While it sounds like one of those new-fangled phrases like photobombing or binge-watch, the concept is much older.
The World Cup in Qatar has given renewed prominence to the term, which means using a major sporting event to launder a country’s reputation – such as in the case of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.
Or even further back, when the Romans put on gladiatorial games in their mighty coliseums, they often did so in order to quell public rebellion and to distract from political and social issues like a shortage of grain.
Two thousand years on, some of the country’s most prominent sporting pundits and commentators have accused the Qatari regime of using the month-long football extravaganza to cover up their treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, women and immigrant workers.
I’m as horrified as anyone about the despicable treatment of those people, but I’m also forced to conclude there’s hypocrisy at play, given how little some of these same pundits have said about other sportswashing regimes.
Is it right to stand up for the oppressed? Absolutely. So why is there such fierce, relentless condemnation of Qatar, when there was relatively little furore among these same pundits when Russia hosted the tournament four years ago?
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 there were calls from then Deputy PM Nick Clegg for Putin and his pals to be stripped of the football competition amid Western sanctions, but FIFA stood firm.
At the time I remember being surprised that the tournament wasn’t moved to another location.
But apparently invading a sovereign state wasn’t yet a good enough reason to make an example of Russia, and neither was their long history of state-sponsored doping of athletes in sport.
It’s a bit rich for pundits on the BBC and ITV to tackle the Qatari regime, having, in the words of one Gary Lineker, ‘not said enough about the other issues.’
I was pleased to see him acknowledge this awkward truth this week, not least because he is leading the BBC’s team in Doha.
The former England star, who has been extremely critical of the current hosts, seems to even partially agree with those like me who consider him and his fellow columnists rank hypocrites.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4, he said: ‘I think we were sportswashed four years ago when we were in Russia.
‘I do look back four years and feel slightly uncomfortable.’
As well he should.
The BBC’s panel discussed human rights in lieu of showing the opening ceremony on Sunday, but that rings hollow knowing that they didn’t speak up on countless other occasions.
In 2018, the opening ceremony was given fulsome coverage, and as Lineker has acknowledged, there was no widespread discussion by the panellists of the ill-treatment of gays in Russia, or the human right violations, or the deaths caused by Russia invading another country.
So why the change? Qatari authorities blame anti-Arab sentiment, and though I disagree with them on virtually everything else, I think there’s something in that.
While Gary Lineker did admit that he and the Beeb made a mistake in their silence four years ago, I would contend it isn’t the only time they’ve turned a blind eye to attempted sportwashing.
China held the 2022 winter Olympics in Beijing, and once again the BBC’s sporting coverage fell short in terms of raising awareness of issues there, while ignoring calls from activists to boycott the Games.
The country has been accused of genocide against the Uyghur population.
The mostly Muslim group, who inhabit the region of Xinjiang, have been targeted by the state, and it’s believed China has detained more than one million Uyghurs against their will in re-education camps, while sentencing hundreds of thousands to prison terms.
Personally, I’ve been all too aware of the underreported issue of anti-Black racism in China, from blackface being celebrated on national TV, to allegations of hotels openly turning away Black visitors.
It’s a common argument that pundits or the athletes shouldn’t involve themselves in wider issues, and that they should ‘stick to sport’.
But sometimes wider human rights issues can have an impact on players themselves, whether they are political or not.
Take the Europa League final in 2019, which was held in Baku, Azerbaijan, a sportswashing behemoth, which has held events like Euro 2020 matches and an annual Formula 1 Grand Prix, despite well-documented crackdowns on journalists and campaigners.
As Arsenal took on Chelsea in that final, Gunners midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan was unable to take part because of safety concerns over the political tensions between his native country Armenia and Azerbaijan.
There’s no diplomatic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan due to a decades-long conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
This proves that you can’t just separate sport and the wider context of the countries it takes part in.
Sportswashing is not a new phenomenon, but this time feels different, in my view due to the hypocrisy, arrogance and double standards of the western pundits.
But whatever the reasons for pundits ‘doing the right thing’ and speaking out, surely it would have made more sense to show their disgust and disdain from a studio in the UK?
Every persons basic humanity, be they gay, female or Black, should be accepted and fought for.
But if one is to stand up and say a government’s laws are morally wrong, they must say that in every instance – not just when a middle-eastern country is involved.
America – a country whose law enforcers have killed a number of Black men, whose states limit a woman’s choice for abortion, and whose freely available guns have led to more deaths, including those of the LGBTQ+ community – is due to co-host the next World Cup.
If it is now about constantly ‘raising awareness’ of human rights issues at the World Cup, I wonder if those who have found their conscience and are shouting the loudest today will have the same energy in the future.
I’m not holding my breath.
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