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COLUMN: The implications of sportwashing

A look into the new term being thrown around in the world of sports

While relaxing on the couch after a long day of work, watching your favourite sport of choice as an escape from your nine-to-five, have you ever stopped to think about where the money that backs popular sport comes from?

Until recently, I certainly hadn’t. But, a new term being thrown around in the sporting world has piqued my interest and encouraged me to look at sports sponsorships with a more discerning eye: sportwashing.

The word is defined as the “practice of an organization, government, or country supporting sport or organizing sports events as a way to improve its reputation.”

The most recent instance of this reputation laundering that made headlines came earlier this month when

The PGA Tour signed an agreement with the Saudi-backed organization LIV Golf to form a larger golf enterprise.

Former world number one golfer Rory McIlroy was openly critical of LIV Golf when the organization was poaching his fellow competitors for their league last year, accusing them of “taking the easy way out.” A divide was created in golf, with some athletes deciding to betray tradition and take the big paycheque that the Saudi-backed league had to offer.

Now, McIlroy said he feels like a sacrificial lamb after the PGA did a reversal and agreed on the merger.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been investing in sports as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘Vision 2030’ initiative, a document which outlines the kingdom’s plan to follow a “trans formative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world.”

Vision 2030 looks to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil, and investment is of course primarily for profit, but some have argued that its investment in sports like golf aims to improve its global image and veil its human rights record.

9/11 Families United, an organization consisting of family members of those murdered in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been vocal after news of the merger between the PGA and LIV Golf broke. The group has been critical of PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan, accusing him of going back on his word after he co-opted claims of Saudi sportwashing.

“Now the PGA and Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills, taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation so that Americans and the world will forget how the Kingdom spent their billions of dollars before 9/11 to fund terrorism, spread their vitriolic hatred of Americans, and finance al Qaeda and the murder of our loved ones,” wrote 9/11 Families United in a statement earlier this month.

However, it isn’t just countries and kingdoms that have been accused of using sport to obscure their questionable decisions.

A recent study from Badvertising, a campaign to stop adverts and sponsorships fuelling climate change, demonstrates how high-carbon sponsors, like car and airline companies, are also sportwashing their negative impacts on snowfall.

Imagine seeing an advertisement for cigarettes at your local hockey arena. Because cigarettes actively impede our ability to breathe and play sports, wouldn’t that feel wrong? Their report released in February 2023, titled The Snow Thieves, argues that the same line of thinking should be applied to fossil fuel advertising in winter sports.

The report demonstrated how appealing the clean, healthy outdoor image of winter sports are for major polluters looking to advertise and identified 107 high-carbon sponsorship deals with skiing organizations, event organizers, teams and individual athletes.

The world’s biggest cross-country ski race, Vasaloppet, was sponsored by Preem, a Swedish energy company, and Volvo, a car manufacturer. According to the reports, these two companies alone are estimated to be responsible for the loss of 1,260 million tonnes of glacier ice each year, or 210 square kilometres of snow cover.

The report goes on to estimate that the automobile sector, one of the main carbon polluters fuelling negative climate change, accounted for $1.285 billion in sports-related sponsorships in 2018, roughly 64 per cent of all sponsorship money in sports at that time.

These are just a few examples of supposed sportwashing. The term itself is relatively new, but it’s a phenomenon that has arguably existed since the time of the Second World War when Mussolini’s fascist Italy hosted the 1934 World Cup.

Sport plays an important role in culture, and deciding whether or not you care who funds the sports you and your family enjoy could be an important question to ask yourself as you move forward.

Josh Piercey is the editor of the Revelstoke Review.

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