"Sportswashing" is a rather new term used to describe the age-old practice of authoritarian regimes using the spectacle of sporting events to launder their reputations at home and abroad. While it's hardly subtle, it has proven effective many times in recent memory.
From the gaudy pageantry of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 to the state-of-the-art stadiums built with blood and gold in the Middle East, this collection looks at how some of the most famous and infamous sporting moments of the past century often had sinister undertones.
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1936 Summer Olympics - The Third Reich Takes Sportswashing To Olympian Levels
The International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Germany in 1931, when it was still a republic, albeit one on borrowed time. The passage of the Nuremberg Laws - essentially the legalization of persecution against Jews - greatly damaged the international reputation of Nazi Germany in 1935. While the true extent of the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich hadn’t yet unfolded and wasn’t widely known to the outside world, there was significant opposition to Germany hosting the 1936 Olympic Games.
The strongest calls for a boycott of the games came from the US, and was only narrowly avoided in a vote held in December 1935. The margin was just two votes. Avery Brundage, head of the American Olympic committee, argued that politics had no place in sport and insisted on American participation in the games.
Hitler knew full well the propaganda value of the games as both a means of shoring up support at home and displaying an acceptable façade to the outside world. Overt displays of anti-Semitism were temporarily removed during the games. Roma people (then called gypsies) in and around Berlin were rounded up by authorities ahead of the events. The regime’s anti-homosexual laws were relaxed for foreign visitors, and a German athlete of Jewish descent, a fencer named Helene Mayer, competed for Germany, eventually winning silver.
The state-of-the-art athletic stadiums and facilities and ostentatious displays brought a sense of spectacle to the games. The traditional Olympic torch relay actually began in 1936.
As much as the individual heroics of Black American athlete Jesse Owens must have rankled Nazi officials, there was no doubt the games were an overwhelming triumph for the Third Reich. German athletes topped the final medal table by some distance, and while not everyone was fooled, the regime used the event to show its best face to the world.
As a New York Times piece from August 1936 opined at the conclusion of the 1936 games:
They [Germany] know now that they have made an excellent impression upon their cosmopolitan visitors. They are back in the fold of nations who have “arrived.”
The third bout between heavyweight legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier occurred in Manila in 1975. The fight is infamous for its brutality, and neither boxer was ever quite the same afterward. Less known is that the match was organized by a severe authoritarian regime as a show of strength amid significant civil unrest.
Dictator Ferdinand Marcos established martial law in the wake of the 1973 election as part of a crackdown on growing opposition to his rule. Inspired by the Rumble in the Jungle the year before, Marcos sought to host a title fight in Manila to show the world he was secure in power and the Philippines were open for business. The Marcos government, impoverished by lavish military spending and naked corruption, spared no expense in putting on a grand show known as the “Thrilla in Manila.”
The regime put up the money for the fight, with no lack of shadiness in how the proceeds were to be distributed. One story has it that a mystery Filipino-owned company in California was due 10% of the profits, but was stiffed by promoter Don King, who cynically calculated the anonymous moneyman wouldn’t dare sue lest his identity be revealed.
King denied this version of events. He also described Marcos as a “nice ol’ guy” who didn’t personally profit from the venture:
Marcos never got any cash out of the fight. He just wanted the fight to show the world his government's stability. And he lifted the Filipino people's spirits by putting on that show. It was a tremendous catharsis for a country then under martial law at the time. You couldn't be on the streets of Manila after 11 o'clock or maybe midnight.
In front of a capacity crowd at the Araneta Coliseum in Manila, Ali and Frazier put on a show worthy of all the hype and controversy. Ali prevailed when Frazier couldn't answer the bell for the final round. Marcos was finally ousted from power in 1986, thanks to the People Power Revolution.
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1968 Summer Olympics - Controversy And Tragedy
The 1968 Summer Olympics took place in October amid a backdrop of major protests across the world. Mexico was at the time under the authoritarian rule of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. Major protests led by student groups escalated into an armed confrontation just days before the Olympics were due to begin.
