How countries use sport to improve their image: 1A: NPR

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People gather in the traditional Souq Waqif market in the capital Doha as the official logo of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is projected onto the front of a building.

-/AFP via Getty Images


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-/AFP via Getty Images


People gather in the traditional Souq Waqif market in the capital Doha as the official logo of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is projected onto the front of a building.

-/AFP via Getty Images

The Winter Olympics in China. The World Cup in Qatar. WWE’s Elimination Chamber event in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

2022 is shaping up to be a big year for international sporting events. But why are authoritarian and oppressive governments around the world so eager to welcome the international community? The answer was given a name in 2015: sportswashing.

Sportswashing is the practice of whitewashing one’s reputation through sport; whether through team ownership, hosting a major tournament, or sponsorship. A country or politician gets involved in the hope that some of the sport’s popularity will improve its image.

As the most popular sport in the world, football is an effective vehicle for sports washing. Saudi Arabia recently bought English Premier League side Newcastle United. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich was trying to sell London’s Chelsea FC before the British government sanctioned it.

Mixed martial artists have also been used by authoritarian rulers to improve their image. Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov has invited many fighters, many former UFC champions, come and train him and his family members.

Sports washing is not a new problem. In fact, it’s one of the oldest tricks in an autocrat’s international relations book. Students of European history probably remember Adolf Hitler’s reasons for hosting the 1936 Olympics.

We discuss why sportswashing is effective and what the international community can do to combat it.

Karim Zidan and Andrea Florence join us for the conversation.

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