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Leon Kaye headshot

Sportswashing Has Long Been with Us — Qatar’s World Cup is the Latest Chapter

By Leon Kaye

Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar

We’ve seen sportswashing in Super Bowls, with the NFL’s championship game held in stadia built after team owners threatened city leaders they'd move their franchises if they didn’t get a shiny new venue funded with public money. Never mind that observers of the NFL have called out what they say is the league's abysmal record on hiring Black coaches and how Black players with concussions were treated over the years — all of that is forgotten when the two best teams are on stage in early February, complete with a stunning halftime show led by one of the world’s most popular recording artists.

The same can be said of mega-sporting events like this year’s World Cup, the latest chapter in sportswashing — as in, the use of a sports competition to burnish a company’s — or in this case, a country’s — reputation in order to sideline wrongdoing and negative news coverage.

The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson didn’t coin the term sportswashing, but this week he defined it succinctly while offering up the latest chapter. “This World Cup is thrilling. That’s a problem,” he wrote as he started a recent column for the paper.

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Sure, it’s great that Morocco is the first team from Africa to make the global soccer tournament’s final four. Argentina, France and Croatia also have fantastic backstories.

Robinson goes on to share the sordid history of this year’s quadrennial soccer tournament in Qatar: the bribery that landed the tournament in this Gulf oil kingdom in the first place, the accusations that thousands of migrant workers built the tournament’s stadia, and the country’s dubious record on human rights as well as the legal status of LGBTQ citizens, residents and visitors. Then there is the state of global soccer itself — while Africa is rich in soccer players, many of them end up playing in Europe. And, every four years, Africa gets less than half the number of slots in the World Cup finals compared to Europe.

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body that runs the World Cup, isn’t alone in being played by countries and companies hoping to land a prestigious sporting event in the name of reputation management. The International Olympic Committee has its own long history replete with scathing press coverage — just see what’s occurred in China, Russia, Greece and, in fairness, the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. LIV Golf is getting its share of criticism for its Saudi sponsorship. Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star Game out of Atlanta in 2021 following passage of restrictive voting laws in Georgia, but some critics likened the move to a public relations stunt while others point to what they say is the league's spotty record of hiring Black and Brown professionals. 

While acknowledging the stories and drama that have marked this World Cup — from Cristiano Ronaldo to Lionel Messi — Robinson points out that it’s more than fair to remember this World Cup’s other legacy as well: “It’s hard to think of a more vivid illustration of how sportswashing works," he wrote. "All those lives, all those abuses, are obscured by a few galvanizing stories; the triumphs and disappointments of a small number of very famous men tower over the terrible sacrifices made by those whose names history will not record.”

Image credit: Hatem Boukhit via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye