“Sportswashing” Atrocities, from Hitler to the Saudis

by Rafael Medoff

The Saudis’ takeover of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) is just the latest in a series of attempts by dictators to use sports to divert attention from human rights abuses.

It’s been less than five years since Saudi government agents tortured and strangled dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and dismembered his body with a bonesaw.

As part of a concerted effort to distract the international community from the Khashoggi murder—and Riyadh’s many other ongoing human rights violations—the Saudis have been using their wealth to buy their way into the sports world. They lured tennis stars to a tournament last year by offering an unprecedented $1-million to the winner, and they convinced Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo to play for a Saudi team by paying him $75-million annually, making him the highest-paid athlete in the world.

Now the Saudis have turned their attention to golf. Two years ago, PGA commissioner Jay Monahan denounced the Saudis’ creation of their own golf league, the LIV, as an unfair attempt “to buy the game of golf.” He alluded to Saudi Arabia’s connections to the 9/11 attacks, asserting that golfers who remained in the PGA would never have to be embarrassed about their association, while those who jumped to the LIV would find themselves “apologizing” for doing so.

This week, however, the prospect of massive Saudi funding has persuaded the PGA to become part of the Saudi league, and Monahan is saying the merger is “historic” and the Saudis are “visionaries.” For the Saudis, it’s a major victory in their campaign to whitewash their appalling human rights record by securing a respected place on the world stage.

The phenomenon now called “sportswashing” debuted nearly a century ago, at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler exploited the games to dazzle the international community and distract from his persecution of Germany’s Jews.

The Roosevelt administration had ample warning that the Nazis intended to use the games for propaganda purposes. The U.S. ambassador in Berlin, William Dodd, reported to Washington that the Nazis intended to use the Olympics “to rehabilitate and enhance the reputation of the ‘New Germany.’ ”

Foreigners will “have only the usual tourist contacts” and were likely to come away doubting the veracity of “the Jewish persecution which they have previously read [about] in their home papers,” Dodd predicted. The Hitler government had hired two thousand translators and was training them in the art of “parrying embarrassing questions and insinuating praise of Nationalism Socialism in their small talk,” the ambassador warned.

The Nazis were also careful to remove Der Sturmer and other antisemitic literature from the newsstands in Berlin shortly before foreign visitors began arriving in the summer of 1936. “Jews Not Wanted” signs that had been posted along major thoroughfares were taken down. Physical assaults on Jews were kept to a minimum during the games.

Visiting journalists were duly impressed. The Los Angeles Times hailed the Hitler regime as “worthy hosts” who “put on a magnificent show.”The Berlin correspondent of the New York Times hailed Hitler for “a good job well done—almost without flaw” and predicted that the games would lead “to the undoubted improvement of world relations and general amiability.” What actually happened, of course, was exactly the opposite: the failure to confront Hitler paved the way for him to plunge the world into a Nazi bloodbath.

In the 1970s, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos likewise used sports to counter the bad press he had been receiving because of his human rights abuses. He paid heavyweight boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier $4.5-million and $2.5-million, respectively, to fight in what became known as the “Thrilla in Manila.” The “whole purpose of the fight,” Sports Illustrated noted, was “to show that Manila was no longer an outlaw city, that foreign investment was secure, that martial rule, for all its connotations, was a cleansing instrument: Martial Law with a smile.”

The dictator certainly got his money’s worth. In the days leading up to the fight, Ali declared that Marcos was “a great man,” “humble,” “peaceful” and “loving,” who “will lead his people always with the best decisions…President Marcos knows how to solve the problems here better than we could.”

The apartheid regime in South Africa tried a similar strategy in the 1980s, spending lavishly to host international tennis events and boxing matches. The regime offered tennis stars John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg to play each other for what the Washington Post called the “gargantuan” sum of $1-million to the winner and $600,000 to the loser; Borg agreed, but McEnroe refused.

Many top boxers, including Muhammed Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, refused to fight in South Africa. But other prominent fighters of that era, such as Greg Page and Mike Weaver, decided the money was more important than the cause. And famed boxing promoter Don King, one of the earliest supporters of the “Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid” group, jumped into bed with the apartheid regime when the price was right.

From Berlin to Riyadh, dictators can always find athletes who are prepared to turn a blind eye to atrocities if offered enough money. But the ultimate power rests with the fans: if they refuse to patronize events sponsored by murderous regimes and ostracize athletes who collaborate with them, it will become impossible for those regimes to continue exploiting sports for their unsavory purposes.

(June 2023)