sport against repressive regimes, seeking to use high-profile events to embarrass them on their human rights records.
As the world watches, the government of China will be hoping for a flawless Winter Olympics. Strict pandemic rules that limit attendance numbers will doubtless detract from the spectacle. But China will try to make sure global attention focuses on its state-of-the-art sporting facilities and peerless efficiency, and will be hoping for a strong showing on the medal table. It will do its best to ensure nothing else attracts headlines, and certainly not its widespread human rights violations.
A constrained Olympics
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has long sought to prevent athletes making a point from the podium, insisting that the games should somehow be free of all politics. Its controversial Rule 50 prevents any demonstration within Olympic venues. In China it has found an extremely willing partner.
The Winter Olympics come in the context of a renewed onslaught on freedoms as China approaches the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This peak meeting, held every five years, determines the leadership of all governing bodies. Its next edition takes place in October, when it is certain to rubber stamp a third term for President Xi Jinping. To prevent any disruption ahead of it, the state is not just tightly repressing dissent – it’s trying to make it impossible for people to identify with anything other than the CCP and Chinese state.
Ahead of the games, a Chinese official said that anyone who breaks Chinese laws or acts ‘against the Olympic spirit’ – including by taking part in any form of protest – will face ‘certain punishment’. Human Rights Watch has taken the rare step of warning competitors they will put themselves in danger if they speak out – and that the IOC won’t protect them. The chair of the Athletes’ Commission for the games has said something similar.
The government is using the pandemic to its advantage, with the games taking place in a hermetically sealed bubble that allows no contact with the Chinese public. There’s concern about the mandatory app people must install on their phones and its potential to enable surveillance. For this reason, sports journalists heading to the games say they’ll use new phones and laptops and throw them away afterwards. Many are staying away altogether.
There’s a lot the Chinese government doesn’t want competitors, journalists and others attending to focus on: its growing aggression towards Taiwan, its ruthless crushing of the Hong Kong democracy movement and its violations of the rights of Uighur people and other minorities in Xinjiang, which amount to crimes against humanity. China doesn’t want the world to talk about the countless people detained and tortured. It only wants people to enjoy the sporting spectacle and take away a falsely idyllic image of China.
Sport and politics: an age-old interaction
China’s hope to launder its international reputation through sport is just one example of the practice of sportswashing.
There’s nothing new about big sporting events being instrumentalised in the interests of state prestige: the 1936 Berlin Olympics presented the Nazi government with a key opportunity to promote its vile ideology. Argentina’s military junta used its hosting of the 1978 World Cup to mobilise nationalist sentiment in its favour, intervening to the extent that the tournament was bedevilled by match-fixing in favour of the home team.
Several states have also massively invested in the development of athletes to try to position themselves positively on the world stage. Sometimes this involved systematic doping, as in East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s and Russia recently.
Despite the efforts of bodies like the IOC, sport has never been an apolitical arena. During the Cold War, boycotts of Olympic Games organised in the Soviet Union and USA were one of the many means by which the superpowers flexed their muscles.
Sporting events have always provided opportunities for powerful moments of protest too. The Black Power salute made by two US athletes from the podium of the 1968 Mexico Olympics made an indelible impression. More recently, American football player Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee in protest at racism and police brutality in 2016. That same protest is now observed by teams before the start of every English Premier League (EPL) game.
In 2021 and 2022, competitors and spectators have used the power of sport to stand up for the rights of one of their own: Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose public appearances have been strictly limited and tightly controlled since she reported being sexually abused by a leading CCP official. During the Australian Open this January spectators were initially kicked out for wearing ‘Where is Peng Shuai’ t-shirts, but these were then allowed when tennis players condemned the censorship and expressed support for the campaign. In contrast the IOC has done nothing to defend her, in what is clearly a political decision not to antagonise the Chinese government.
But while the politics have always been there, what’s changed is recent years is that a greater number of regimes are attempting to sportswash their reputations and doing so more blatantly. It isn’t just China: there’s a new wave of states that strongly repress human rights investing their cash in sporting events to try to make themselves look good.
Take, for example, the 2022-2023 Formula 1 Grand Prix schedule, which kicks off in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia before stopping off at Azerbaijan and culminating in the United Arab Emirates (UAE): all countries with closed civic space, and most of them fairly recent additions to the racing calendar.
Azerbaijan, headed by a president who inherited power from his father and who has never faced genuine electoral competition, also used its fossil fuel cash to host the inaugural European Games; the second edition was proudly hosted by Belarus’ autocrat President Alexander Lukashenko, who has invested heavily in sports development and has been quick to penalise the many athletes opposed to his brutal rule.
An international pariah buys a football club
Also using its oil cash to make itself look better is Saudi Arabia. The kingdom and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, looked set to become an international pariah after its notorious murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul in 2018. But money goes a long way when it comes to buying forgiveness.
