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Saudi Arabia and China are accused of using sports to cover up human rights abuse

People attend a press conference to announce Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as part of the 2021 F1 calendar, in the Red Sea coastal city of Jiddah on Nov. 5, 2020.
Amer Hilabi
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People attend a press conference to announce Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as part of the 2021 F1 calendar, in the Red Sea coastal city of Jiddah on Nov. 5, 2020.

Updated December 2, 2021 at 3:01 PM ET

What do China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in common? The answer might not be as obvious as you think. But all three countries are accused of human rights violations, and all three are also playing host to some of the largest and most lucrative sporting events in the world.

China is hosting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Qatar is putting on next year's soccer World Cup and Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in staging high-profile, international sporting events.

But human rights organizations and others have been voicing concerns that behind this seemingly innocuous trend is a concerted effort by these and other nations to use sports as a way to cover up their poor human rights records.

"They are using and increasingly seeing sport as an opportunity to launder their image," Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK's head of campaigns, told NPR.

The human rights group even uses a recent term to describe this practice: "sportswashing."

"It's the process whereby a country or regime with a particularly poor human rights record uses sport as a way of creating positive headlines, positive spin about their countries," Jakens explained.

Saudi Arabia dabbles in English soccer and Formula One racing

Last month, the rights group criticized Saudi Arabia's takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United. According to news reports, the Saudi government-owned Public Investment Fund purchased an 80% stake in the English soccer club for 300 million pounds ($400 million).

"Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football," Amnesty International UK's CEO Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement.

The Newcastle United buyout is just the latest sports-related investment by Saudi authorities. In recent years, the kingdom has spent more than $1.5 billion to stage elite sporting events, according to a report by Grant Liberty. This includes staging the annual Spanish Super Cup soccer match, international men's and women's golf tournaments and professional wrestling, among many others.

Next month, global racing series Formula One will host its race in Saudi Arabia for the first time. The Grand Prix event will take place on Dec. 5 at a brand-new racetrack in the port city of Jiddah. F1 — which is owned by U.S.-based Liberty Media Corp. — signed a 10-year deal with the kingdom worth a reported $650 million.

The Saudi F1 event will also feature a number of musical performances. Pop star Justin Bieber, who is headlining the off-track entertainment program, is facing growing calls to cancel his show.

In an open letter published by The Washington Post, Hatice Cengiz — the fiancée of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — urged the Canadian singer to "send a powerful message to the world that your name and talent will not be used to restore the reputation of a regime that kills its critics."

The kingdom says it's reforming

The Saudi government rejects all accusations of sportswashing. Fahad Nazer, the spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., says that those investments are part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's plans to diversify the country's economy, which depends heavily on oil and gas.

"The notion that the transformative reforms currently underway in the kingdom are simply an attempt to improve the kingdom's image are widely off the mark," Nazer told NPR.

He said that the country aims to establish a sports industry under its Vision 2030 plan, which not only calls for a more diverse economy but also a vibrant society.

But the 2018 killing of the journalist Khashoggi, the imprisonment of rights activists and the ongoing bombing campaign in Yemen cast doubt over how transformational those reforms really are.

Despite ushering in some limited newfound freedoms for Saudi citizens, the crown prince has made the country more autocratic than before, says Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"There are more freedoms for women, just to pick a very important example. But there is less tolerance even of limited political dissension," he says.

A spokesperson for Formula One, which has been accused of enabling sportswashing in the past, did not directly respond to the question of whether the series considers a country's human rights record in its decision to host a race there.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain steers his car during the Qatar Formula One Grand Prix at the Losail International Circuit in Losail, Qatar, on Nov. 21.
Darko Bandic / AP
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Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain steers his car during the Qatar Formula One Grand Prix at the Losail International Circuit in Losail, Qatar, on Nov. 21.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain reacts after a qualifying session in Losail, Qatar, on Nov. 20, ahead of the Qatar Formula One Grand Prix. Hamilton wore a helmet with a rainbow in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people.
Hamad I Mohammed / Pool via AP
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Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain reacts after a qualifying session in Losail, Qatar, on Nov. 20, ahead of the Qatar Formula One Grand Prix. Hamilton wore a helmet with a rainbow in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people.

