Alfred Archer: ‘Don’t be taken in by the image of the sportswasher’

Alfred Archer: ‘Don’t be taken in by the image of the sportswasher’

Because of the World Cup in Qatar, “sportswashing” is in the spotlight. But what exactly is it? And how to deal with it? Univers posed five questions about the phenomenon to philosopher Alfred Archer.

The Dutch national team plays against Qatar. Image: ANP

What is sportswashing?

“It seems to be a new phenomenon: sportswashing fits the bill of popular contemporary phenomena such as ‘greenwashing’ and ‘wokewashing.’ Greenwashing, for example, is the practice of companies and organizations pretending to be much greener than they really are. Sportswashing is a practice in which companies, countries and organizations try to enhance their reputation by supporting, sponsoring, or organizing sports competitions and tournaments.

“Yet sportswashing is as old as the hills. Notorious are the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin where Hitler and the Nazis proudly displayed the achievements of their Third Reich to the rest of the world. In doing so, they made eager use of new mass media, such as film and radio. And even the emperors in the Roman Empire already knew that you could win over the hearts of the people with bread and games.”

Why do those in power use sports for political purposes?

“So the fact that the emirs of Qatar are now abusing the World Cup for their political agenda is nothing new in itself. With the tournament, they are trying to cover up the sad state of human rights of minorities and migrant workers in their oil state. The purpose of the sportswasher is to divert attention from abuses, minimize them or normalize them, with which they hope the public’s ‘storm of moral outrage’ will subside naturally. In the past, then, it was sometimes called ‘soft power’: a form of power exercise that was less ‘hard’ than economic or diplomatic means.

“The only question is whether the public will actually be distracted from the country’s ‘moral violations’ towards the many migrant workers who lost their lives in the construction of the stadiums. The showy attempts by both the emirs and the world football federation FIFA to ban displays of inclusiveness and tolerance, such as the much-discussed One Love bracelet, from the stadiums may be counterproductive. The Deutsche Mannschaft posed in the preliminaries during a team photo with their hands in front of their mouths, as a sign of censorship by FIFA. The media attention that gesture generated only further emphasized the abuses in the organizing country.

“Yet sportswashing can be incredibly effective. And that’s because of the strong emotional bond fans feel with their sports hero, club or team. That’s why football clubs are so popular with the wealthy. By acquiring a club, you can gather a large fan base around yourself or your brand.

“For example, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought the ailing Chelsea at the turn of the millennium. And he brought the London club back to the top of international club football. And although the Russian Abramovich had to part with ‘his’ Chelsea at the beginning of his country’s war against Ukraine, the fans still idolize him. They even kept chanting his name loudly during a minute’s silence for Ukraine in early 2022.”

Who decides what is morally good or bad?

“In the case of the human rights violations in Qatar, it is quite clear. The situation of migrant workers has been dire for years, and there is no question that the deaths that occurred during the construction of the stadiums are totally unacceptable. And many countries have committed to respecting the rights of individuals and minorities because they have signed treaties.

“But of course it is far too easy to just point to desert states hosting football tournaments. Western countries also fail on human rights issues. Although no one would consider bringing up the recent strict abortion policy in several American states at the same time a sports tournament is organized in the United States. That does feel a bit ambiguous.”

What are the consequences of sportswashing?

“Sports games are wonderful. They are special events that can thrill people emotionally, and sports can fraternize people. In addition, they represent a form of cultural heritage that is deeply rooted in society. We should continue to cherish that. The danger of sportswashing is that it corrupts that emotional bond and that cultural heritage. In doing so, sportswashers make you, the viewer, complicit. And not just you, broadcasters and newspapers, journalists, players on the field, and coaches are implicated in a battle for image.”

What can you do about it?

“For a boycott of the tournament, it is already much too late. For that we as a collective should have done something at a much earlier stage. Not watching it, therefore, no longer makes sense, I am watching it myself. What you can do yourself is not being taken in by the image of the sportswasher, try not to get lulled by the fine words and images, keep the discussion going. And on subsequent occasions, we should try to collectively make a fist against the portrayal of the sportswasher.”

Alfred Archer

Alfred Archer is associate professor at the Tilburg Center for Logic, Ethics and Philosophy of Science. He specializes in moral philosophy and has given several lectures on the concept of sportswashing.

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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