Shortcuts / 22 June 2023


From the 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cup to the Saudi-backed LIV golf tournament, athletes and commentators have been critical of the rise of sportswashing in recent times. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at what sportswashing is, some of the most high-profile examples,
and how fraught this is getting for both sport and business.

Does this have anything to do with laundry?
Kind of – the term ‘sportswashing’ refers to the practice of a country or company ‘laundering’ its often tainted reputation through sports.

Alright, gimme an example…
Okay, so when the Saudi-backed LIV golf tournament launched a year ago, there was a lot of tension between the players who stayed with the US-backed PGA tour and those who accepted the billions of dollars the Saudis were offering to join their side.

Why was that?
A lot of people including Australia’s Cam Smith accused the golfers of taking “blood money” because of Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record.

What’s so poor about it?
It includes the execution of political dissidents, mass beheadings, harsh penalties for members of the LGBTQI+ community, and the high-profile murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018.

Right. Didn’t the rival tours just announce they were merging?
They did – but there has been a lot of criticism over that deal, with Amnesty International calling it “sportswashing at its finest”. At least 2 committees in the US Congress have opened investigations into the decision and so has the US Justice Department.

So they’re no fan of the deal, either… What are some other sportswashing examples?
The 2022 FIFA World Cup was probably the most talked about case last year. Organisers copped huge criticism for giving the hosting rights to Qatar – even though a lot of countries didn’t want to play there given its human rights record.

What’s so bad about it?
Well, same-sex marriages are illegal in Qatar – you can be thrown in jail if you’re found out and stoning is still allowed as a punishment. Then there are other problems including the country’s treatment of migrant workers. The Socceroos put out a video urging law changes in Qatar and a lot of the other teams put up rainbow flags in their compounds in protest.

Hit me with some more sportswashing examples…
It was pretty noteworthy last year when different organisations took a stance against Russia after it invaded Ukraine – essentially not letting it get away with sportswashing.

How did they do that?
So the International Olympic Committee and FIFA both moved to ban Russia and its ally Belarus from competition. Wimbledon wouldn’t let Russian players compete and other tournaments only let individual athletes compete as ‘neutral’ players with no flags. And the UK even forced a Russian billionaire to sell his stake in an English Premier League team.

Is that really a big deal, though?
It might not seem a huge punishment for Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine but it did remove a pretty powerful tool it might have had at its disposal. Imagine if Putin had turned up to the World Cup in Qatar, or if a Russian player had hoisted up the winner’s trophy at Wimbledon…

That’s a fair point…
And of course, we’ve already seen one of the most awful ways sports have been used as a political weapon – that was when Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics. It really served as a rally for Hitler’s propaganda.

Does sportswashing happen here in Oz?
There’s been some hotly-contested debate about what amounts to sportswashing here. So late last year, the big mining company Hancock Prospecting – owned by Australia’s richest person Gina Rinehart – withdrew its $15 million sponsorship of Netball Australia after players in our national team the Diamonds spoke out about some racist comments made by Rinehart’s father, Lang Hancock, in the 1980s.

But is that sportswashing?
That’s the question up for debate – many said the players were just standing up for their values but then there was also a strong defence of Gina Rineheart and her role as a legitimate sponsor.

She’s a pretty big name…
And Hancock Prospecting is a huge company that creates a lot of wealth and jobs in Australia. It has had long partnerships with the Australian Olympic Committee, Rowing Australia and a number of elite swimmers.

And I imagine it’s not exactly easy getting sponsors…
Exactly – so athletes can risk money coming into their sport by speaking out on matters of principle to them. And when you think of some of the big sponsors in Australian sport – like alcohol, sports betting, and junk food – there could be an ever-shrinking pool of corporations that meet all athletes’ moral and ethical stances.

So it’s a tricky line for sports and companies to toe…
It sure is, and another issue they’re facing is a problem called ‘greenwashing’. That’s when
companies inflate their environmental credentials to make themselves sound warmer and fuzzier than they really are.

And that’s a pretty widespread problem?
Yep, and corporate watchdogs ASIC and the ACCC recently announced a real crackdown on this – they looked at about 250 brands across Australia and reckon more than half had promoted misleading claims about their eco credentials.

What sort of claims?
It includes anything from packaging with the words “kind to the planet”, or “eco-friendly”, to bigger claims about products being “100% plastics-free” or producing “zero emissions”. The ACCC is worried that there’s not a whole lot of robust evidence floating around to support some of these labels.

And what does greenwashing have to do with sports?
Well, environmental groups accuse major polluters of trying to cover up their own bad reputations through sports or other major events.

Such as?
So mining company Santos is a major sponsor of the Wallabies, Woodside has the Fremantle Dockers and Alinta Energy is the principal partner of Cricket Australia. Until recently, these sorts of partnerships have been pretty uncontroversial – but now a lot of companies are getting caught between athlete blowback and green groups trying to undermine them.

Didn’t Aussie cricket captain Pat Cummins speak out against Alinta last year?
Yep, he announced he wouldn’t do any ads for them over his personal environmental stance – and that sponsorship is just about to come to an end because it was pretty untenable for the company to be backing the team without the captain’s support.

I remember it got pretty heated…
And it did in federal parliament too. Last year, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young turned up to the annual Midwinter ball in a dress covered in anti-fossil fuel slogans. She was really having a go at the event because Woodside and Shell were major sponsors.

Wasn’t this year’s ball just this week?
It was – and because of what happened last year, organisers cut ties with not just Woodside and Shell but all corporate sponsors altogether.

Even though it’s a charity ball?
Yep, and they did that to avoid any more issues bubbling up around corporate donations in politics. So you can see how difficult it’s all getting for companies and other groups to navigate…

Squiz recommends:

Talk show host John Oliver’s takedown of the Qatar World Cup

Sportswashing Is Everywhere, but It’s Not NewSports Illustrated

Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.