From the Olympics to FIFA, athletes grow wary of ‘sportswashing’

Willy Kurniawan/Reuters
Activists take part in a protest against China's treatment of the ethnic Uyghur people and call for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, at a park in Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 4, 2022.

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The Beijing Winter Olympics are just three weeks away, but the focus is not on skiing or snowboarding. It has been on sportswashing.

That’s the term human rights activists use to describe the mutual embrace between international sport and authoritarian states such as China. Events such as the Olympics, they say, sweeten the image of a regime that has stamped out democracy in Hong Kong, condemned Muslim Uyghurs to “reeducation” camps, and clamped down on any sign of citizen dissent.

Why We Wrote This

Winter Olympics in Beijing and the soccer World Cup in Qatar will burnish the international image of human rights violators. Athletes are braving their wrath to speak out.

The ruling bodies in sport, such as soccer’s FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, are reluctant to raise their voices, but athletes themselves are beginning to speak up.

A U.S. skater, Timothy LeDuc, talked last week about what he called “horrifying human rights abuses” in China; English soccer players will get a briefing from Amnesty International before deciding whether to stage protests at November’s World Cup in Qatar, a notorious human rights offender; and Formula One star Lewis Hamilton said last month he did not “feel comfortable” racing in Saudi Arabia, where same-sex relationships are banned. He wore a rainbow-decorated helmet during his race.

These are baby steps, perhaps, but they are more than international sports bureaucrats have managed.

The 24th Winter Olympics are only three weeks away, but the focus is not on skiing or snowboarding. It’s been on sportswashing.

That’s the term human rights advocates use to criticize the mutual embrace uniting international sport and authoritarian states such as next month’s Olympics host, China.

They argue that the Games, with their cuddly panda logo, will sweeten the image of a government that has snuffed out democracy in Hong Kong, condemned Muslim Uyghurs to “reeducation” camps, and tightened control over its citizens.

Why We Wrote This

Winter Olympics in Beijing and the soccer World Cup in Qatar will burnish the international image of human rights violators. Athletes are braving their wrath to speak out.

None of that is going to prevent the Games from going ahead. But the wider issue shows no signs of going away: whether international sporting organizations are allowing human rights violators to “refashion their images as glamorous sporting hosts,” in the words of a recent report by Human Rights Watch.

In fact, it’s likely to resurface again when the Gulf state of Qatar hosts soccer’s World Cup in November.

And while the organizing bodies, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, seem reluctant to raise their voices, there are signs the pressure may be mounting. It’s coming not just from human rights watchdogs, but from a new and potentially more persuasive source: athletes themselves.

Where the Olympics are concerned, the athletes have been largely quiet, perhaps focusing fiercely on being selected to compete, though U.S. pairs figure skater Timothy LeDuc spoke up last week about what he called “horrifying human rights abuses” in China against the Uyghurs.

The official line of the IOC, echoed by Beijing, has never wavered: China’s politics are none of our business. And more generally: politics and sports don’t mix.

Politics always at play

But politics have always been part of the Olympics. Even in democracies, the Games have been a conscious display of national self-confidence and pride. In the hands of autocrats, they’ve offered something else: a showcase for the autocrats-in-chief. The prime example was the 1936 Berlin Games, with crowds raising “Heil Hitler” salutes to the Nazi führer.

Protests aren’t new either. The most widely backed was in 1980, following U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s move to keep American and other athletes away from the Moscow Summer Games after Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Several dozen countries joined the boycott, among them, China.

This year, U.S. President Joe Biden and a handful of allies have stopped short of such a boycott, opting instead for a “diplomatic boycott,” meaning that leaders will not grace the opening ceremony.

In recent years, the IOC has sought to justify awarding the Games to nondemocratic states such as China and Russia as a means of encouraging reform.

Michael Sohn/AP
Protesters against the Winter Olympics in Beijing next month gather in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Jan. 4, 2022. They urged German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to diplomatically boycott the Games over the Chinese government's repression of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Hong Kong.

Still, there are growing signs that sportswashing may be getting more difficult.

Partly, that’s because of the high-profile debate over Beijing 2022. Opponents have pointed out that the Beijing Summer Games in 2008 led to no political reform at all, and indeed have been followed by more repression.

But it was another Chinese controversy, tennis star Peng Shuai’s accusation that a top politician sexually assaulted her, that has done most to focus attention on the marriage between international sport and autocracies.

With Ms. Peng’s bombshell social media message deleted, and her name effectively expunged from China’s internet, the IOC hastened to limit potential damage ahead of the Winter Games. Its officials held a video call with her and, like China’s state media, reported that she was safe, and just wanted “privacy.”

But that didn’t work. As both male and female tennis stars took to Twitter in solidarity, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) did something extraordinary.

Like other international sports bodies, it’s been making a huge, and lucrative, bid to expand into China. But at the potential cost of tens of millions of dollars, the WTA announced it was scrapping its tournaments there until it could speak directly to Ms. Peng, satisfy itself that she was indeed fine, and secure an independent investigation into her allegations. That has not happened.

The WTA may be an outlier. It was founded by American tennis star Billie Jean King and has a history of activism on a range of political issues.

But its message resonated widely: that sports bodies should ­– and could – take a stand.

A growing trend

The trend toward athletes’ political involvement is also growing in other sports, among them soccer, with implications for the World Cup.

Since being awarded this year’s competition, Qatar has come under scrutiny on a range of human rights issues, especially its treatment of its nearly 2 million migrant workers who are key to building the Cup venues.

The Qatari authorities have introduced new legal safeguards, but rights watchdogs have said the new rules aren’t being fully enforced. Numerous injuries and deaths have occurred on the worksites.

Now, as the World Cup approaches, there are signs of assertiveness among the players themselves. In England, the Football Association has approached Amnesty International about making a presentation on Qatar to the national squad before the players decide whether to protest the country’s human rights record.

Other teams have already begun taking a stand. The national teams of Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway held on-field protests at the start of qualifying matches about the poor treatment of migrant workers. Denmark, after it qualified, announced an agreement with its corporate sponsors to replace the logos on players’ shirts with human rights messages in support of migrant workers.

And in another arena, Formula One racing ace Lewis Hamilton said before last month’s Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia that he did not “feel comfortable” racing in a country where same-sex relationships are illegal. He wore a rainbow-decorated helmet in support of LGBTQ rights.

These are baby steps, to be sure. But they are more than international sports bureaucrats have managed.

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