Sportswashing – what is it and why should you care?

The Olympics and Paralympics are being held in Beijing this year. As always, the Games are shown on TV around the world. This is what you need know about the situation in China and the phenomenon of "sportswashing"? 

The term sportswashing is used when a country organizes, sponsors or takes ownership of high-profile sporting events, where the purpose is to divert attention from matters worthy of criticism; such as human rights violations or crimes against humanity. 

And with the Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing, China, this is precisely what is happening. While the Chinese state has the attention of sports enthusiasts from around the world, the event has the potential to overshadow the human rights situation in the country. 

Freedom of expression is threatened 

Recent warnings from Yang Shu, Deputy Director of International Relations at the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, have drawn wide international attention: During a digital Olympic briefing on January 19, reproduced by the Washington Post, Yang Shu said the following: 

“Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.” 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has certain human rights criteria that a country must meet to be awarded the Olympics. Chinese authorities have also guaranteed the human rights situation in the country to the IOC. Yang Shu’s threat breaks with these promises. Unfortunately, we have not seen any strong reaction to the statement from the IOC, as we have reason to expect given their expressed commitment to human rights. 

The threats are directed at all participants and visitors, and the consequence is an unknown punishment. For the Chinese themselves, unfortunately, such threats are not uncommon. 

The human rights situation in China 

Serious and systematic human rights violations take place in China today. In the northwest of the country, the Uighur population are discriminated because of their religion and culture. There are huge internment camps for Uighurs as well as other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang province. In the southwest, Tibetans have for many years been persecuted and expelled from their homes. In Hong Kong, authorities have tightened their grip on and imprisoned protesters, opposition leaders and journalists. It is also not safe to be an athlete. Last year we witnessed a female tennis player disappear for several days after she accused a party leader of sexual abuse. 

The people of China are living under constant pressure from the authorities. The threats that emerge in connection with the Olympics are commonly experienced by the Chinese. Although China’s constitution dictates that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, it is not uncommon for people who have said or written something contrary to what the authorities allow, to be prosecuted and imprisoned without a fair trial. 

Society is strongly influenced by censorship and propaganda, where websites and keywords are blocked. In addition, the inhabitants are almost constantly monitored through a very advanced monitoring technology in all parts of the country. 

The fact that the human rights situation is overshadowed by sports and sporting achievements in the Beijing Olympics, is a typical example of sportswashing. 

Commitment to change 

Contrary to only a decade ago, when it was commonly believed that sports should not be mixed up with politics, it is now largely recognized that politics do play an important role in many of the aspects of sport.  

Public involvement leads to results. The World Cup in Qatar and the wide attention around the decision to award Qatar the event, and the human rights situation in the country, has led to FIFA being forced to adopt criteria for awarding future championships. In Norway, there was a strong debate about a boycott among football teams, managers and players. There was no decision on a boycott, but an extraordinary national football meeting instructed the Norwegian Football Association to get involved in demanding better human rights in Qatar and to work against sportswashing. Particular emphasis has been placed on better migrant workers’ rights, LGBTI rights, and freedom of expression. There are still major shortcomings, but some results have been achieved. But what about the IOC?  

Unfortunately, the IOC has been inefficient in demanding human rights improvements from China. Therefore, the demands must be set in other contexts, from sports organizations and associations, by athletes and sponsors, but also from Norway bilaterally. All the sports have a legal responsibility to address human rights violations, and they have a responsibility to use the influence of sports. This is a job that needs to be done continuously. 

In Norway, the Norwegian Sports Federation (NIF) has adopted a rather offensive value strategy, where they discuss the ethical role of the sports, and how Norwegian sports should use their power to strengthen efforts for human rights and stand up to political and economic pressure. NIF has also stated that Norwegian athletes are free to use their freedom of expression, both on and off the podium. This is the kind of  commitment that is needed from all parties involved in order to combat sportswashing. Every time we talk about human rights abuses in China, we are helping to counteract the attempt at sportswashing during the Beijing Olympics.  

NHC against sportswashing 

Human rights activism is key in the fight against sportswashing. Making visible and documenting human rights violations, talking about them and presenting public information, puts pressure on the IOC and other relevant institutions. 

At previous sporting events, NHC has carried out campaigns and made information packages for journalists. We have also given input to NIF’s value strategy. Our policy director, Berit Lindeman, is a member of the Football Association’s ethics committee. We are actively working to document human rights violations, and we will continue to shift the focus to human rights. 

It is extremely important that the freedom of expression of athletes and their support apparatus is respected. Participants and visitors should be encouraged to show their point of view and use their position to speak on human rights issues. The sports associations must support their athletes, and make sure to stay up to date on the situation in the countries they travel to. We expect the sports to take responsibility, and that human rights violations in China will not be overlooked. 

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Berit Lindeman

Secretary GeneralEmail: [email protected]Phone: 909 33 379Twitter: @LindemanBerit
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Dag A. Fedøy

Director of CommunicationsEmail: [email protected]Phone: +47 920 54 309Twitter: @dagfedoy
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