The term sportswashing has emerged in recent years, often to decry sporting events being hosted in authoritarian regimes with the purpose of improving reputations. First used to describe the 2015 European Games in Baku, the term has been applied to Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup, as well as a plethora of events from boxing to Formula 1 in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia. While the term has become frequently used, it is often ill-defined. Jules Boykoff’s work on sportwashing helps illuminate some of its key features and remove the implicit orientalism that excuses and obfuscates sportswashing in Western, democratic societies (such as the role of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics in legitimating discourses around the War on Terror).
Qatar’s World Cup is arguably the textbook case of sportwashing. While the Gulf State seeks to improve its image internationally by hosting the event, this remains a fundamentally different proposition to other sportswashing states, especially Russia and China, where the objective is to project power to the domestic population, as Sven Daniel Wolfe has argued in relation to Sochi 2014. In this context, highlighting the issues through coverage of the event can arguably be an effective remedy to sportswashing (of course, not hosting the event in authoritarian countries would be much more effective). Promises before kick-off from broadcasters and journalists to keep the focus on human rights issues will be strained, as media coverage of mega-events tends to follow a familiar pattern – critique beforehand, focus on the event during, and celebrate afterwards. Whether media coverage of Qatar follows this same pattern will ultimately determine the effectiveness of their sportswashing. I build on these arguments in the article I’ve written for The Herald Newspaper titled ‘It’s time to blow the whistle on the sport washing of Qatar‘.
Dr Adam Talbot is a lecturer in Events Management at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on mega-events, human rights and civil society