David Owen

"The year 2022 is going to be a big one for sportswashing."

I have lost count of the number of times I have read or heard assertions to this effect, and it is still only January.

The reason, of course, is because this is the year of Beijing 2022 and Qatar 2022, and because allegations of the practice are spreading across the high-profile, money-spinning world of elite club football - as, most recently, with Newcastle United.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the term, what I mean by it is the strategy of seeking to improve one's international image by investing in much-loved sports properties with global reach.

The phenomenon of piggy-backing on sport, or other widely-cherished assets, for ulterior purposes undoubtedly exists: it is the entire raison d’être of the branch of marketing we call "sponsorship".

But there is something for my money just a little too smug about the way the subject tends to get presented in mainstream Western media.

This partly reflects how uneasy I personally feel on most occasions when I dust off my soapbox and find myself lecturing other people about how to live their lives.

Having said that, I would find it intolerable to inhabit a society with little or no freedom of speech, so that is not the main source of my reservations.

The Chinese Government have been accused of using the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing to help enhance its image ©Getty Images
The Chinese Government have been accused of using the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing to help enhance its image ©Getty Images

The principal problem I have with the rather unreflective nature of much grandstanding against sportswashing is that it is simplistic, and that we should acknowledge and take account of the big picture.

Though there are examples from the early days of international sport, notably the Nazi Olympics, sportswashing on an industrial scale is only really possible because of the businification of sport that has set in over the last four decades.

Nowadays, even supposedly non-commercial - or not primarily commercial - entities such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Sports Federations are focused on bringing as much income as possible into their respective universes.

Why? Because international sport costs money.

Yes, situations can be complicated by overriding personal ambitions and other murkier stuff, but that is the nub of it - there is a cost attached to provision of the entertainment format known as international sport.

Once this mercantilism enters the culture, it becomes easy to justify selling “X”, broadcasting rights, hosting rights, whatever “X” happens to be, to the highest bidder: that way you channel the most money, and by extension the most benefit, to your ecosystem.

The problem with this is that the value of association with your cuddly, wholesome, healthy, smiling sporting brand is likely to be higher for those whose images are in some way tarnished than for countries, or indeed multinational companies, whose images are already good.

It is also bound to be easier for an autocrat, who has no-one to answer to except for himself, to justify paying over the odds, if necessary, to land the specific associations he wants than a Government which must periodically face re-election in a plebiscite of taxpayers in which there is at least a modicum of uncertainty as to the outcome.

However, digging deeper, we should also ask why the doctrine of revenue maximisation has become de rigueur in sports bodies.

After all, many of my most thrilling memories linked to international sport date from pre-1982, ie from well before international sport was "liquid" in the Gordon Gekko sense of the term, and I have no doubt that most of my contemporaries would say the same. Money is no pre-requisite for thrilling sport.

I can accept that part of the explanation is simply that recent generations of sports leaders enjoy their comfortable salaries, their cushy lifestyles and their fabulous perks.

But I do not think this has been the main factor driving the evolution of this aspect of the sports business.

More fundamentally, things have happened the way they have because of technological advances and because athletes, media, grass-roots supporters, all of us appreciate the benefits of professionalisation that the channeling of substantial sums of money into sport has permitted.

The modern age, as I have said, self-evidently does not have a monopoly on magical sporting moments, but the general standard of play, facilities, availability, officialdom, just about everything is immeasurably higher than 40 years ago.

Football has become a popular way of regimes and Governments trying to bolster their image abroad ©Getty Images
Football has become a popular way of regimes and Governments trying to bolster their image abroad ©Getty Images

And there is something else, pertaining most particularly in the big daddy of 21st century sport – association football.

This is that, much as many fans might hanker for the days when clubs were locally-oriented flag-bearers for their particular communities, when matches started reliably at 3pm on Saturdays and all the rest of it, what we want most of all is success.

This requires the club we support to be able to get their hands on and retain the best possible playing talent. In the long run, the only way to do this is via the expenditure of copious amounts of money.

So, when discussing sportswashing, as millions of people will during the Winter Olympics next month and for much of the year, we should have the honesty to acknowledge the part which we all play in fuelling it.

This is not to condone - at all - the point that international sport has now reached; I have often advocated, for example, the erection of stringent human rights and free speech-related hurdles in host-selection processes for major sports events.

But if we want meaningful change, we do need to accept that it would make sport poorer - and that this would have consequences for all of us, athletes, administrators, fans and hard-working scribes alike.