2021 Roundup: Sportswashing human rights violations
From acquiring clubs to investing in billions of dollars and hosting international events, oppressive political regimes are using sports and sporting events to whitewash their crimes against humanity.
"Beyond the technical aspects, I'd like to point out that Israel's international presence in the field of sport and culture is another strategy for the whitewashing of genocide and the violation of human rights that they are committing against the Palestinian people."
With this statement, Catalan TV commentator and bronze Olympic swimmer Clara Basiana expressed her support that she could not hide for Palestine and the Palestinian cause.
"We have seen it here, at the Pre-Olympic Games in Barcelona, we have seen it repeatedly at Eurovision," said Basiana.
"It seems that during these events the war crimes of the Israeli state disappear. We have to be aware as spectators and make this situation visible so as not to normalize it," she stressed, igniting a wave of both -- support and criticism.
What is sportswashing?
Basiana referred to the Israeli whitewashing of genocide. In fact, the exact term is Israeli occupation sportswashing. So what does it mean?
In 1978, the 11th FIFA World Cup was held in Argentina that was then ruled by right-wing dictator Jorge Rafael Videla who was responsible for the disappearance of about 30,000 people.
In protest, one of the biggest football stars at the time, Johan Cruyff from the Netherlands, was quoted as saying, “How can you play football a thousand meters from a torture center?"
Felix Jakens, Head of Priority Campaigns and Individuals at Risk at Amnesty International UK, defines sportswashing as “a process or moment where a country with a bad human rights record attempts to use sport as a way to create positive PR to clean up its image and deflect attention away from its human rights record.”
Attempt to erase genocides
For the Israeli occupation, sports has always been a tool aiming to erase its genocides against humanity.
In 1968, one year after the Six-Day War, "Israel" hosted the Paralympic Games with the opening ceremony held in occupied Al-Quds, in which Israeli Security Minister Moshe Dayan presented medals for the winners.
Most recently, in 2021, "Israel" chose cycling to sportswash its crimes against Palestinians. Cycling team 'Israel' Start-Up Nation (ISN) signed famous Tours de France four-time winner Chris Froome.
According to Novara Media, "It makes sense that Israel has chosen cycling as its latest sportswashing frontier. Cycling is often described as an apolitical sport and while there have been a few antiracist interventions of late."
It is noteworthy that in 2018, Sylvan Adams, the Israeli-Canadian real-estate billionaire and co-owner of ISN spent $12 million to convince Giro d’Italia Director Maura Vegni to start the famous race in occupied Al-Quds on the so-called seventieth anniversary of the Zionist entity, which is known for the rightful owners of the land as the Nakba.
In response, "more than one hundred twenty human rights organizations, trade unions, ethical tourism associations, and sports and faith-based groups from over 20 countries issued an international call urging premier cycling event Giro d’Italia to move its 2018 'Big Start' from 'Israel' due to its grave and escalating violations of international law and Palestinians’ human rights," the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions mentioned.
In June 2021, one month after the latest Israeli war on Gaza, which witnessed the martyrdom of more than 250 Gazans, Adams hailed his team as entering philanthropy.
Adams, a self-proclaimed Israeli ambassador, says he is “devoting this chapter of life to promoting Israel.”
In July, 200 Palestinian Teams urged Spanish and Italian football clubs Atlético Madrid and Inter Milan respectively to cancel their "friendly" scheduled to take place on the 8th of August in occupied Palestine.
Putting a hand on the football world
"Israel" is not the only side sportswashing its violations against human rights. In fact, Saudi Arabia is currently finalizing preparations for a deal to acquire Italian football giant Inter Milan. The Kingdom's Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is essentially the financial arm of Saudi Arabia's autocratic Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's dictatorship, has been given the okay to acquire the football team, thereby increasing Saudi investments in the sports world.
The Chinese owners of the club, Suning Holdings, are currently bleeding money and have thus begun to search for investors to recoup their losses. It's been recently announced that Saudi Arabia will be the party to acquire the club and that the deal will be completed by next week.
The Saudi acquisition of Inter Milan marks the second acquisition by the PIF after the UK Premier League's Newcastle United in October 2021.
Inter Milan, under its current management, was losing close to $15 million per month, forcing it to sell two of its best players, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, which allowed the Suning group to recoup $150 million.
