Sportswashing is something that happens here, now

Photo by: Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Sportswashing is a term that has entered the public consciousness in the past few years. By definition, sportswashing is a form of reputation laundering wherein an individual, group, corporation or government uses sport as a way to cover up or distract the public’s attention from some kind of wrongdoing. 

The word conjures images of events held in the middle east, rife with corruption, paid for with bribery. We think of sportswashing as something that might happen somewhere else, in (Russia, Saudi Arabia), or in a different time (Berlin in 1936). We might think of oil barons sponsoring racing teams, or oligarchs investing in football. As North Americans though, we rarely think of sportswashing as something that we can do. Our insititutions are innocent, they don’t need to launder their reputations. We can recognize corruption and problems to a certain extent, but we rarely acknowledge that sportswashing is something that happens here and now. 

Sportswashing holds power because of the tremendous power that sport holds within a society. Sport creates moments of glory and jubilation and contrasts them with moments of heartbreak and defeat. Sport is captivating in a way that little else is. International sport in particular is a perfect opportunity for distraction as people who wouldn’t consider themselves fans find themselves swept up in the coverage. 

Sportswashing impacts just about everybody when it comes to their perception of an event. Using the recent World Cup in Qatar as an example, we can see how everyone from die hard fans to people with an active distaste for sports can be impacted. The die hard soccer fan might actually be more aware of all of the atrocities that were committed on the road to the World Cup, but at the end of the day, all that becomes background noise among the narratives of triumph and defeat that are inherent to sport on such a massive stage. Casual fans and non-sports fans are also impacted by sportswashing as Qatar fairly successfully diverted attention away from wrongdoing towards the games happening. While a Google search for the country pre- World Cup might bring up news articles about migrant worker deaths or allegations of bribery, the same search during the World Cup would bring up scores and game recaps. There are undoubtedly people who will now think of Qatar as the place that hosted a successful World Cup with nice beaches and hotels that might be worth a visit if they ever have a layover in the Middle East. Even the most anti-sports person in the world is impacted as headlines about the tournament begin to outnumber the ones about controversy. The reason sportswashing is so popular is because it works on everybody. 

Now think about Hockey Canada. This is an organization that has absolutely committed wrongdoing. They have been implicated in scandal after scandal. The breadth of abuse that has been allowed to thrive under its eye is only now starting to be uncovered and understood. 

They were front and centre at this year’s World Junior Championship organized by IIHF. Games were hosted in the Maritimes, with fans in Halifax and Antigonish showing up and creating an incredible atmosphere. There were stories written and discussions had about this year’s star players, players who haven’t done anything wrong and who were young children when the initial wrongdoing occurred. Still, they skated onto the ice wearing a jersey that had Hockey Canada’s logo plastered across the chest. The organization has no problem using current players and the sport itself to court positive attention and to shrug off negative attention.

Hockey Canada is using sport on a smaller scale than Qatar did this past December, but it is undoubtedly an example of an organization using sport to launder its image and distract from wrongdoing.

When the Olympics come to Paris, a place where it is becoming more and more unsafe to be anything other than white, will we call that sportswashing? What about Los Angeles? The next time a president throws out a pitch at a baseball game, or Prime Minister Trudeau pulls up his pant leg to reveal socks with the Montreal Canadiens’ logo on it during the Stanley Cup playoffs, will we call that sportswashing?

There is no problem with pointing out the fact that sports are a distraction and that events can be manipulated to direct attention away from any kind of real issues, but it is strange that it only seems to be applied to non-western countries. It is strange that there is a difference in how we perceive someone who made billions off of oil in the Middle East versus someone who made billions off of oil in Alberta and it’s doubly strange that if both of them wanted to buy a soccer team, only one of them would be accused of sportswashing.

Canadian sports organizations like Hockey Canada are just as capable of using sport to manipulate the public’s perception as a government is. If we’re going to use “sportswashing” as a fancy new buzzword, we should at least make an effort to apply it consistently.

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