Aside from my family and friends, sport is my one true love. You probably gathered that given my last piece on this blog discussed the politics of cricket, one of England’s most traditional pastimes. So, when news broke of an imminent takeover of Newcastle United FC in October 2021, I knew I had to get down to St James’ Park, just so I can say I was there.
However, whilst Newcastle are now one of the richest football clubs in the world, it’s come with huge moral implications. To oversimplify, the new consortium of owners is led by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia; an institution which strategically invests money made from the country’s oil reserves at home and abroad. Although a separate entity from the Saudi government, they are chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Bin Salman is a highly divisive figure in foreign relations. Amongst many other controversies, he has been accused of personally ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Because of his connections the PIF, Newcastle’s takeover was condemned by every other Premier League club and various human rights organisations as an act of ‘sportswashing’.
Sportswashing is essentially the idea that controversial governments and non-governmental organisations buy into Western sporting culture to improve their international prestige. It isn’t a new phenomenon but has become increasingly prominent in the 21st century. It can be achieved in many ways, whether that be sponsorship of teams/events, hosting events, or – like in Newcastle’s case – the ownership of a sports team. And they aren’t the only football club owned or sponsored by groups linked to oil-based economies either.
Formula One – another sport I love – has been falling foul of sportswashing for years. They hosted a Grand Prix in apartheid South Africa for 25 years, and have recently signed decade-long deals to host races in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other controversial locations. Saudi Arabia has also hosted the famous Dakar Rally since 2020. Quite incredible for a nation who didn’t let women drive until 2018.
Back to football, Qatar – famous for its footballing prowess (he said sarcastically) – are hosting the World Cup later this year. This is despite them being accused of harbouring financiers of terrorism and utilising slave labour to build tournament infrastructure. And that isn’t even the only sportswashing event this year, because one’s happening right now!
China is facing a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics which is currently taking place in Beijing. I spoke about this briefly in the second episode of PolSoc Pod (which you can listen to via the PolSoc Pod tab on this blog). However, a recent surge in authoritarian actions by the Chinese government is something which should be of great concern to the West, especially when they’re hosting major international events like the Winter Olympics. Concerns also continue over the safety of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a Chinese official of coercing her into sex. She has since backpedalled on these claims, but worries for her remain legitimate as she’s likely been forced to do this by the Chinese government.
Sportswashing is a concept which absolutely fascinates me, mainly because it combines two things I’m gripped by; sports and foreign policy. My dad told me to start checking when tickets for the World Cup this year go on sale. He’d love to watch England (inevitably) bring football home in glorious weather despite it being Christmas. But I don’t think he realises if we did go, we wouldn’t just be supporting England. We’d be indirectly backing FIFA, an organisation rotten to its core, and the Qatari regime – who we in the West would see as being backwards.
It’s dumbfounding how the moral implications of sportswashing have seemingly been brushed under the rug by Western sports fans. Regretfully, money talks. Sportswashing justifies further the age-old claim that sport was ‘Created by the Poor, Stolen by the Rich’. Do you think that’s morally right, especially since the ‘Rich’ in these scenarios are being accused of such awful things?
This isn’t a criticism of Newcastle fans – that would be preachy. I fell in love with the Geordies the first time I stepped onto the Leazes End of St James’; I didn’t know such passion was possible in modern football! However, I need them to know it’s okay to be concerned by the ethical implications of their owners. Sportswashing might be more normalised now, and yes, it’s hypocritical of teams like Manchester City to condemn them, but two wrongs don’t cancel out.
Western sport is currently on a precipice – under threat from corrupt governments and NGOs wanting to clean up their look. I cannot begin to tell you how dangerous this is for sport. We have to make sure we hold them to account for the sake of these great events I and many others love.