"We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence," the spokesperson said.

This past weekend, F1 made its debut in Qatar — another country with a less-than-stellar track record. Seven-time world champion and race winner Lewis Hamilton raised the issue of human rights and equality in a news conference ahead of Sunday's Grand Prix.

"As sports go to these places, they are duty-bound to raise awareness for these issues. These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue," said the British driver, who wore a rainbow-colored race helmet in a show of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.

China faces an Olympics boycott

China has also been accused of using sports to polish its public image. With the 2022 Winter Olympics only a couple of months away, the Biden administration is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games over the Chinese government's treatment of Uyghur Muslims living in the country's Xinjiang region.

The issue of sportswashing has even reached the halls of Congress. Last year, Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida introduced a resolution calling on the International Olympic Committee to strip China of its Olympic hosting rights.

"I don't believe a country that is committing genocide against its own citizens, that's building a military to dominate the world, that steals jobs and technology from all over the world, denies basic rights to its own citizens should be hosting an Olympics," Scott told NPR in a recent interview.

China has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

He further criticized U.S. Olympic broadcast partner NBC and Olympic sponsors for not being more vocal about China's alleged human rights violations.

His Democratic colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, argues that sports leagues need to take more responsibility when it comes to rights issues. He says they are "selling out their integrity for profits," effectively helping to rehabilitate the reputations of human rights abusers.

China is currently facing global condemnation over its treatment of tennis player Peng Shuai. The 35-year-old ex-world No. 1 doubles player mysteriously vanished from public view last month after accusing former Chinese Communist party leader Zhan Gaoli of sexual assault.

Her disappearance led to concerns about her well-being. After she was missing for more than two weeks, a flurry of photos and videos of Peng emerged on Twitter. But that raised even more questions, as the images were posted by individuals working for Chinese government-controlled media and the state sports system, according to CNN.

Not satisfied with the official posts and statements confirming the player's safety, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) on Wednesday announced that it is suspending all tournaments in China.

"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation," WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon wrote in a statement. "The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai's sexual assault accusation."

In response to the boycott, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, said during a daily briefing that his government was "always firmly opposed to acts that politicize sports."

No other sports organization has taken a similarly strong actions over China's alleged censorship and human rights violations. The WTA stands to lose out on millions of dollars as a result of the boycott, which could extend beyond 2022.

Most other sports are confrontational, trying to balance profits and human rights, or as the IOC calls it, "quiet diplomacy."

Using sports for spin goes way back

The practice of countries using sports as a smoke screen is not new. Many nations, including Great Britain, saw sports as a way to distract from oppression during colonial times. Nazi Germany used the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an opportunity to show off its alleged racial superiority and, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union used sports as a soft power.

But the word sportswashing came into use later. By one account, according to British sports journalist Sam Cunningham, the term emerged in 2015 when Azerbaijan hosted the European Games, and Amnesty International brought it back into the spotlight in criticism against United Arab Emirates' investments in English soccer a few years later.

A view of the ceremony of unveiling of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Countdown Clock organized by The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy and FIFA in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 21.
Mohammed Dabbous / Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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A view of the ceremony of unveiling of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Countdown Clock organized by The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy and FIFA in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 21.

Whatever the origins, whether sportswashing can have a lasting effect remains unclear. But according to Simon Chadwick, a sports industry expert at Emlyon Business School in France, it can provide temporary relief.

"If we look at the 2018 World Cup, there was widespread criticism of Russia," he says. "But what we saw upon people's return from the Russian World Cup is that now their view of Russia was much changed, they saw the country in a much more positive fashion."

With Western democracies increasingly scrutinizing the value of hosting large-scale sporting events, he believes countries with questionable human rights records will continue to use sports to boost their public image.

"What we will see is the likes of Saudi Arabia, China and others continuing to bid for these events, being awarded the rights to stage them and then leaving those in the West to deal with the kind of moral and ideological fallout that we have as a result of their hosting," Chadwick says.

Most sports organizations defend their decision to stage events in these countries by claiming to be a catalyst for change. But that change has yet to materialize.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.