• With the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing and the World Cup in Qatar, the concept of sportswashing is gaining steam in the media, as critics allege that oppressive governments use sports as a PR tool to legitimise their regimes and distract the public from their human rights abuses.
  • Tracing how the sportswashing concept has been evolving in the media in recent years, we found that soccer teams like Newcastle, Manchester City and Arsenal were under the radar, as well as other sports organisations like Formula One and NBA.
  • However, we also found that the ongoing debate around the Olympics poses unprecedented reputational dangers to corporate sponsors – while embracing social responsibility as a core comms priority, they’re being criticised for not speaking up on China’s human rights abuses.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis.

According to some pundits, 2022, which launches into the Olympic Games in Beijing and ends with the World Cup in Qatar, is set to be a great year for authoritarian regimes looking to cover up their atrocious human rights records. Journalists fear that as state-run political projects and soft power propaganda outfits take centre stage over the coming year, 2022 is shaping up to be one of the most politically charged sporting years in recent memory.

Using prestigious sports events to polish your public image is known as “sportswashing“, a term popularised by Amnesty International in 2018 to describe the use of sports by oppressive governments to legitimise their regimes. Traditional examples include the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin under the Nazi regime, which Hitler hosted in an attempt to showcase German and Aryan superiority.

Analysts warn that one of the big objectives of sportswashing is to extend soft power while also softening a state’s image, the entertainment of the games creating a subliminal link with a benign image of the hosting state. This is explicitly what warrants challenging, especially on a night that involves so much history and emotion, to the point it is almost impossible to think of anything else.

And while sportswashing has long been a popular tactic, 2022 is a particularly concerning year because both the Olympic Games and the World Cup – the two most-watched sporting events in the world – are being hosted in countries with markedly oppressive regimes.

A concept gaining traction

Sportswashing is still an emerging concept and isn’t used in the mass media that often – it’s not as popular as, say, greenwashing or pinkwashing. However, our analysis of 2,853 English-language articles published in top tier outlets between January 2019 – January 2022 showed that the term is gaining traction:

In 2019, “sportswashing” was most often used by journalists in reports on the heavyweight professional boxing rematch between the Mexican-American champion Andy Ruiz Jr. and British former champion Anthony Joshua, which took place in Saudi Arabia.

A number of journalists suggested that the kingdom’s government-backed General Sports Authority uses the boxing match as a push to portray a new image of modernisation and to boost tourism, as the Sunni kingdom undergoes fairly radical social change under its upstart crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Anthony Joshua also faced scrutiny over whether he is being used by the Saudis in a bid to sportswash their reputation.

In 2020, Saudi Arabia was again in the spotlight, as its plans to stage a Formula One grand prix were said to serve only to further the gulf state’s process of sportswashing and help legitimise the country’s repressive regime. Proposals for a new Qiddiya circuit outside the capital Riyadh were unveiled in recent weeks and the track could be ready to host a race in 2023.

Saudi Arabia was also the reason for a peak in Google searches for the term “sportswashing”:

The peak was in the week between 3 – 9 October 2021, when Amnesty International condemned the Premier League’s owners and directors as a Saudi-led consortium closed in on a deal to buy struggling Newcastle United Football Club. The human rights group has lobbied English football chiefs for more than a year to reject a proposed takeover, warning it is part of the country’s efforts to sportswash its human rights record.

Saudi Arabia’s association with sport has become an integral part of its efforts to rebrand. The kingdom has also hired the Boston Consulting Group to help lobby its interest in hosting a World Cup event in the not-so-distant future. But taking a majority stake in Newcastle was seen as the kingdom’s boldest move yet, placing it firmly on the world’s sporting stage, and squarely in the crosshairs of its critics.

However, Saudi Arabia was the second most often mentioned country in the sportswashing debate, as the 2022 Olympics put the spotlight on China:

Among other issues, China’s government has been criticised for its inhumane internment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, its attempts to seize political control over Hong Kong and neighbouring Taiwan, and the disappearance (and questionable reappearance) of tennis star Peng Shuai after accusing a Chinese official of sexual assault.

