LIV Golf is a smashing success as far as being a disruptor to the world of professional golf.
But when it comes to effective sportswashing — a term used to describe how a nation with a tarnished reputation tries to use sports to cleanse its image — it’s more of an amateurish flop for its Saudi Arabian backers.
“Sportswashing at its most basic level is trying to seek public approval through the distraction of games,” said Amy Bass, professor of sports studies at Manhattanville College. “It goes back to Rome and the phrase ‘bread and circuses,’ with the chariot races and gladiator battles which were created to distract people from hunger, famine, and lack of housing. It’s ‘give them food and let them watch something and they won’t pay attention to what we’re doing over here.’
“And I don’t know that the Saudi funding of LIV is really doing that. I don’t think it’s distracting anybody from the role of Saudi Arabia in the contemporary moment.”
With its proximity to an array of countries in the Middle East tinderbox, its vast oil reserves that have pumped more than $600 billion into the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund that floats the LIV Tour, and its desire to diversify its economy with gambits in sports, entertainment, culture, and more, Saudi Arabia’s place in the geopolitical and economic sphere is about as central and complicated as any on the planet.
Compounding that complexity is the kingdom’s record on human rights, a stain that LIV Golf is not removing.
Starting with the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi that US government sources believe was approved by Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, the list, according to Amnesty International researcher Dana Ahmed, includes arbitrary arrests and detention of protesters, arbitrary travel bans against activists, use of the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, and deliberate medical and administrative neglect of migrants. Saudi Arabia also persecutes members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Besides LIV, Saudi Arabia has been active on other sports investment fronts, including the purchase of the Premier League’s Newcastle club and Formula 1 auto racing events.
“This has been used by the Saudi authorities to obscure the international community’s attention from its appalling human rights record,” said Ahmed. “The LIV Golf is a major event happening across continents and is part of Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing drive. This merits scrutiny by communities hosting these events over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.”
And then there’s the country’s role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Newly declassified FBI documents point to even more Saudi Arabian involvement in the planning and execution of the attacks than previously believed.
Nearly 22 years later, the decision to hold an LIV Golf stop this weekend in Bolton — not far from Boston’s Logan Airport, where two of the four hijacked planes used in the attacks took off — amounts to a taunt to those still mourning the nearly 3,000 lives lost.
“I think that this PR stunt that they’ve tried to pull off has been an epic failure,” said Brett Eagleson, son of World Trade Center victim John Bruce Eagleson and president of the 9/11 Justice organization. “If anything, this LIV Golf tournament has increased the amount of public awareness about the kingdom’s role in 9/11.
“The controversy has handed the 9/11 community a golden opportunity, and I think we’ve been effective and pretty smart about taking advantage of that; we’re going to continue to do so.
“The more that they continue to announce these tournament stops, the more that we’re going to continue to speak out, and the more we’re going to continue to insert ourselves into that discussion and refocus the attention back to what Saudi Arabia did.”
Despite Saudi Arabia’s track record in those areas, its isolation from the Western world is lessening, and LIV Golf is a result rather than a cause. Oil profits have boosted Saudi Arabia’s economy and swollen the PIF’s reserves. The country has made significant investments in companies such as Uber, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, and JP Morgan Chase.
“The thing to remember is that all sports is spectacle and all spectacle has political content,” said Bass. “When has sports ever frozen world politics? Do we want to see a freezing of world politics or do we want to look at sports as an opportunity to sort of cut through the horror with moments of greatness?
“That’s what I think golf is wrestling with. Are you sort of cherry-picking? I’m not in favor or against it either way, I just think it’s a lot more complicated than ‘LIV is bad because there’s Saudi money behind it.’ ”
The modern history of sportswashing dates back to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, held under the approving eye of Adolf Hitler. The United States, where Jim Crow laws admired by Hitler were in full effect at the time, was one of the countries that resisted calls for a boycott of the Games.
Those Olympics amounted to a propaganda coup for the Nazis, with minimal Black and Jewish athlete representation — Jesse Owens being a significant exception. The city temporarily removed anti-Semitic signage and Romani street-dwelling groups and relaxed anti-homosexual laws for the benefit of international visitors.
Hosting a prestigious international event such as the Olympics or World Cup — count on the topic of sportswashing to resurface leading up to the men’s soccer World Cup in November in Qatar — is the most common sportswashing technique. Vladimir Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and Beijing’s Winter Olympics last February are two recent prime examples.
Buying or sponsoring a team in a prestigious league such as Putin crony Roman Abramovich did with Chelsea in the Premier League (before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine forced Abramovich to sell) is another way to sportswash.
LIV Golf is charting a new course.
“LIV kind of breaks these rules by launching this novel, disruptive tour and throwing ludicrous amounts of money at people to join it, and that’s categorically different,” said Victoria Jackson, sports historian and clinical assistant professor of history at Arizona State University. “It’s so in-the-face and too much of a power grab going up against powerful stakeholders.”
The more that Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar and United Arab Emirates turn to sports, the harsher the spotlight will turn on their human rights abuses and whether their claims of reform and good intentions are sincere.
“What matters here is what Saudi Arabia is doing going forward,” said Jackson. “Are they starting a war or invading their neighbors or are they continuing down this path? Are they continuing to murder journalists in really brutal ways?
“Are they trying to reform laws more so that there’s even more freedom for all the people living in the kingdom, including migrant workers? If that’s the case, then sportswash away.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.