Sport-washing, soft power and scrubbing the stains

Can international sporting events really clean up a country’s tarnished image?

Simon Chadwick

Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

24 August 2018

Russia’s World Cup, Israel’s leg of the Giro d’Italia, and Qatar’s planned festival of football are all used as examples of sport-washing. But the reality may be rather more complex, Simon Chadwick writes. 

After months of intense sporting action, several countries are now gleaming in the haze of their post-event hosting. Whether it is Russia and the football World Cup or Israel and cycling’s Giro d’Italia, these countries have been well and truly ‘sport-washed’. Or at least that is what their critics would have us believe.

Although the term sport-washing has strongly established itself in the mainstream global vernacular this year, it is not entirely clear what it is. The inference is obviously of removing stains or of cleansing, presumably through the power of sport. However, the complexity of the term is not immediately obvious, something not helped by the wide number of ways in which it is currently defined.

In one definition, sport-washing is identified as being employed by authoritarian regimes that use mega-sports events to reboot their reputations and distract audiences from their horrific human-rights records.

In another definition, sporting events are used to sideline critical views of a government and serve to launder its image and reputation.

However, such definitions are both presumptuous and troubling. In particular, they both imply that people readily (and instantaneously) forget about a nation’s misdemeanours and underpinning ideology simply because, for example, a group of cyclists spend little more than ten hours riding around the country.

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Despite the power of sport, which is in fact often overstated, it is insufficient to induce amnesia in the collective memory. Indeed, despite an enthralling World Cup, many of us remain in no doubt about Vladimir Putin’s ambitions and intentions.

Some decent Russian football and a few goals won’t have eroded the nagging doubts people have about Putin and Russia in general. It is therefore questionable just how effective and durable sport-washing actually is.

As hard as one might scrub to make something shine again, it often takes more than a single wash to bring the sparkle back. Hence, the need for sport-washing is as likely to be an ongoing process as it is a one-off occurrence. To suggest otherwise would be to imply gullibility on the part of the audience and stakeholders of sporting events. It also overlooks the fact that sport is only ever one constituent part of the way in which most people conceive of a country.

It, therefore, remains largely unproven, and as such is conjecture, that there is a strong correlation or causal link between hosting a sporting event and people fundamentally changing their thoughts and behaviours with respect to a specific country.

An important consideration is the intent that underpins decisions taken by the country. Some may say that sport-washing is intentional, involving an act that is deliberately intended to deceive, mislead, divert or obscure. However, this is not always the case and, in some instances, may be unintended or have unexpected consequences.

Qatar immediately springs to mind in this regard. Winning the right to host football’s World Cup was supposed to be a way for the country to raise its profile, build some degree of power on the global political stage and, by the Qatari government’s own self-admission, enable the small Gulf nation to exert soft power influence.

However, in many respects, Qatar’s prospective hosting of world football’s biggest event has created all manner of problems. Not least of these is the now ongoing and routine condemnation of the way in which Qatar treats immigrant workers.

Such is the vehemence of this scrutiny that we should probably be referring to ‘sport-staining’ rather than ‘sport-washing’.

Qatar also illustrates how some observers mistakenly conflate sport-washing and soft power, although distinctions between the two are admittedly blurred at times. Whereas sport-washing carries with it notions of cynicism and deceit, soft power is more widely accepted as a legitimate diplomatic strategy focused on attraction, appeal and accentuating a set of values with which others can engage.

This implies that, rather than shutting down criticism, Qatar is seeking to shape opinions – which is not sport-washing.

Whenever countries are labelled as being sport-washers, the identity of both the accused and the accusers is also telling.

For instance, one never hears of countries such as Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan accusing the likes of Great Britain or the United States of sport-washing. Yet even a cursory glance at the former’s record on, say, slavery reveals something surprising.

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Earlier this year, it was estimated that there are 136,000 modern slaves in Britain, with 41 per cent of them being children. At around the same time, consultancy firm Populus revealed in its British Icon Index that the English Premier League is currently the most positive representation of the country across the world. This is especially interesting, as the British government routinely utilises the Premier League in various campaigns abroad.

Sometimes the Premier League is used as part of trade missions. At other times it is used to exert soft power influence (a tool of statecraft from which the British government does extremely well – as Portland Communications’ ‘Soft Power 30’ demonstrates).

So, should Britain be labelled as a sport-washer? And who decides this, and on what basis? Whatever the answers to these questions, one can already imagine many Brits being rather perturbed by the comparison of their nation with countries they are used to condemning.

What differentiates the British from the Qataris or the Russians may, therefore, depend upon one’s cultural lens. With that in mind, we should be rather more careful about how we use the term, to whom we apply it, and why.

Critics of so-called sport-washing countries (whoever the critic, and whatever the country) need to demonstrate more self- and inter-cultural awareness before abrogating themselves of blame for something their own countries might also be doing.

All of this suggests that we simply do not understand sport-washing well enough to begin selectively applying it to some countries while ignoring its relevance to others. In turn, this emphasises the need for more research on the phenomenon to be undertaken, but also for a more universal conceptualisation of sport-washing to established.

This piece is published in partnership with the China Soccer Observatory at the University of Nottingham.

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