Several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have announced that they will not send any government representatives to the Games due to concerns over China’s human rights record. However, as these nations will still send their athletes, commentators noted that the diplomatic boycotts are little more than performative theatre.

Other countries such as France (host of the 2024 Summer Games) and Italy will not join the boycott, while Russia’s President Vladimir Putin condemned the boycott as a “mistake”. China has since threatened that the countries who have announced diplomatic boycotts will “pay the price for their mistaken acts.”

Following the Olympic Games, attention will shift towards the World Cup in Qatar, which is set to begin in November. The nation has a significant record of human rights violations – for example, a Guardian investigation from February 2021 revealed more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since 2010. The shocking death toll, compiled from government sources, is most likely an underestimate and does not include data from other countries that send a significant number of workers to Qatar, including Kenya and the Philippines.

Some noted that for Qatar, the World Cup is a project designed to diversify the nation’s economy, reduce its reliance on oil and earn itself influence among western nations. But for critics, it’s sportswashing – a process of subtly laundering Qatar’s reputation and covering up extensive human rights abuses, including workers’, women’s and LGBTQ rights.

Human rights NGOs set the tone

Our analysis found that the organisation which coined the term “sportswashing” – Amnesty International – continues to dominate the discussion:

Most recently, Amnesty International was in the news for warning that the international community must not allow China to use the Winter Olympics in Beijing as a “sportswashing opportunity” and must avoid being “complicit in a propaganda exercise”. The organisation feared that China will use the Games to distract from alleged human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims and in Hong Kong, arguing that the situation in the country is worse now than when it hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch launched a video series with Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao, protesting censorship of athletes at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. The non-governmental organisation published one of these videos, challenging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to speak up about human rights issues in China.

Aside from the Olympics, there was also a fair share of soccer teams at the centre of the media debate. Newcastle was the most influential one, as Amnesty International urged the Premier League to consider Saudi Arabia’s “appalling” human rights record before it gives the green light to the Saudi-led consortium’s takeover.

Amnesty International also accused Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi owners of brazenly trying to sportswash their country’s “deeply tarnished image” by pouring money into the Premier League club. The human rights group’s intervention is likely to increase the pressure on football’s governing bodies to investigate a series of incendiary allegations against the club, including a deal for sports rights involving a shell company controlled by a major donor to the Tory party via a series of companies and trusts operating in tax havens.

The original allegations were made by Der Spiegel based on information obtained from the whistleblowing platform Football Leaks. According to the German magazine, City have spent much of the past decade trying to get around European football’s financial fair play rules with inflated sponsorship deals, an elaborate image rights scheme and hidden contracts. The rules are supposed to help level the playing field and stop rich clubs buying success.

Arsenal also faced criticism as one of its major sponsors is the Rwandan government and the logo of ‘visit Rwanda’ appears on their shirts and in the background during interviews. According to Human Rights Watch, political opponents of the Rwandan government are often tortured, killed or simply disappear.

Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain were discussed because of their relationship with the Qatari state. For example, critics suggested that as it’s bankrolled by one of the richest nations in the world for the past decade, PSG‘s transfer activities have altered the playing field in European football beyond recognition, as deals for the likes of Neymar (€222m from Barcelona in 2017) and Kylian Mbappé (€145m from Monaco in 2018) have sent inflationary waves across the transfer market.

There were other concerning sportswashing affiliations, including the Ultimate Fighting Championships’ troubling links to Chechnya’s dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, the NBA’s blossoming relationship with Rwandan autocrat Paul Kagame, and the NFL’s newly announced five-year partnership with China (which included a map that pushed the false narrative that Taiwan, an independent country, was a part of China). For many media outlets, each of these examples highlighted the growing trend of authoritarian countries using prominent and established sports entities as platforms for propaganda and sportswashing campaigns.

Reputational challenges for companies

In addition to the countries and sports clubs implicated in the sportswashing debate, there’s another interesting issue: several of the West’s largest corporations are now sponsoring the Olympics in a country whose government the U.S., Canada and several European countries say is engaged in genocide. The sponsors include active proponents of political rights at home and model corporate citizens, according to ESG rating agencies.

For the Olympic sponsors themselves—including many household names like Coca-Cola, Visa, Procter & Gamble and Airbnb —the reputational pitfalls are particularly large, with the Games becoming an acid test for credibility on corporate social responsibility.

