EXPLAINED: What is sportswashing and how does it affect motor racing?

Countries with poor human rights records have been holding motor racing events to airbrush negative coverage and improve the reputation of their country worldwide for the past 20 years. In this explainer, Umar Hassan explains what sportswashing is and why it’s an issue for motor racing.

Photo by Dennis Schmidt on Unsplash

As the 2021 Formula One season continues, one of the new additions to the calendar is the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, which will take place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia signed a ten-year deal with F1 to host the Grand Prix in the kingdom, which is reported to be worth $65 million (£50 million in GBP) in 2020.

The inclusion of Saudi Arabia to the Formula One calendar has been criticised by Amnesty International as an example of the kingdom engaging in ‘sportswashing’.

Organisers for global motor racing championships often have to balance money with the ethical issues of holding an event in a country that may have a repressive or authoritarian government in place.

Photo by Ariel Pilotto on Unsplash

Over the past several years, sportswashing has emerged in countries which have repressive governments, but what does the term mean?

Sportswashing is when countries or states use sports clubs or events to airbrush past human rights abuses and improve the image of their country by hosting a global sporting event such as the Olympic Games or a big world title boxing fight.

For many decades, sport has been used as a political tool. The 1934 FIFA World Cup in Mussolini’s Italy and the 1936 Olympic Games in Hitler’s Germany being two examples of countries who used sporting events to sportswash human rights abuses that were being committed by their respective governments.

Photo by Abed Ismail on Unsplash

Countries with repressive or authoritarian governments who host a motor racing event may use the race or rally to showcase themselves to the world.

While the image of that motor racing event may show the country in a positive light, it may also be used to cover up serious human rights abuses, presenting both ethical and moral issues for the organisers of global championship series.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country who has used motor racing to sportswash and distract people from its poor human rights record.

There are other countries who have engaged in sportswashing when hosting motor racing events over the past several years.

Prior to the first F1 Grand Prix in Azerbaijan in 2016, the Azerbaijani Government had arrested dozens of people for politically motivated charges.

One notable arrest made by the Azerbaijani authorities was the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

Ismayilova, who was serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence after being arrested in December 2014, exposed corruption within the highest levels of government in the country in March 2012. She was released on bail from prison in May 2020.

Another notable example of sportswashing is the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix, a race that has been on the calendar since 2004.

Since hosting the Grand Prix, Bahrain has been criticised by human rights charities for past abuses being committed by the Bahraini Government.

Several human rights charities have written a letter to F1’s Chief Executive Officer Stefano Domenicali in early 2021. In the letter, the charities have asked F1 to commission an independent inquiry into the human rights implications of its presence by hosting the Grand Prix in Bahrain.

Anti-government protesters have held protests over the past 10 years, protesting against the kingdom’s staging of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

It resulted in the Grand Prix being cancelled in 2011, the same year that the pro-democracy Arab Spring protests took place at the time. The race was put back on the calendar in 2012.

Balancing a fine line between racing in new markets while considering the ethical issues of holding a race or rally in a country that has a poor human rights record can present problems for motor racing organisers who hold races for a global championship or series.

Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash

Motor racing has been grappling with the problem of sportswashing for many years, but why is it a problem in the sport?

It all comes down to money. Countries who have millions or billions in the bank can afford to host a race, pushing nations with a long history of motor racing off the calendar as they cannot afford to pay the host fee set by the race promoter.

A report from Grant Liberty had found that Saudi Arabia had spent at least $1.5 billion (£1.08 billion in GBP) to host sporting events in the Kingdom.

Motor racing made a significant contribution to Saudi Arabia’s spending towards hosting global sports events.

The kingdom spent $664 million (£477.9 million in GBP), plus additional large undisclosed investments on hosting motor racing events such as the 2017 Race of Champions, a Formula E ePrix in Diriyah and the Dakar Rally.

Most of the money spent on motor racing was on a $650 million (£558.7 million in GBP) deal with Formula One to host the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix for the next 10 years.

Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch told Jalopnik:

“Sporting bodies like Formula One and the FIA cannot ignore the fact they and fans are being used for sportswashing. It is part of a cynical strategy to distract from Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, detention and torture of human rights defenders and women’s rights activists.

Formula One has made human rights commitments, and should explain how the company’s operations will improve human rights in Saudi Arabia. Have F1 staff used their negotiations with Saudi leaders to advocate for the release of women’s rights activists whose only crime was advocating for the right to drive? Fans, media and race teams should use this moment to say their sport should not be associated with such serious human rights abuses.”

Photo by Fabrizio Russo on Unsplash

Sportswashing is an issue that will not go away for the promoters and organisers of global motor racing championships such as F1, Formula E and MotoGP.

Critics say that the presence of motor racing championships holding events in countries with repressive governments paints a negative picture on the sport’s reputation for fans who follow that championship.

The fear from critics is that motor racing’s refusal to consider the ethical issues of racing in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan comes at a cost to the organisers and promoters of those events.

Citizens who dare to criticise their country’s regime will have to live with the consequences of the actions that they take against their own government.

Data Journalist specialising in technology & investigations. Rock n’ roll enthusiast, recovering gamer & fitness addict.