Championship Boxing Fight In Saudi Arabia Shows The Dangerous Rise Of ‘Sport-washing’

A recent heavyweight championship boxing fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr captured global interest with millions purchasing pay-per-views to watch world-class athletes do battle on the biggest stage. For Joshua, the fight allowed him to recapture his heavyweight titles lost to Ruiz earlier in the year, but for critical commentators reporting around the world there were deeper concerns about the fight being staged in Saudi Arabia, a country with a very poor human rights record.

Several media outlets have considered the recent boxing match as an example of ‘sport-washing’ – a term that refers to a country hosting sporting events in a bid to improve their international reputation. This trend has become prevalent in recent years, with many countries being given rights to host large sporting events despite their consistent internal human rights violations.

Saudi Arabia fits the sport-washing description well, with this latest event being held at a World Heritage Site in the ancient city of Diriyah to supposedly promote tourism in the area. The injection of money in exchange for this promotion is happening despite consistent instances of barbaric corporal punishments handed out to people in the country for acts such as speaking out against religion.

When the sport-washing issue was raised to the promoters and athletes during a press conference, there were very conservative responses. Joshua, when responding to claims of sport-washing, said that he would “definitely be bothered” if the fight were being used for such purposes. He added, “In the future maybe I can bear a different kind of flag, but at the minute it’s a world championship flag. I just want to do a job.”

The danger of sport-washing lies in this tendency for organizers and participants to deliberately separate sport from politics in an attempt to disassociate the sporting events from the internal country problems. While there is an argument to be made that hosting sporting events in these countries does not mean that they legitimize actions against human rights, it seems that a very strong responsibility exists to not host them there.

Sport is something that significantly influences perceptions toward countries. For instance, consultancy firm Populus found that Premier League Football is the most positive representation of Britain across the world. This shows the danger in allowing large sporting events to be hosted in countries with consistent human rights issues.

To begin positively impacting upon the perception of these countries is very dangerous, and it is imperative to prevent this by raising more attention to sport-washing and the negative implications of it.