Some media outlets have asked questions like: can Coca-Cola be a credible advocate for progressive political causes in the U.S.—as it has made a point of being with voting rights in Georgia—and also be a sponsor of the Beijing Olympics? How can Procter & Gamble be a sponsor, when it has made a point of highlighting gender equality issues in its advertising and said that its “goal is to use every opportunity we have—no matter how small—to set change in motion”?

Companies have entire units and troops of outside public relations helpers to whistle past the graveyard until a big occasion like the Olympics fades into the rearview mirror. Or they might not be so fortunate: Beijing has threatened retribution against athletes who make political comments during the games. Should one choose to do so anyway—particularly an American—and be subjected to rough treatment, U.S. corporate sponsors might quickly find themselves in a supremely awkward position.

Furthermore, those companies’ credibility as arbiters of social and environmental responsibility could face a test. Visa and Procter & Gamble, for example, are both included in the FTSE4Good and the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, which tap companies based on ESG scores from providers such as S&P Global and Sustainalytics. Now analysts are asking: will future scores be materially affected by the decision to act as sponsors for the Beijing Games?

The most influential company in our media sample was Coca-Cola, which has been an Olympics supporter for nearly a century and counts China as its third-largest market after the U.S. and Mexico. The company was criticised in many media outlets for refusing to specifically condemn the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority group and others, while it has supported the Black Lives Matter movement and attacked Republican-led Georgia’s election laws and anti-abortion proposals.

Similarly, media reports also noted that Airbnb donated to Black Lives Matter, provided housing to Afghan refugees, and boasted top marks on a corporate equality index as an inclusive employer. At the same time, missing from Airbnb’s website, Twitter or Instagram is any mention of the company’s official sponsorship of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Other companies tried to be more proactive with their media portrayal around the Olympics – for instance, watchmaker Omega wanted to make clear that they are sponsors of the Olympics, rather than the location of the Games. “We firstly wish to highlight that Omega is not a sponsor of Beijing 2022,” a spokesperson for the company told the BBC, adding it is the “official timekeeper and data handler of the Olympic Games”. Yet that has not stopped it from celebrating past Olympics on social media, far more so than in Beijing 2022.

Human rights voices

We also found that corporate spokespeople were particularly silent – no company representative was among the most influential individuals in the sportswashing debate.

As the US’ diplomatic boycott of the Olympics was a particularly hot topic, Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China, emerged as the most influential spokesperson:

Zhao Lijian told reporters that the U.S. is attempting to interfere with the Beijing Games “out of ideological prejudice and based on lies and rumours”. The boycott “seriously violates the principle of political neutrality of sports established by the Olympic Charter and runs counter to the Olympic motto ‘more united’.” Zhao also vowed that China would respond with “resolute countermeasures” and the United States will pay a price for its mistaken acts but offered no details.

The Olympics were also a topic for Human Rights Watch – for example, Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher with Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying that the Olympics is not just a sports event and the Chinese government is using the event to showcase the country to legitimise its policies, including the many human rights abuses: “To be part of that is to be used as a tool by the Chinese Communist Party to legitimise its abuses. Including the situation in Xinjiang. That is why the rest of the world should stay away from the Olympic Games.”

And at a press conference, Sophie Richardson, director of the China programme at Human Rights Watch, made the argument that sponsors should be able to publish “robust human rights due diligence strategies” to justify their involvement in the games. But instead, she said, “companies seem much more interested in trying desperately not to have this conversation”. Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, summed up the issues by saying that more and more bad actors on human rights are laundering their reputations with international sports events.

Anthony Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn emerged as the second most influential spokesperson, as he said that the Saudis want to show they are changing and they want a more positive image worldwide by bringing in events: “They have got to change, and they are changing. But the great news is that boxing is going to be responsible for those changes — and that shows you the power of sport.” The “sportswashing thing,” Hearn said, was “over my head.”

However, Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns, said that while they never expected Joshua to be an overnight expert, if you’re fighting for big money in a country with a human rights record as bad as Saudi Arabia, then you’d be well advised to counter criticism by speaking out about human rights issues. Jakens added that the fight with Ruiz is pure sportswashing and that’s why it’s so important to challenge the Saudi propaganda machine and its increased use of sport to gloss over its abysmal human rights record.

And Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated by agents of the Saudi government, pleaded with Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury to turn down a potentially “shameful” deal with Saudi Arabia to host their fight. Cengiz told The Telegraph that accepting a potential £100million-plus offer would present the crown prince, accused over his alleged role in her partner’s killing, with a “reward for his crimes”.

Amnesty UK chief executive, SachaDeshmukh also addressed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi when commenting on the Saudi-backed Newcastle takeover, saying the deal represented “a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football”.

British race car driver Lewis Hamilton, who currently competes in Formula One for Mercedes, earned his influence with his increasingly firm stance on social justice, sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement. Before the Bahrain Grand Prix, he made the incendiary claim that F1 has a “consistent and massive problem” with human rights abuses in the places it visits. Chase Carey, the head of F1, hit back, saying “we are very proud of our partnership here in Bahrain”, but this has done little to quell the uproar.

How can brands avoid reputational dangers with sportswashing countries?

Even if the Olympic Games pass only with media noise and without too many awkward questions being asked of the companies or their ESG raters, plenty of potential pitfalls lie ahead that could expose them as hypocrites. Sportswashing countries are an ESG problem that isn’t going away unless there is a marked change in the political environments in those countries. This means that dealing with sportswashing would soon become a comms priority for many PR teams.

Based on our analysis, here are a few tips on how brands can deal with these situations:

  • Try to address the issue rather than sweep it under the rug. As good comms practice has shown, keeping quiet about a controversial issue is never a good strategy – especially a time when every corporate action is well-documented and scrutinised. For instance, much of the Olympics-related criticism voiced in the media has focused on the fact that most of the multinational corporations that sponsor the Games have been unprecedentedly quiet in an effort to steer clear of any association with China and concerns about its human rights record. In fact, those looking to capitalise on their massive marketing investment are walking a messaging tightrope, as they’re considering not including any references to the host city in their Olympic marketing efforts, according to advertising and marketing executives. 
  • Have a clear human rights message. In a new Morning Consult survey, 58% of U.S. adults said they would support companies that pull out of the Games given the country’s human rights record, which includes imprisoning ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs. Such action, however, would infuriate the Chinese government and consumers in the country, harming the companies’ business prospects in one of the world’s most lucrative markets, and tarnishing the companies’ partnerships with the International Olympic Committee for future Games. But even without formally pulling their support of the Games, corporate sponsors would win over 55% of respondents by simply releasing a public statement recognising China’s human rights violations. 
  • Focus on promoting athletes. A sports-marketing strategy that could work well is to make sure comms efforts focus squarely on promoting athletes rather than a specific event. A few have already tried it with the Olympics – for instance, Paul Lalli, Coke’s global vice president of human rights, said that the beverage giant does “not endorse cities or countries or governments. We sponsor events and competitors.” Similarly, Steven Rodgers, Intel’s executive vice president and general counsel, said that his firm’s sponsorship of the Olympics is not an endorsement of any specific host country, nor acceptance of every activity that may occur within any specific country, and that Intel’s sponsorship of the Beijing Games does “not negate or undermine” the chip maker’s commitment or respect for human rights. However, these spokespeople didn’t manage to gain enough influence in the debate, as we saw in our media analysis.
  • Create a bank of goodwill with more proactive investments in ESG initiatives. If we take a crisis management perspective, companies that directly rebut any negative claims about themselves are not only ineffective in diminishing negative associations but actually exacerbate the problem: the mere reference to the problem reminds consumers of it. However, conveying unrelated positive information about the company reduces the likelihood of a backlash and mitigates any negative brand associations. In this regard, another strategic communications effort would be building brand trust by making more proactive investments in ESG initiatives and thereby creating a halo effect – a bank of goodwill that will come in handy in a time of crisis. It’s important to add that these efforts should be consistent and not a one-time trick to weather a storm, otherwise they could be viewed as hypocritical. After all, the best crisis management is the one that doesn’t look like crisis management at all but rather as a natural continuation of the company’s overall messaging. 

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