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Authoritarian governments are using sports to improve their reputations

People gather at the capital Doha's traditional Souq Waqif market while the official logo of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is projected on the front of a building.
People gather at the capital Doha's traditional Souq Waqif market while the official logo of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is projected on the front of a building.

The Winter Olympics in China. The World Cup in Qatar. The WWE’s Elimination Chamber event in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

2022 is shaping up to be a big year for international sporting events. But why are authoritarian and oppressive governments around the world so eager to host the international community? The answer was given a name in 2015: sportswashing.

Sportswashing is the practice of laundering one’s reputation through sports; whether that be through team ownership, hosting a major tournament, or sponsorship. A country or politician gets involved with the hope that some of the sport’s popularity will improve their image.

As the world’s most popular sport, soccer is an effective vehicle for sportswashing. Saudi Arabia recently purchased English Premier League team Newcastle United. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich was trying to sell London’s Chelsea F.C. before the British government sanctioned him.

Mixed martial artists have also been used by authoritarian leaders to enhance their image. Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov has invited many fighters, many former UFC champions, to come train both him and his family members.

Sportswashing isn’t a new problem. In fact, it’s one of the oldest tricks in an authoritarian’s international relations playbook. European history aficionados will no doubt remember Adolf Hitler’s reasons for hosting the 1936 Olympic games.

Why is sportswashing effective? And what can the international community do to combat it?

Copyright 2022 WAMU 88.5

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