24 Apr

Vitaly Kazakov, RANNÍS Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Iceland 

This is the second part of a two-part blog post examining “sportswashing” as a form of disinformation, and reflecting on the role of audiences and the reception of “sportswashing” narratives. The first part is available here.

It takes more than two partners to make the “tango” of “sportswashing” convincing: the audiences and “judges” of this dance need to be on board. In other words, for political power to be exerted through sport, a consensus needs to be built not only across sponsoring states or regimes, international sports bodies, and major commercial partners. Moreover, the influence and effects of such power need to extend beyond elite international sports institutions or even heads of government. The role of media actors, civil society, and, importantly, sports fans and media audiences must be considered more carefully as part of this complex network of mutual influences. The recent case of public uproar and mass action against the European Super League—quickly supported by political elites attuned to the court of public opinion—helped to demonstrate that when sport fans take an active stance on a controversial or unpopular issues, real and swift consequences may follow.

This level of unity and consensus is seldomly reached in practice, even within a single fan base let alone among national or—even more so—international communities of sports watchers. Sports audiences, just like media audiences more broadly, are fragmented. The exposure of problematic and controversial issues linked with beloved sports tournaments and teams confronts audiences with a moral and ethical dilemma: reject accusations, sidestep concerns and continue enjoying the games, or engage in activism, protest against the event or even boycott it altogether. Different fans naturally take different courses of action.

This is why we need more research on the outcomes of what is referred to as “sportswashing” and how effective it ultimately is in influencing fragmented media audiences and societies more broadly. The evidence so far is patchy. There are pessimistic accounts suggesting that accusations of “sportswashing” and “greenwashing” —or in other words, exposure to disinformation about negative aspects of major sports investments—have little impact on fans’ engagement with and enjoyment of their favourite team or sport.

A new study addressed this gap by assessing the effects of Qatar’s “sportswashing” among media audiences of the Qatar World Cup in Germany. Based on pre- and tournament-time surveys of the public, the authors found that the tournament ultimately did not improve Qatar’s image among the German public, but it did increase sympathies for the Arab world more broadly. On specific political and social problems, the hosting of the World Cup forced little change in public impressions of the country except in relation to perceptions of rights for and the treatment of women in Qatar. The authors hypothesised that seeing female fans in the stadia—whether they were from Qatar or not—during match broadcasts somewhat challenged the Germans’ belief in Qatari society’s mistreatment of women; but a similar effect was not observed in relation to the issues of workers’ or gay rights.

According to this study, “sportswashing” works to some degree. Importantly, however, the survey results did not differentiate between various segments of the German public based on socioeconomic, demographic, political orientation, or other factors. Nor did it assess lasting impressions, as the surveys were done before and during the tournament but not after. In other words, we know little about whether dedicated football fans or casual watchers, older or younger, better or less educated members of the public may be more “susceptible” to the effects of disinformation through sport. Likewise, this and other studies do not consider the lasting effects of “sportswashing”, instead only paying attention to the event-time itself.

How can we assess the lasting impacts of “sportswashing”?

This gap in research means we need more qualitative studies to understand the lasting effects of “sportswashing” and other forms of informational influence through sport. My new research project at the University of Iceland investigates the public and media memory of recent international football tournaments as one way to address this research problem. I hope this approach helps us to better interpret the way sporting events both inform and are informed by the public’s understanding of wider political and social issues. My pilot research in Iceland—one of my national case studies, alongside the historic international sports powers like England and Russia—also helps to shed light on the lasting consequences of “sportswashing”. Iceland’s “small state” status, given its population size and location at the relative periphery between Western Europe and North America, allows me to interpret the way football events influence fans’ perceptions of political issues.

Two major trends emerge from my pilot interviews with Icelandic football supporters about their memory of recent international championships in relation to “sportswashing”. One of my interview respondents reflected with joy on the historic success of Iceland’s men’s national team at the UEFA Euro 2016 competition, and on the fact that they made it to the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup: “There was just total bliss […] no one was critical about anything”. On the Russian World Cup, specifically, another respondent recalled Icelanders’ unexpectedly positive experiences travelling to Russia to watch the games in person, after a prolonged period of sceptical and negative media coverage in the lead up to the tournament: “I don’t know if [other Icelandic fans] thought they would be pushed around by the police and everything would be grey and dull. But people felt [the reception in Russia] was extremely friendly, and you know how transportation and everything went very well. The weather was brilliant and all that…” The sense of bliss and separation of the event from “regular life” was acutely felt and reflected upon by my respondents, and might be why sports provide such a convenient platform for the promotion of various political narratives: the “feel-good factor” is undeniable. That these respondents’ national side achieved historic results at the competitions, capturing global attention in the process, only boosted the fans’ positivity, some of which had the potential to colour their sentiments about the host nation itself.

At the same time, my respondents were astutely aware of and clearly remembered the many controversial topics associated with the Russian tournament. The rights of LGBTQ+ people, freedom of expression, corruption, and poisoning of former spies on British soil were just some of the controversies associated with Russia 2018 which interviewees remembered even five years after the final match. One of the respondents articulated their dismay at the role of FIFA in “normalising” Russia’s foreign policies, and more specifically, the annexation of Crimea just a few years before the 2018 World Cup. “They [FIFA] just don’t care,” declared this Icelandic fan.

