With the growing panic over outbreaks of monkeypox in non-endemic countries and the ongoing war in Ukraine, the events of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing seem like a distant memory. But I think they should not be forgotten. And the main reasons why, were not the athletic performances, although they were amazing and all the athletes deserve recognition, but it is a phenomenon that was interwoven with the whole games. And that phenomenon and from my perspective, the whole point of the People’s Republic of China hosting the Olympic Games is sportswashing.
What exactly is sportswashing? This term is used when an individual, group, corporation, or state launders its reputation through sports; it could be done by sponsorships, through team ownership, participating in, or as in China’s case, by hosting a major tournament. Although the term is relatively new, the whole concept of it dates back decades, even centuries (Simpson, 2021).
One of the earliest records of this phenomenon dates back to ancient Greece. The year is 416 B.C.E. and the Peloponnesian War going on between the city-states of Athens and Sparta is still going strong. And right now, it looks like Athens will lose the whole war, so one of the Athenian generals – Alcibiades, has this amazing idea. Athens is going to show they still have the power and resources by participating in one of the main events at the Olympic Games – the four-horse chariot race. This venture was extremely expensive, even by today’s standards. It’s like financing the F1 racing team and Athens enters several of them. And it pays off, these teams win the first, second, and either third or fourth place, historical records differ, and present the image of the still strong Athens. State that still has the resources to fight and win this war. This stunt of Alcibiades was critical in establishing the Peace of Nicias, which lasted five years and gave Athens some time to recuperate and prepare when the war would start anew (Gribble, 2012). To be fair, in the end Athens still lost the Peloponnesian War, but for that moment, sportswashing gave it another fighting chance.
Another example, maybe the most known one, is yet again tied with the Olympic Games. The 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. These games were used to promote the Nazi regime of Hitler’s Germany. For the purpose of the games, there was built a new Olympiastadion in Berlin, which was hypermodern for its time and could seat around 100 000 people, Leni Riefenstahl filmed her infamous documentary, and the signs barring Jewish people from public places were taken down in an effort to seem hospitable and friendly (Rosenberg, 2022).
And you may think, well that was in the past and people aren’t so gullible anymore. They won’t fall for flashy opening ceremonies, naturalisation of rising talents to represent their country, or their favourite club getting new and great players because of the money the new management brought. But the opposite is true. This tactic sadly still works and maybe works even better in a globalised world, where you are bombarded with this kind of news from all sides. It’s because of this constant stream of news most people’s brains are growing complacent and numb and stop seeing the motives behind these flashy gestures.
China tried to use the hosting of the Olympic games as an eraser for its appalling human rights record, Qatar will try to use the hosting of the FIFA World Cup to cover up the abuse of almost two million migrant workers, limited press freedom, and absence of women rights, just to name a few (Corfield & Breyer, 2022). And there will be many more instances of sportswashing in the future because, again, it is a very powerful tool. But I hope that with more and more scholars, journalists and websites writing and informing people about it, we will see a decline in this phenomenon, and, fingers crossed, even someday complete elimination of it.
CORFIELD, G., & BREYER, P. (2022). Sportswashing – On The Beijing Winter Olympics and human rights. Greens/EFA. https://www.greens-efa.eu/opinions/sportswashing-winter-olympics-and-human-rights
GRIBBLE, D. 2012. ALCIBIADES AT THE OLYMPICS: PERFORMANCE, POLITICS AND CIVIC IDEOLOGY. The Classical Quarterly, 62(1), 45–71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41819995
ROSENBERG, M., 2022. Is 2022 the year of peak sportswashing?. Sports Illustrated. https://www.si.com/olympics/2022/04/11/sportswashing-olympics-world-cup-daily-cover
SIMPSON, M., 2021. What is sportswashing? Definition of the sports term amid Newcastle United takeover. Nationalworld.com. https://www.nationalworld.com/sport/football/what-is-sportswashing-definition-of-the-sports-term-amid-newcastle-united-takeover-3414209