Despite our love, sports can’t be used for geopolitics


“Sports present a veneer to the outside world of peace, tolerance and harmony; that all is all right”

Article Image

Image by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/

By Ethan Reuter

Sports are picturesque, poetic, and perfect when done right. They encapsulate and invigorate in away unlike anything else. There are few moments when we can exist as a collective, sharing in a common experience when it’s such an individualist world, so it makes it all the more precious when we can.

No better is this proven than with the Men’s Football World Cup. It is the trophy you imagine winning as a small child and long for your country to lift as an adult. This is exactly why we cannot, as fans, let it be hijacked by dictatorial regimes and human rights abuses. Qatar, like others before, is attempting to do exactly that.

The term ‘sportswashing’, coined by Amnesty International, is defined as follows: the use of sports by oppressive governments to legitimise their regimes and distract from their abuses and indiscretions.

It has been around since the 1936 Olympics, Nazi Germany, and Jesse Owens so it isn’t a new phenomenon. However, more are realising its potential ‘benefits’. Saudi-backed LIV Golf and Newcastle United, F1 in the Middle East, and the Beijing Olympics are all key examples of its growing dominance across the sporting landscape.

The problem specifically lies in the cover-up; the truth, for governments, stains. Oppression of people is the contamination that can’t be washed away among the international community without genuine change. To governments, sports are a facade that present a veneer to the outside world of peace, tolerance and harmony – that all is all right.

We are meant to forget the lack of workers rights in Qatar once the stadiums have been built, sweeping the harsh reality of an estimated 6,500 dead under the rug of footballing excellence. We are meant to forget the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China or the growing prevalence of the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong and Taiwan. We are meant to forget the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Arabian consulate, or the discriminatory practices in everyday Saudi Arabian life.

We cannot forget these indiscretions. They aren’t mistakes, they’re failures in morality and sports shouldn’t be used to dismiss them.

The playbook is as follows: football, along with each other sport, has the capacity for emotion, joy and love. If governments could just get a positive reception associated with joy, emotion, and love then they’ve done the hard part. Stick to the script well enough, and the charade might just work and the investment paid in full. Your moral debts have been wiped out in the eyes of the public. For some dictators, the positive reputation is worth its weight in gold. Fans would be more willing to ignore the human rights violations, the ignorance of others’ sovereignty and oppression if you’ve laid out the proverbial red carpet and given them a show.

As a community, we should stand together in defiance of their cruel analysis. Instead, we should choose not to be bought off by despots but rather galvanize around the idea that they believe it’ll work on the world’s biggest stage.

However, for the 2022 World Cup, football fans have been afforded the greatest opportunity: a chance at a public rejection of sportswashing. If we seize the chance to highlight Qatari abuses of power and their lack of workers rights, then other regimes may take notice that the potential reputational benefits don’t outweigh the significant financial cost of sports washing.

We have the opportunity to not only be unchained from the weight of expectation or rationality basking in footballing glory, but also to affect genuine change. In the evenings, we can find ourselves drunkenly professing that football is finally coming home to people we don’t know, arms around them like old friends who haven’t seen each other in years.

In the mornings, post-hangover, we have the chance to highlight the failure of regimes and organisations around us. They view us as foolish enough to be corrupted by throwing money at our games, our momentary distractions from the already convoluted politics of life with their geopolitical spin and deceit. Let’s show them that we aren’t so foolish.

It’s the chance for a better experience, unfazed by sportswashing, where football stands united against hate, intolerance, and abuse. It’s political conscience with, most importantly, a pint. Miracles really do happen at the World Cup.

We can create a morally virtuous cycle and a phasing out of sportswashing projects across the autocratic world. The World Cup, therefore, can act as a separation point for the encroachment of politics into the beautiful game and beyond.

The moral laundry of absolute monarchies, failed states and tyrannical regimes shouldn’t be washed away on the football pitch, golf course, or racing track, nor their stains cleansed by sporting stature.

Despite our personal love and passion, even after the first ball is kicked and the first mistake made by Maguire, it’s on us to distinguish the political from the sport, to prove that sportswashing doesn’t work once and for all, so we can reclaim our beloved sports from this geopolitical game of chess.