April 20, 2023

The Rise of Sportswashing

The 2022 Winter Olympics, which took place during February of that year in Beijing, looked in many ways like a political confrontation with some sports on the side. Ten governments, including those of Australia, Canada, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, announced that they would refuse to send any officials (as distinguished from athletes) to the games—a token of opposition to the practices of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its brutal repression of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The atmosphere was also fraught due to the case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who in November 2021 had accused a senior CCP official of sexual assault and then disappeared, prompting the World Tennis Association to suspend all its events in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the European Union to request proof of her well-being and whereabouts.

Autocratic regimes can, with relative ease, leverage football to gain access to an array of platforms ranging from iconic athletes and historic clubs to established federations and even Western governments.

Politics shrouded the spectacle of the games themselves. In a defiant display, PRC officials featured a Uyghur athlete in the February 4 opening ceremony. Less than a week later, Peng and an official translator met with a French newspaper for an interview that the Washington Post would call “carefully managed.”1 In it, she claimed that she had never meant to say anyone sexually assaulted her. Among those present for the opening ceremony was Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. As the contingent of athletes from Ukraine entered the venue, he seemed to doze off. Four days after the games ended, he would invade their country.

Read the full article from the Journal of Democracy.