Imagine that you are a nation embroiled in accusations of slavery, human rights abuses, racism, misogyny and general crime. Is there a way of laundering your reputation while also swelling your coffers? Well, have you considered hosting a large-scale international sporting event? If not, why not?

The prestige of hosting

In recent years the clamour to host enormous sporting events has waned. Economic crises have taken their toll and increased the reluctance of nations to cover the initial expense. Hosting has become a burden that many countries are simply unwilling to bear. As a consequence, this has reduced the pool of suitable prospective candidates. Inevitably, this has led competition organisers to consider countries with large financial reserves owing to the prevalence of natural resources. For these countries, expansion and enhancement of reputation are as important as hosting the events themselves.

I am under no illusion that the concept of ‘sportswashing’ has been around for far longer than the term itself. One may consider the Commonwealth Games an exercise in sportswashing; an event where Britain gathers her former colonies in an opportunity for them to win back their gold, one medal at a time. Similarly the 1936 Berlin Olympics — just three years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War — allowed Hitler to launder his international reputation.

In more recent years, nations such as Saudi Arabia, China and Russia have turned to sport in order to distract the international community from assaults on human rights domestically. With enormous backing from state-funded groups, they have sought to launder their reputations by hosting or sponsoring events and teams. Funding has been piled into various eye-catching projects such as Olympic competitions, football, and Formula 1. These lavish events encourage tourism, business and investment while sidelining ongoing political concerns.

In his closing speech at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach spoke with passion about the unifying nature of sport and used the stage to appeal for peace, saying:

‘This unifying power of the Olympic Games is stronger than the forces that want to divide us: give peace a chance’. 

The platitude was summarily ignored by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who four days later launched his ‘military operation’ into neighbouring Ukraine. Despite this, it still took a further two days for the UEFA to move the Champions League final from St Petersburg, and for Formula 1 to cancel the Russian Grand Prix. However, in the case of the latter, the statement put out by the sport’s governing body merely stated that it is: ‘impossible to hold the event at this time’, leaving open the possibility that if the conflict in Ukraine is resolved by September, the decision could be reevaluated. Despite the ambiguity of the governing body’s statement, drivers Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen have both said that if a race were to occur in Sochi this year, they unequivocally would not participate.

To most people, the natural course of action when seeing reports and the consequences of war, slavery, or political oppression would be an immediate cessation of partnership with the perpetrators. However, dictators, oligarchs, warlords and serial abusers of human rights have realised there is no such thing as a pocket that cannot be lined, a wheel that cannot be greased, and a hand that cannot be shaken. Those with power and money have learned a simple means of overcoming criticism: profit and entertainment.

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