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Geordie fairytale and genocide Olympics

Why sporting bodies need to take responsibility for gross human rights abuse

By Martyna Hanak

Image courtesy of Peter Burgess via Flickr


The 7th of October 2021 was a beautiful day in Newcastle, but a grim one elsewhere. After years of tumultuous negotiations, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (as part of a consortium) completed the takeover of Newcastle United Football Club. An underperforming team lured by the petrodollars and promises of becoming another Manchester City or Chelsea—the sheer elation of Tyneside is not surprising. To the world at large, however, the Saudi Arabian government is known for human rights abuse rather than football.


However controversial, this is hardly a novelty in the realm of sports. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and countless dictatorships have engaged in high profile sporting events or enterprises, oftentimes in order to improve their appearance and conceal offences. This practice has earned the catchy moniker 'sportswashing'.


In football it was Russia (under the guise of Gazprom, a state-owned behemoth) which set the grounds for large-scale sportswashing. With sponsorship of the Champions League and the facilitation of the Chelsea takeover by Roman Abramovich, as well as fuelling large sums of money into several other teams on the continent, they have achieved more in repairing Russia’s post-Soviet image than any diplomatic endeavours.


Mancunians likely refrain from slandering the United Arab Emirates since Sheikh Mansour’s investment in Manchester City and the surrounding area produced thousands of jobs and provided a massive boost to the local economy. Yet it is not the fans who should be blamed for wanting their team to sign the world’s best and win trophies. The English Premier League (EPL) has been turning a blind eye since the early 2000s.


Any buyer of an EPL club must satisfy the Owners' and Directors' Test. They need to be financially sound, free of criminal convictions; they cannot be involved with any other club to avoid conflict of interests. No mention of ethical conduct, let alone human rights. Amnesty International has been persistently advocating for a review of this test and the inclusion of a 'morality clause'. Only recently has the Premier League displayed any willingness to at least discuss the issue. Rather conveniently only once the Newcastle takeover had been finalised.


The second face of sportswashing comes with hosting big events by countries with poor human rights records. The upcoming World Cup in Qatar has been enveloped in controversy since its very announcement. A shocking 6,500 migrant deaths connected to infrastructure construction and allegations of slavery. Since hushed with mere 'progress has been made' remarks by the leaders of various football federations.


In a little over two months the Winter Olympics in Beijing will begin and they, too, have raised a number of concerns. Human rights activists point out the Uyghur genocide and the repression of Hong Kong and Tibet.


This is nothing new for China. In 2008, before the Summer Olympics, they had to resist eerily similar claims about the treatment of Tibet. The games, as we remember, took place.

Now, yet again, boycott is on the cards. Canada has been particularly vocal, but the audacious threats seem to have been more bark than bite.


Is boycotting ever an answer? Certainly not from the athletes' perspective. For years they sacrifice themselves for a ticket to the Olympics. To deprive them of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity would be nothing short of cruel.


Shattered dreams aside, the effectiveness of boycotts as a weapon against human right abuse is debatable to say the least, as shown in Berlin in 1936 and Moscow in 1980. The latter boycott, a protest against the Afghan War, has proven to be a gigantic misstep despite the support of a staggering 65 states (just less than a half of the eligible nations). Soviet troops remained in Afghanistan for nine more years. If anything, the Soviet hegemony as an athletic superpower was further upheld from lack of competition.


A diplomatic boycott whereby athletes compete but heads of state and other officials don't attend seems more feasible. Indeed, the European Parliament voted in favour of such a solution, as did Westminster. At the time of this publication, the US might have already followed suit.


Once the host of the 2022 Olympics has been announced, organisations and state leaders had their hands effectively tied. The eyes of the world will once again turn to China, however, politicians, activists and the media alike could seize this opportunity to raise awareness of China's many sins.


Ultimately, the fault lies with the governing bodies. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) seems to have recently repented. In 2017, two years after the winning Beijing bid, it pledged to include human rights requirements in the Host City Contract. The next countries to host the Olympics are, chronologically: France, Italy, United States and Australia. However, with India, China and Indonesia lurking at the 2036 Summer bids, we have yet to see how the mechanism will operate in practice.


Having supported Chelsea for over a decade now, it would be tempting to say I’d rather my team was stuck mid-table than run by Russian oil money. But then I remember the Champions League finals of 2012 and 2021, and I know I would come off as a hypocrite. Likewise, as a ski-jumping enjoyer, I will be glued to the screen in February. As we sit down to root for our favourite athletes, however, it is important to be aware of what is going on behind the scenes. As the consciousness rises, so does the pressure on FIFA, IOC and other big players. We can only hope that slowly we can reclaim sport as a domain of the people—a force that unites rather than divides.