The year 2022 – which launches into the Olympic Games in Beijing and ends with the World Cup in Qatar – is set to be a great year for authoritarian regimes looking to cover up their atrocious human rights records.
Over the course of a 12-month period, countries such as China, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all of whom have been criticized for human rights violations, will use prestigious sports events to polish their public image on an international stage. This process is known as sportswashing, a term popularized by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe the use of sports by oppressive governments to legitimize their regimes and distract from their human rights abuses. Traditional examples of sportswashing include the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin under the Nazi regime, which Hitler hosted in an attempt to showcase German and Aryan superiority.
While sportswashing has long been a popular tactic, 2022 is a particularly concerning year because both the Olympic Games and the World Cup – the two most-watched sporting events in the world – are being hosted in countries with markedly oppressive regimes.
Beginning on 4 February, China will host the Winter Olympics in Beijing and in towns in the neighboring Hebei province. Among other issues, the country’s government has been criticized for its inhumane internment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, its attempts to seize political control over Hong Kong and neighboring Taiwan, and the disappearance (and questionable reappearance) of tennis star Peng Shuai after accusing a Chinese official of sexual assault.
Several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have announced that they will not send any government representatives to the Games due to concerns over China’s human rights record. However, these nations will still send their athletes, rendering the diplomatic boycotts as little more than performative theatre.
Other countries such as France (host of the 2024 Summer Games) and Italy will not join the boycott, while Russia’s President Vladimir Putin condemned the boycott as a “mistake”. China has since threatened that the countries who have announced diplomatic boycotts will “pay the price for their mistaken acts.”
Following the Olympic Games, attention will shift towards the World Cup in Qatar, which is set to begin in November. The nation has a significant record of human rights violations. For example, a Guardian investigation from February 2021 revealed more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since 2010. The shocking death toll, compiled from government sources, is most likely an underestimate and does not include data from other countries that send a significant number of workers to Qatar, including Kenya and the Philippines.
Dozens of migrant workers have died during the construction of World Cup stadiums in particular, and more than 100 migrants employed on a construction project related to the event went up to seven months without pay. Most employees were eventually compensated, though some still have several months of missing salaries.
Other significant human rights issues in Qatar include restrictions on free expression, forced labor, the criminalization of same-sex relationships, and a lack of accountability for violence against women and minorities. Reforms aimed at protecting migrant workers from exploitative labor were introduced in 2020, though employers maintain disproportionate power and influence.
Despite the harrowing reports of death and abuse in the construction of World Cup stadiums, Fifa president Gianni Infantino announced on 30 December that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was a “celebration of football and social inclusion”.
“Fifa is the only governing body that looks after and cares about the entire world,” Infantino said in a prepared statement. “We will continue working hard to live up to the mission of not forgetting the ones who need most and who have no voice, while also protecting the healthy growth of everyone else and the global football movement.”
While China and Qatar will host the two most significant sports events of 2022, other countries such as Saudi Arabia continue to expand their positions as key destinations for international sports events. The kingdom has spent billions on high-profile sports events aimed at strengthening its reputation and diversifying its economy to eliminate dependence on oil and gas.
Most recently, a group led by Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund – an entity headed by Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman – purchased Newcastle United. It is arguably one of the kingdom’s most successful sportswashing attempts, as it provides Saudi with an influential position in English football as well as an opportunity to upgrade its public image and distract from its recent abuses, including the infamous assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its devastating war in Yemen that caused a humanitarian catastrophe, and its crackdown on intellectuals, reformers, and women’s rights activists.
Saudi Arabia has proved to be an alluring hub for sports events over the past few years, having signed a 10-year, $650m deal for a Formula One motor racing event, invested millions in a Saudi International golf event, and hosted some of the biggest boxing showdowns in recent memory. The kingdom has also hired the Boston Consulting Group to help lobby its interest in hosting a World Cup event in the not-so-distant future.
There are other concerning sportswashing affiliations, including the Ultimate Fighting Championships’ troubling links to Chechnya’s dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, the NBA’s blossoming relationship with Rwandan autocrat Paul Kagame, and the NFL’s newly announced five-year partnership with China (which included a map that pushed the false narrative that Taiwan, an independent country, was a part of China). Each of these examples highlights the growing trend of authoritarian countries using prominent and established sports entities as platforms for propaganda and sportswashing campaigns. This strategy has proven to be remarkably effective in overhauling these states’ public images and legitimizing their regimes.
As state-run political projects and soft power propaganda outfits take center stage over the coming year, 2022 is shaping up to be one of the most politically charged sporting years in recent memory.