On October 2, 1968, the Mexican police opened fire on protestors gathered at the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City; an undetermined number of protestors perished during the riot. Official accounts claimed Communist infiltrators had opened fire on police, forcing the authorities to act in self-defense. The government also claimed 20 to 28 were slain, but the true figure was much higher - closer to 400. Years later, the release of documents confirmed the incident had been deliberately provoked by the Presidential Guard.
The Games were a welcome distraction from the tumult, but hardly short of controversy either. South Africa and Zimbabwe were banned from taking part, and only the threat of massive boycotts kept the decision in place. The most famous incident was the Black Power salute carried out by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the podium following the 200m men's events. All three athletes on the podium faced repercussions for the action. Even Australia’s Peter Norman, who wore a badge to show his support for Smith and Carlos, was blacklisted from Australia’s Olympic team.
Ordaz quietly disappeared from public life, his legacy forever tainted by the massacre in Mexico City. He resurfaced briefly in 1977 as Mexico’s ambassador to Spain, but widespread protests against his appointment led to his resignation.
The moment FIFA president Sepp Blatter revealed that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup is one that will live on in sporting infamy. The tiny, oil-rich Gulf State was a deeply controversial choice. Aside from the complete lack of soccer history and inhospitable summer climate, Qatar simply didn’t have the facilities or necessary infrastructure to host the event. FIFA’s own internal reports cast doubt on the viability of a World Cup in Qatar. What the country did have was the means to build - and quickly. “If you come, we will build it” was the gist of the pitch.
Colossal sums of money changed hands, and other extremely shady quid pro quo deals were hashed out behind the scenes. Numerous FIFA officials were investigated and prosecuted for corruption, and Blatter was forced out in the wake of the scandal. But when the dust settled, the World Cup was still going to happen in Qatar; however, the scorching summer heat necessitated a move to the winter months and the disruption of the domestic season.
Qatar spent a staggering sum in gold and blood to be ready for the World Cup. Some $220 billion was the final total to build seven brand-new stadiums and the necessary infrastructure. More serious still was the death toll of foreign workers brought over primarily from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal using the kafala (or kefala) system. The workers were subjected to brutal living and working conditions and thousands perished. About 6,500 individuals lost their lives in total, far higher than the official numbers released by Qatar. All of this begs the simple question: why?
Unlike other regimes, Qatar’s ruling elites didn’t need a distraction to hold onto power, and the nation’s obscurity was such that its questionable laws and human rights records didn’t need to be sanitized through sport. If anything, the attention the World Cup brought had a negative effect on the nation’s international reputation.
Hosting the World Cup was the pinnacle of a long-term project to raise Qatar’s profile in the world. Though rich in oil and gas today, it needed to diversify the economy for a stable future. Nearby Kuwait provided a stern lesson for the dangers of being rich, small, and isolated. Put simply, Qatar’s main goal for the 2022 World Cup was to raise the nation’s profile, and with the eyes of the world on Qatar in December 2022, it got exactly what it paid for. Who knows how many major deals were hashed out in the not-quite-full newly built stadiums?
While Qatar’s team did as dismally as expected, the organizers couldn’t have scripted a better finale for themselves. Argentinian Lionel Messi’s fairy-tale ending to his international career was the climax of a thrilling spectacle between Argentina and France. The latter’s young superstar striker Kylian Mbappe netted a hat-trick as France narrowly lost out on penalties. Fittingly, Mbappe and Messi are both contracted to the French club Paris Saint-Germain, which is owned by the Qatari Sports Fund.
Argentina was awarded hosting rights to the 1978 World Cup long before the military seized power with an American-backed coup d’etat in 1976. General Jorge Rafael Videla’s National Reorganization Process, the name the military junta went by, wasted little time in cracking down on any opposition to the regime. Dissidents were rounded up, often in broad daylight, and taken to torture facilities. Some perished at the sites, others were gunned down, and more than a few were tossed from aircraft into the sea wearing concrete boots. The “Dirty War” resulted in as many as 30,000 disappearances of suspected opponents of the junta.
