When sport is used to hide human rights violations

By Alberto Senante (@asenante), Media Officer at Amnesty International,

Increasingly, many governments are trying to hide the atrocities committed at home by organizing competitions, sponsoring or buying teams that clean up their image abroad. We denounce this practice which attempts to camouflage human rights violations behind the values ​​and the fascination that sport provokes throughout the world.

The next Football World Cup It will be played in November to avoid the hot weather in Qatar, a country which had never qualified for this competition. More and more stadiums are changing their historic names to those of international brands. Several golf championships take place in the middle of the desert. The Spanish Football Super Cup is not played in Spain, but in Saudi Arabia. And the historic Paris Dakar rally does not leave Paris and does not reach Dakar.

French players lift the trophy after the Russia 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15, 2018. © Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Anyone who loves sports is stunned by changes like these with increasing frequency. The reason? In English they call it sportwashing, i.e. sports bleaching. It is the strategy by which some of the governments with the least respect for human rights seek to clean up their image at home, but especially outside their borders, through their association with sport. To do this, they celebrate in their country the Olympic Games, the World Cups or the most watched tournaments on the planet. They christen football stadiums, occupy advertising space on shirts, or buy teams outright, pumping in big bucks that later become big signings to the delight of their fans.

In recent years, the phenomenon has taken on an unknown dimension, but the resource is almost as old as the competitions themselves. The recurring example is the Nazi regime’s attempt to present itself as a modern and powerful country with the celebration of the 1936 Olympics. Two years earlier, it would seem that its ally Mussolini had pressured the referees for Italy to win the World Cup it was hosting, since the dictator thought it would favor him politically.

Sports and politics have always been paths that cross from time to time. In the raised fist against racism of two American athletes at the Mexico 68 Games. In the mutual Olympic boycotts between Cold War blocs. In Argentina’s –football– revenge against England after the Falklands War. Terrible events, like a fight in 1990 during a football match that heralded the Balkan war. And hopeful examples, like the South African rugby team that became an unlikely ally of Nelson Mandela to mend the scars left by aside. Or the recent boost that many sports stars in the United States have given to the movement Black Lives Matter.

Works at Lusail Stadium in Qatar, which will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup

A worker stands near the construction site of Losail Stadium, the venue for 2022 FIFA World Cup matches. © Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

Also, without going that far, there have always been businessmen and politicians of dubious reputation who have approached the most popular sports only to improve their image, expand their connections or their influence. But what we are seeing right now is a real game of chess between some of the most ruthless governments in the world which are more accepted by the international community, in part thanks to this new exercise in soft diplomacy. At the same time, When a large part of society hears the names of these countries, they think more of medals, goals, tennis matches and circuits than of the death penalty, imprisoned activists or discriminated against women.

In fact, it is logical, and it must be admitted that even smart, that the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates or Equatorial Guinea seek to improve their external image with something that arouses interest and sympathy in other countries. . But as veteran Middle East correspondent Ángeles Espinosa answered a question about Saudi Arabia’s Super Cup celebration: “it’s about us […] we are the ones looking for businesses there and turning a blind eye to the local reality”. And it is that In sports bleaching, the cleaning sponge ends up as dirty as the stain it is trying to hide.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia, main representatives of a “global bleaching”

Although this is a worldwide practice, it is true that thanks to the large profits from the sale of gas and oil, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the best examples of countries that have a clear and sustained sports washing strategy to clean up their image. But, as seen in the following list, They are not the only ones.

Migrant workers take a break for a meal in the Sports City area of ​​Doha, Qatar, June 18, 2011. © Sam Tarling/Corbis via Getty Images


  • The next World Cup will be played at the end of 2022 in this country without any tradition in this sport, but more than willing to spend a lot of money to present itself as a modern and open nation.
  • From 2010, more than 6,500 migrant workers could have lost their lives in the various constructions, according to The Guardian newspaper. Since 2004, the motorcycle Grand Prix has been held on the Losail circuit as part of the world calendar for this discipline.
  • And since last year, a Formula 1 test has also taken place.