Critics of the move, however, say that these acquisitions are intended to shift attention away from the Kingdom's human rights abuses, which have been dubbed as sportswashing. Amnesty International, in response to such moves, had called on the Premier League to make changes to its owners' and directors' test by adding a section that addresses "human rights issues."
The Newcastle takeover was also condemned by slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi's fiancée, who said the £300 million ($408 million) takeover deal was "heartbreaking" and disappointing for her and that it was “a real shame for Newcastle and for English football” that the club was now “owned by the person responsible for the murder of Jamal” in reference to Saudi Arabia's crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman.
Funneling billions of dollars
A report by the Human Rights Watch contends that Saudi Arabia is funneling billions of dollars into entertainment and events aimed at whitewashing its human rights abuses, from torture reports to murdering journalists, to executing opposers.
Another report by human rights group Grant Liberty revealed that the Saudi regime has spent at least $1.5 billion on international sporting events.
Most recently, the Kingdom has been using the Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and its corresponding entertainment performances by renowned artists like Justin Bieber and A$AP Rocky to polish its image in the international arena, diverting its controversial reputation to a more moderate one as planned by Mohammad bin Salman himself.
“The Saudi government is going all out to bury its egregious human rights abuses beneath public spectacles and sporting events,” said Michael Page, Deputy Middle East Director at HRW.
“Unless they express concerns over Saudi Arabia’s serious abuses, Formula One and participating performers risk bolstering the Saudi government’s well-funded efforts to whitewash its image despite a significant increase in repression over the last few years.”
In a statement, Amnesty warned that "if the authorities want to be seen differently, they should immediately and unconditionally release all those who have been jailed for peacefully expressing their views, lift travel bans and impose a moratorium on the death penalty."
Hamilton "not comfortable"
World champion Lewis Hamilton had admitted before he is "not comfortable" racing in Saudi Arabia.
"Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn't say I do," British driver Hamilton told a news conference in Jeddah where the penultimate race of the 2021 Formula One season took place on December 5.
"But this was not my choice. Our sport has chosen to be here and whether it's fair or not, I think that while we're here it's still important to do some work on raising awareness."
Hamilton has been a fierce defender of human rights issues in recent years, taking a knee on the grid in support of Black Lives Matter.
"A lot of change needs to take place and our sport needs to do more," added seven-time champion, Hamilton.
According to Human Rights Watch, "Under the government effectively headed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has experienced the worst period of repression in its modern history."
In addition to the Saudi aggression on Yemen, Amnesty International, along with other international human rights groups, reported that the Saudi regime harassed, detained, prosecuted, and incarcerated opposers, human and women's rights activists, journalists, and critics for denouncing the government.
Report: More than 6,500 migrant workers died in Qatar
The Qatari regime has also had its share in sportswashing its violation of human rights.
The Guardian newspaper published a report that since Qatar won the privilege of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, more than 6,500 migrant workers died, 37 of which died while working in football stadium construction.
Qatar has vehemently rejected any criticism, insisting that it has reformed its labor laws and introduced a minimum wage.
Amnesty International urged Qatar to halt abuses against migrant workers, many of whom are involved in the construction of the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure.
In a humane initiative, Norwegian football club Tromso IL presented what it called "the world's first football jersey with a QR code" aimed at defending human rights in Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
The jersey, developed in collaboration with Amnesty International, features a QR code that, when scanned, takes users to a website with information about human rights and sportswashing.
Tromsø IL was the first professional club worldwide to speak out against the inhumane conditions in the country. The club is now making a new push - this time in collaboration with Amnesty International and Malcolm Bidali.— TIL (@TromsoIL) December 6, 2021
For more 👉 https://t.co/Vv0NPRGwSJ pic.twitter.com/xCdDQeB47f
"By doing this, we hope to spark more discussions, more debate. We want to see more action," said Tom Hogli, a former player now in charge of public relations at Tromso IL as he presented the jersey.
Tromso said it was the first professional club to seek a boycott of the World Cup in Qatar to protest against conditions for migrant workers in the Emirate.
It seems for political regimes that investing in international sports events that attract the attention of billions around the world is a good opportunity to wash their crimes and distract people from human rights violations, such as occupying lands, murdering people, torturing critics, and butchering opponents. And when these human rights violations and abuses are mentioned, we cannot but think of the Israeli occupation, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.