Videla had little love for soccer, but the intense passion Argentinians have for the game convinced him of the value a successful World Cup would have for his government at home and abroad. Strong calls from Amnesty International and other organizations to boycott the 1978 World Cup weren’t enough to stop the tournament from taking place. After a garish opening ceremony with Videla front and center, the cries of the disappeared were silenced by the spectacle of the tournament. Many imprisoned dissidents were close enough to actually hear the games going on.
On the pitch, it seemed, as Hungary’s manager put it - “Everything, even the air, is in favour of Argentina.” The home nation was in a tough group with France and Italy but made it through, thanks to some dubious refereeing in the 2-1 win against France.
In 1978 the format was a little different; the two teams that made it through the first group stage then qualified for a second group stage before the winners of those two groups would play out the final. Going into the last match against Peru, Argentina needed to win by a hefty margin to make the final ahead of Brazil. The shenanigans kicked up a notch here. Videla and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger paid a visit to the Peru dressing room before the game. Kissinger wasn’t technically a representative of the US government at the time, but remained a key ally of the junta.
Argentina won the match 6-0, a very suspicious scoreline given how Peru had competed well up to that point. As well as accusations of match-fixing, opposition players claimed the Argentinian team had an extra helping hand of the chemical variety. So lax was drug testing that one Argentine player apparently tested positive for pregnancy.
The final paired Argentina with the Netherlands, Mysteriously the security detail for the Dutch vanished the night before the game, and the team was kept awake through the night by the locals. On the way to the final, the team bus took a long detour through the slums of Buenos Aires. The Dutch still made a game of it, scoring late to take the game to extra time, but lost out 3-1 in the end. Argentina claimed its first World Cup and the people took to the streets to celebrate. Political prisoners were driven around the streets of the capital, unnoticed by the cheering masses.
The junta was toppled in 1983 and the main perpetrators of the Dirty War were tried and convicted in 1985. At an event to commemorate the disappeared many years later, organizer Mabel Gutiérrez said of the win:
The 1978 World Cup was a gold brooch for repression, a mundial that was made to wash the faces of the murderers in front of the world.
The 1974 super fight was between then-undefeated George Foreman, 25, and Muhammad Ali, 32, who sought to regain the heavyweight championship. The bout was the brainchild of controversial boxing promoter Don King, who secured both fighters with a bumper contract of $5 million each, but lacked both the funding and a willing host.
Enter despot Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and a cast of dubious characters to create the ultimate sporting spectacle. Initially given a tagline by King as “from slave ship to championship,” it was later dubbed “Rumble in the Jungle” by Ali. The far more marketable name stuck.
The fight purse was underwritten by Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, while Zaire’s President Mobutu was convinced by his American adviser Fred Wyman that hosting the fight was just what he needed to raise his and his country’s profile in the eyes of the world. The President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) stood to handsomely profit from his cut of ticket sales. Public funds from the impoverished nation were used to pay for the event.
For his part, Ali’s intentions weren’t motivated purely by profit so much as bringing a great sporting spectacle to Africa and making a connection between American Blacks and Africans. While his activism and anti-colonial views made him an instant hero in Zaire, his opponent’s canine companion made him an instant villain. Ali called Foreman a “Belgian” in the build-up to the fight, a nod to the country’s troubled past with colonization. In addition, Foreman’s pet German shepherd, a gift from Don King, was just like the ones used by colonial police before independence. Foreman was bemused by the reaction:
My goodness, they've got hyenas and lions over there, and they're afraid of a German shepherd? It doesn't make sense.
The fight was supposed to be the pinnacle of a two-week series of events aimed at aggrandizing Mobutu and his regime, but a training injury suffered by Foreman caused a several-week delay. Famously, Ali overcame the odds with an innovative “rope-a-dope” strategy to wear out his hard-hitting opponent and score a stunning eighth-round knockout.
The luster of the event soon faded as the regime struggled with economic troubles and endless unrest at home. Thanks to foreign aid and military intervention, Mobutu clung to power until he was finally toppled in 1997.