Competitive sports are built on the concept of fair play, which helps explain why many oppressive regimes see value in games. Any form of good, healthy fun can seem like it’s offered by good, healthy people, even when the facts say otherwise.
China, with its appalling human rights record and opposition to an independent Taiwan, hosted the last Winter Olympics with a peaceful strategic slogan Together for a common future. One of the stars in those games was Elaine Jo, a California-born skater who chose to compete for her mother’s homeland in China, tacitly embracing the government of China rather than the United States, whether that was her intention or not. Gu declined to say whether she gave up her US citizenship to get a Chinese passport, as required by Chinese law, but she was flanked by “the ability of sports to bridge the gap and be a force for unity.”
That was music to the ears of the Chinese government – and to the ears of the Saudi government, too. Saudi Arabia has long tried to lure golf stars to events there with big financial guarantees, using players and athletes to project a benign image of the country. And they worked: Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson recently praised their efforts to support women’s golf, completely ignoring the fact that until last summer, women needed permission from a male guardian to live on their own.
The Saudis are, in the words of Phil Mickelson, “a scary mother-to-be”, yet he’s involved anyway. Mickelson led the Saudi-funded effort to create a world class golf tour for the game’s elite – a much larger effort to cleanse the country’s image.
Even more worrying, Mickelson knows exactly why and how to use it.
“Sport”, Mickelson called it in an interview with writer Alan Shipbuck The Firepit . Complex For an upcoming Shipnuck book, Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) The Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Star.
Sportswashing is the use of sport to present a sterile, friendly version of a political system or process. Mickelson later apologized for using words that did not reflect his “true feelings”, but this apology was just another form of mathematical washing; He must think that the people financing the new round are scary whistles, because they are. They are also determined to succeed: they have just announced a 2022 schedule that includes four events in the US
the term sports wash It is relatively new, but the practice is almost as old as the sport. It goes all the way back to the original Olympics, says Paul Christison, professor of ancient Greek history at Dartmouth.
Christensen tells this story: “There is a long war between Athens and Sparta. It seems that Athena is giving her ass to her. They are getting rid of their droppings. And everyone thinks they are in bad shape. And so the Athenian politician named Alcibiades came to the Olympics in 416. [B.C.E.], right in the middle of the war, when things went wrong for Athens. Several chariot teams entered the four-horse chariot race and won first, second, third or fourth places. And that’s like a Formula One racing team – it was very expensive.
And they all said to him at home, You’re crazy. We don’t have these kinds of resources. And he’s like, ‘Listen.’ Everyone thought we were frustrated and out. I won all these events in Olympia, and now everyone in the Greek world thinks we’re fine. They are terrified of us. It was a straightforward geopolitical maneuver.”
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Modern sports washing can take many forms. Qatar wants the world to see it as the host of the 2022 men’s World Cup, not a country where migrant workers are exploited. (Including competition: thousands of workers have died over the past decade building infrastructure for the World Cup.) Former Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong once banned golf, calling it a “sport of millionaires,” but the game has since become Both legal and popular in China, which led to publicity that golf was actually invented there. If you were to listen to the party, you would think that everything that happens in China began in China and belongs to China.
If you thought that kind of ridiculous nationalist tale would never fly in the US, I have two words for you: Abner Doubleday. Millions of American children have grown up believing that Doubleday invented baseball – a legend created a century ago to distance the national pastime from its foreign predecessors, cricket and the ball.
Albert C. insisted. Spalding, one of the early powerbrokers in the game, in his 1911 book America’s National Game.
There’s a hint of sports washing every time a US president throws a first pitch or a college president talks about soccer as the “front porch” of the university. Sport appears to be not political, which is exactly why it is used so often for political purposes. Drama tempts us, our passions distract us, and so we swallow whatever government officials feed us without even realizing it.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, the International Olympic Committee and FIFA moved to ban both Russia and its ally Belarus from competing. This may not seem like a big punishment for Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, but don’t think of it as a punishment. Think of it as disarming. President Vladimir Putin has long used sport to shape Russia’s image as strong and reasonable.
Shortly after giving a famous anti-Western speech in Munich in 2007, Putin successfully lobbied the IOC to grant Sochi the 14th Winter Olympics, a punch that made Russia look like (and its leader’s views) belong on the world stage. Russia continued to use sport to appear strong (setting up a state-sponsored doping program to increase the country’s medal count) and friendly (Putin opened the men’s 18 World Cup by welcoming spectators and journalists for an “open, hospitable and friendly Russia”). This year, he attended the opening ceremony of the 22nd Winter Olympics, appeared to be asleep as the Ukrainian delegation entered the stadium, and then invaded Ukraine shortly after the games ended.
The modern Olympics, like the ancient Olympics, have often been a political tool. When Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics, it saw the event as an impassioned gathering of the Aryan race. The motto of the games was “I invite the youth of the world!” Adolf Hitler built the Olympics in Berlin, which is supposed to seat 100,000 people, and the Nazis paid propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl to produce a documentary about the Olympics. The Nazis also removed banners preventing Jews from entering public places, in an attempt to make themselves visible. . . Good, open, hospitable and friendly.
“People take sports very seriously,” Christison says. And once people do that, you can take advantage of it for geopolitical purposes. My students say, “Everyone is very pessimistic [for it to work now]. Of course it works. It always works. In some ways, it works better now, because you’re bombarded all the time so you can’t escape it.”
The PR tactic that has been successful for over 2,000 years probably isn’t going away any time soon. But sports fans and journalists can at least call sports wash what it is, and athletes should show some self-respect when tyrants call them. There are plenty of ways to host games without being a part of such sloppiness.
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