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.