I first heard sportswashing in a story that aired in mid-March on NPR’s 1A program, “How Countries Use Sports to Improve Their Image.” The story provided a definition:
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.
Although it was unfamiliar to me, neither the word nor the practice is new. Sportswashing (or the British English variant sportwashing) was coined in 2015 by Sport for Rights, an Azerbaijani campaign to expose that country’s “attempt ‘to distract from its human rights record with prestigious sponsorship and hosting of events’, including the European Games hosted in Baku that year,” as the Oxford Words blog put it.
Protesters in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2015. Image via Frontline Defenders.
In the seven years since, there have been plenty of other examples of sportswashing: Saudi Arabia buying the English Premier League team Newcastle United in 2021; China hosting the Winter Olympic Games in February 2022; Qatar hosting the next World Cup in November 2022. Earlier this year, American professional golfer Phil Nickelson admitted to biographer Alan Shipnuck that his association with the Saudi Golf League was “sportswashing.” (“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson said of the Saudi regime. Perhaps he said it approvingly; who knows.) Reaching further back, NPR pointed to Adolf Hitler's reasons for hosting the 1936 Olympic games.
According to Oxford Words, the washing element of sport[s]washing is borrowed from whitewashing, whose literal sense, dating back to 1650, is “applying a white liquid to a surface” such as a wall. The verb to whitewash is a century older; the figurative “cover-up” sense of verb and noun appeared in the mid-19th century. Washing also suggests “sanitizing,” and sportswashing carries both the “covering” and “cleansing” connotations.
In recent years, -washing has become a robustly productive suffix (or “libfix,” the term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky). Writing in 2017 for Oxford Dictionaries, John Kelly aired a load of novel -washings, including:
Pinkwashing: using pink-ribbon logos to associate with breast-cancer causes. (See my 2011 post on “Big Pink.”)
Greenwashing: misleadingly presenting an environmentally responsible (“green”) image.
Bluewashing: aligning with the missions of the UN.
Redwashing: posturing concerns for Native Americans.
Cloudwashing: rebranding a product or service “to boast its connection, no matter how marginal or peripheral, to the Internet, or ‘cloud’.”
These days, whitewashing can also refer to the exclusion of persons of color in media, literature, and the like, as if they’ve been washed over with White culture – and it shows just how far -wash has come, and, if current lexical trends are any measure, will continue to go.
UPDATE: May 23, noon: I’d somehow missed Mike Pope’s excellent roundup of -washing terms, from January 21, 2022. His post includes humanewashing, purpose-washing, sharewashing, and mathwashing. Mike also sent me a link to an April 2022 story by Adrian Horton for The Guardian about celebrity-washing: being shielded from scrutiny by association with celebrities.
And what about brainwashing, you may be wondering? The noun first appeared in print in 1950, the first year of the Korean War, but it follows a different pattern from other -washings. It means “purging the mind of established ideas, especially political ones, so that another set of ideas can take their place”—washing a brain, in other words, not brain-ifying something that wasn’t already brainy. The English term is often said to have derived from Chinese xǐ nǎo (brainwashing), although the connection was made explicit only in 1959.
For further sportswashing reading, see Michael Rosenberg’s April 2022 story for Sports Illustrated. It’s a long and interesting read; here’s a tasty excerpt:
There is a hint of sportswashing every time a U.S. president throws out a first pitch or a college president talks about football as the “front porch” of a university. Sports seem like they aren’t political, which is precisely why they are so often used for political purposes. The drama seduces us, and our passions distract us, and so we swallow whatever government officials feed us without even realizing it.