Saudi Arabia

  • In 2019, he hosted a tournament outside of the ATP Tour with several of tennis’ top players offering $3 million in prize money.
  • From 2021 the Jeddah Circuit welcomes a Formula 1 Grand Prix score for the world championship.
  • Three editions of the prestigious Dakar Rally in this country.


  • In just 14 years, Beijing has hosted the Summer (2008) and Winter (2022) Olympics. If in the first the Chinese authorities promised that the celebration would mean advances in human rights, on this occasion the organizers directly warned that the participants in the competitions would be punished “if their behavior is against Chinese laws.
  • Moreover, the Shanghai Masters It has become one of the main events of the current tennis circuit with the celebration of an ATP Masters 1000 since 2009.

For the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China pledged to respect human rights.  did not respect

At Amnesty Canada’s 2008 General Assembly, members of the organization marched in yellow bibs to demand that China fulfill its promise to improve human rights in the country as part of its Olympic bid. © AI Canada


  • Since 2020 the Israel Start-up Nation participate in the main circuits of the international scene, such as the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España or the Giro d’Italia. Although it is the private initiative of a millionaire, its stated purpose is “Let the world know this is a safe and free country.”


  • The Russian government has also been committed in recent years to organizing major sporting events such as the last Football World Cupor the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

United Arab Emirates

  • the United Arab Emirates team It has been one of the main teams on the world cycling scene for years, but it was in the last two editions of the Tour de France that it reached the top with the victories of its rider Tadej Pogačar.
  • The company Fly Emirates It is the advertisement of some of the most important football teams in Europe as well as rugby teams or the US Open tennis tournament.

Cameroon, Egypt and Equatorial Guinea

  • These three countries have been recent hosts of the African Cup of Nations, the continent’s most watched sporting event.


  • Created by the government through various public companies, the Astanathe former name of the Kazakh capital, has been one of the main teams in the great cycling tours since 2007, in which figures such as Contador, Armstrong or Nibali have ridden.


  • The country of Rio de Janeiro hosted the World Cup in 2014 and the city of Rio de Janeiro the Olympic Games two years later as a sign of the take-off of this country. However, during both appointments, security concerns escalated, evictions took place and protests against both events were violently suppressed.

Map of a global wash

IOC, FIFA, football clubs: the “sports washing sponges”

As we have said, for this whitewashing to take place, countries that want to hide their human rights record are so necessary, as are international sports organizations (read International Olympic Committee, FIFA, organizers of Formula 1, etc.), and the big teams ready to become its “sponge” to clean up its image. These are some of the main whiteners, but there are certainly many more.


  • The Spanish Football Federation has hosted the Saudi Arabian Super Cup twice, a deal that is set to last until 2029 in exchange for almost 30 million euros for each celebration. For several years, the airline Emirates has been one of the main sponsors of Real Madrid, while the Barcelona Football Club has been sponsored by the Qatar Foundation and Qatar Airways.

A Saudi fund has acquired Premier League side Newcastle.

Exterior view of the stadium before the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Wolverhampton Wanderers at St. James Park on February 27, 2021 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. © Jack Thomas – WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images


  • Manchester City has been in the hands of a sheikh from the United Arab Emirates since 2008, while fellow Premier League side Newcastle were recently taken over by a Saudi fund. For its part, Arsenal, another of the greats of the English championship, has been playing for years at the Emirates Stadium.


  • Since 2012, the State of Qatar has controlled 100% of Paris Saint Germain via an investment fund. The Parisian team has brought together many of the best players in the world in recent years thanks to the significant investment of the Qatari group.

New Zealand

  • Emirates Fly is the main sponsor of the New Zealand boat which has won the last two editions of the America’s Cup, the so-called Formula 1 of sailing.


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