My early research suggests that most fans and audience members are now well-aware of the dynamics related to “sportswashing” through major tournaments and other sports projects, and that the “tango” between host states and international sports organisations is something that they are attuned to. Yet, they are still conflicted about how to deal with the knowledge that the narratives they encounter are spin, obfuscation, or disinformation in one form or another. It is indeed a dilemma for many: how to react when they find themselves in the “Potemkin village” of the event yet still experience a sense of bliss when attending or watching these tournaments?

Most of the fans included in my pilot interviews were well-educated individuals who pay close attention to the politics of sport and international politics more broadly. One of them astutely reflected on the role of media in shaping viewers’ reflections on recent sporting tournaments and projects. They shared that they felt they found themselves in an “echo chamber.” The participant explained that they are exposed to investigative reporting on “sportswashing” through stories like those in the Guardian, but reflected that audiences of such reporting are “people who are already very much politically open to listening to these things”. They also raised the point that the burden of challenging the problems exposed through counter-“sportswashing” reporting should not lay on fans or even the journalists themselves, but rather the organisations and individuals in power. In their view, the Qatar World Cup was “very bad PR” for the country, yet if Iceland qualified for that tournament they had no doubt that much of the Icelandic audience and sports media would have been enchanted by the tournament, just as they had been with Euro 2016 or Russia 2018 despite the concerns raised. Another respondent suggested that fans who threatened to boycott watching the Qatar World Cup would not have been watching the games in the first place, speculating they are not “real fans”.

It therefore seems that uncovering and reporting disinformation linked to sporting events and projects are important, but not the only step needed to counteract such practices. Argentina is home to investigative journalists who helped shed light on the tragic fate of some migrant workers involved in the construction of Qatar 2022’s infrastructure. Yet, the victory of the Argentinian team at the tournament very likely overshadowed concerns about the conditions of workers in the country. The “sportswashing” project of Qatar was completed symbolically by the veiling of the star player Leo Messi in a traditional Arab cloak while he hoisted the World Cup. The player’s controversial signing as a public figure for the Saudi Arabia’s sports investment programme has since contributed to Saudi Arabia’s own 2034 World Cup “sportswashing” project and manifested the Gulf state’s political and economic power. The involvement of sporting role models and idols like Messi likely has profound implications for the ways various narratives are internalised, and either adopted or rejected, by members of the public.

The “feel-good factor” of a national or other sports team doing well, likewise, is an important but not the sole determinant of the ability to mislead the audiences through sport. The buzz of the sporting competition more broadly still appears to largely silence any important political and social criticism. Even in cases like Germany, whose team performed poorly at the Qatar World Cup and whose fans were some of the loudest proponents of the World Cup boycott, the evidence we have so far suggests that “sportswashing” still “worked” to a notable degree.

Conclusions: Urgency of the Problem

Unfortunately, popular sports are often dismissed as a “less serious” platform for negotiations of political issues, compared to election campaigns or other forms of “high politics”. However, few other platforms have a truly global reach and serve as powerful emotional response prompts in the same way as major sporting events. They are an influential domain in which the public interacts with important political and social issues. Yet sports are still instinctively and commonly linked to the misleading idea that they remain entirely outside of politics. This core tension in public discourse adopted by leading sport governance bodies—and the ability of various actors to “spin” this narrative rhetorically—is perhaps what makes it susceptible to various practices of disinformation, including what is understood as “sportswashing”.

Major international governing organisations for sport have received plenty of criticism in recent years for displaying features of authoritarian regimes themselves. The problem with “sportswashing” or different kinds of disinformation through sport is that it not only benefits authoritarian regimes sponsoring them or prompts liberal regimes to exhibit and adopt authoritarian practices through hosting these events; rather, it further fractures societies and erodes trust in democratic institutions. One of the troubling findings of a study of the German public’s reactions to “sportswashing” through Qatar 2022 was that “sports events in authoritarian regimes can sow doubts and distrust about democratic media and governance” and prompt public questions and concerns about progressive policies in Western societies.

Ultimately, whether we call it “spin”, “Potemkinism” or “sportswashing”, disinformation is not a problem exclusive to sport—indeed, the term covers a bewilderingly, and unhelpfully, wide range of different forms and levels of deception—and cannot be solved through sport alone, although more robust international sport governance structures could certainly help. Yet, we clearly see that the negotiation of important disinformation and counter-disinformation narratives takes place during sports events whilst huge audiences pay attention to and take part in this dialogue. The work of investigative journalists, civil society, and academics can help to raise awareness of disinformation and illiberal practices linked to major sporting events and projects.

Determining how to channel the multitude of responses to such practices—from improved media literacy campaigns to promote better awareness and action among fans, to engaging sports’ leading role models and stars, to finding further concrete productive public responses—is a matter for urgent consideration. For this reason, more detailed qualitative and quantitative accounts are needed to understand how, amongst whom, and why disinformation through sport works particularly effectively.

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