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), is increasingly being used by bin Salman to consolidate his rule and buy influence. In 2015, PIF was put under the management of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs, an institution bin Salman controls. PIF’s board are hand-picked by the prince.
While many of PIF’s investments have been in sectors like construction, finance and tech, in 2021 it did something unusual: it bought a football club. Overnight EPL club Newcastle United became the richest in the world, taken over by a consortium that PIF is reported to have an 80 per cent stake in. PIF’s head is now chair of the club.
Dubious ownership is nothing new in the EPL. Only three of its 20 clubs remain UK-owned, and it’s long been a place where incredibly wealthy businesspeople can flaunt their riches and buy status, however murky the circumstances in which they acquired their fortunes. A league where money means everything is tailormade for bin Salman.
However, the Saudi takeover had been on hold since 2020, with EPL authorities saying they were concerned about Saudi links to piracy of televised games and were also not convinced the club would be independent from the Saudi state. The government gave ground on the former, ending its ban on broadcasts by the Qatari TV rights holder, while Saudi Arabia’s pirate broadcaster shut down. But on the latter question of who controls PIF and who Newcastle’s new chair answers to, nothing has changed. It seems it was only ever about protecting TV income all along.
For PIF, with assets estimated at some US$480 billion, the roughly US$400 million it took to buy the club is small change. For Newcastle United fans, this was like winning the lottery. Long struggling under a parsimonious and unpopular owner, now they can dream of success. World-class players are sure to follow.
And already bin Salman is winning friends. The strongly tribal nature of football supporters’ identification with their clubs makes them perfect vehicles for sportswashing. The takeover was greeted with scenes of singing and dancing in the city. Disappointingly, even the club’s LGBTQI+ supporters’ group issued a statement welcoming the takeover and hoping engagement would have a positive influence – surely a forlorn hope for a country where same-sex relations can lead to the death penalty. Some fans added the Saudi flag to their social media profiles, shared photos of bin Salman – they seem clear who their real benefactor is – and defended the regime from criticism. Disgracefully some even trolled Khashoggi’s widow, Hatice Cengiz. They made themselves foot soldiers in a reputational war.
When Newcastle United start winning things, many people who follow the game won’t associate Saudi Arabia with assassinating Khashoggi, or its bloody involvement in Yemen, or executing dissidents, or locking up women’s rights activists: a veneer of sporting success will cloud the clarity of the many violations committed by bin Salman’s machinery of repression.
Newcastle isn’t the first and won’t be the last. The use of a front company to offer formal disguise of state investment in sporting diplomacy isn’t new either. In the EPL, once-struggling Manchester City have won a string of titles with money from the Abu Dhabi United Group, a company set up by someone who happens to be UAE deputy prime minister and a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family.
Paris St Germain dominate the French Ligue 1 thanks to the largesse of Qatar Sports Investments, a subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. A top-flight football club is now an essential accessory for rich states with seriously restricted civic space.
A blood-stained World Cup
This sporting year that begins with the Winter Olympics will end in the World Cup, football’s peak event, held every four years. In a surprise decision in 2010, Qatar was chosen as host.
There have been countless credible allegations of bribery in the decision of the sport’s governing body, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), to choose Qatar. Shockingly, this is far from the biggest scandal.
Global sporting bodies are not neutral as they like to maintain – rather by failing to act they are complicit in abuses.
When the competition goes ahead this November and December, expect commentators to wax lyrical about the purpose-built high-tech stadiums in which the games are played. But the glitz of the occasion can’t wash away the blood in which it is soaked. The price of this is more than the bribes the government is alleged to have paid – it’s the lives of perhaps thousands of migrant workers.
Working in a system where their rights are systematically denied, it is migrant workers from countries such as Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka who have built the stadiums, and who have died in the process. It’s hard to put an accurate figure on how many construction workers have lost their lives. In 2021 it was reported that across all sectors, over 6,500 migrant workers had died since Qatar was awarded the World Cup – and this figure was likely an underestimate.
Qatar’s economy is entirely dependent on migrants, who make up 95 per cent of the workforce. But it seems the government treats them as disposable. It carries out few autopsies. While some deaths have come from construction accidents, most have been ascribed to natural causes, and therefore not deemed work-related. But young, fit men rarely die of natural causes. It’s likely many died from heat exhaustion, after doing strenuous physical work in impossibly high temperatures. As well as the tragedy of so many lost lives, there’s an enduring lack of justice for their families, and resulting penury for many who were dependent on their wages.
These deaths have left a stain that can never be overlooked. When the World Cup kicks off, rights groups can be expected to use the moment to highlight these deaths and other rights abuses in Qatar.
Using sportswashing against itself
Sportswashing contains an inbuilt weakness – when repressive states put themselves in the spotlight, they also create opportunities for rights abuses to be exposed. International pressure has already helped win some hard-fought concessions from Qatar. The strict kafala (sponsorship) system that enabled forced labour has been reformed and a minimum wage introduced.
But there are often barriers against campaigning. Like the IOC, FIFA has strong rules against competitors and spectators using events to make political points. And global sporting bodies have a habit of awarding tournaments to countries with restricted civic space, where repression comes as second nature to the authorities. Qatar’s World Cup was preceded by one in Russia. China will now have hosted both Summer and Winter Olympics.
But even when domestic civil society is repressed, global rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and coalitions like the Sports and Rights Alliance are increasingly trying to take advantage of these opportunities.
While it’s clear the peak sporting bodies don’t care about human rights, some sportspeople are also using the platform their fame offers to take a stance. Tennis star Andy Murray recently revealed he’d turned down a seven-figure sum to play exhibition matches in Saudi Arabia because of its human rights record. Some international football teams – such as Denmark, Germany and Norway – have refused to take part in Qatar promotional activities or taken to the pitch with human rights banners. For several years in a row, female chess champions protested against the treatment of women in Iran and Saudi Arabia by refusing to defend their titles in tournaments held in those countries.
Sportspeople should be encouraged to speak out and supported when they do so. Every attempt at sportswashing must be met with a pan-civil society campaign, working with sports stars who care, to expose the abuses of those who provide the money.
More pressure is needed on sport’s governing bodies. It’s now clear that awarding hosting rights does not encourage countries to open up civic space – rather it gives them further incentives to restrict the means by which people can express dissent. Sporting bodies should be pushed to develop and implement a mandatory human rights assessment as an intrinsic part of any decision to award hosting rights – and refuse to entertain bids from states that fail the test. Hosting rights should come with clear commitments to improve human rights performance in specific areas – and monitoring and public reporting of progress on those commitments.
If they do not take positive steps, global sporting bodies are not neutral as they like to maintain – rather by failing to act they are complicit in abuses. If they keep awarding peak sporting events to countries with dreadful human rights records and closed civic space, they can expect to be the targets of campaigns.
Sporting boycotts can be difficult to sustain and can end up penalising not repressive host countries but athletes who spend years preparing for peak events. But diplomatic boycotts make more sense. They can deprive autocrats of the chance to claim legitimacy by rubbing shoulders with other leaders on the global stage. They can send a signal that a host government should not be treated as a normal member of the international community.
HKFLA, @wethehongkonger , and @FAPA_HQ supports our worldwide allies to call for a boycott on the Beijing Olympics 2022.— HongKongForum LA (@hkfla) June 24, 2021
China has repeatedly violated the civil rights of people in Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. We must #BoycottCCP #BoycottBeijing2022 pic.twitter.com/IVp5DqOVzj
Many states have already announced they are staying away from Beijing, including Australia, Canada, Japan, the UK and USA. In contrast, Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin was the first to confirm his attendance. He’ll be joined by a rogues’ gallery of leaders of repressive states, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with many leaders of states in the region who seek to placate the giant on their doorstep. This is not good company to be in, and more should stay away.
Pressure on sponsors offers another lever. Massive corporations pay huge amounts of money to associate themselves with the glamour of major events. They should face public pressure to do human rights due diligence before committing to sponsorship; if not they can expect to face boycott campaigns to encourage their withdrawal. Major sponsors – among them Coca-Cola, Toyota and Visa – have been notably quiet ahead of the Winter Olympics, presumably fearing precisely such questioning. They should also face hard questions from shareholders and investors about the purpose and value of their sponsorship spend.
When it comes to ownership of football clubs and other such bodies, these are historical entities, built up over decades through the support of communities. They are the embodiment of hopes, dreams and pride, focal points of towns and cities. They deserve better than to be auctioned off to whichever wealthy state is most worried about its poor reputation.
In the EPL it was not ownership concerns but the bid by the wealthiest clubs to join a breakaway European Super League that finally prompted serious calls for an independent football regulator. This is an idea whose time has come, and one of its roles should be to prevent any further sportswashing takeovers of clubs by repressive states, however elaborate the structures are by which states seek to conceal their control. The existing owners’ and directors’ tests should be strengthened to include robust human rights criteria.
Ultimately, sport shouldn’t be controlled by regimes like those of China, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Sport belongs to everyone who takes part, from elite competitors to local amateurs. It’s to be enjoyed by everyone watching, at home or in the stadium, without becoming complicit in laundering the reputation of brutal states. Sporting events should be celebrations of humanity, speaking to the good in us all. It’s time to take them back from dictators.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
More states and leaders should publicly join the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Olympic and World Cup advertisers should be held to account on their human rights standards or face boycotts if they continue to keep sponsoring events in repressive states.
Sporting governance bodies should develop strong human rights criteria, in consultation with civil society, to be applied in decisions about ownership and hosting.
Cover photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images