A sensational new golf tournament, which has attracted some of the game’s biggest players and launched in London last week, has become the latest example of what critics call ‘sportswashing’, the practice of cleaning up the reputation of a country or a company using expensive means and high level sporting events.
In this case, the tournament sponsor is the Saudi government, which is supporting the event with $2 billion from its public investment fund, according to Forbes. The problem is that the Saudi government has been accused of numerous human rights abuses over the years, including the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. US intelligence and a special rapporteur from the UN accused the Saudi government of the murder.
The tournament will take place over the next four months, with matches on eight different courses, including former President Donald Trump’s courses in Bedminster, England, and Miami. Other sites include Boston; Chicago; Portland, Oregon, Bangkok and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, according to the league’s website.
Last week, the PGA announced that 17 players, including golfing legends Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, would not be allowed to participate in the PGA this season due to their participation in LIV events.
“These players made their choices for their own financial reasons,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said in a statement Thursday. The PGA penalized them for not obtaining the necessary clearance to play in a tournament that hosts events in North America.
Monahan left it uncertain whether those players would be able to compete in the future, saying only that “we are prepared to address those issues.”
In a statement to ABC News, a PGA spokesperson said, “The decision to suspend the PGA TOUR has no connection to Saudi funding. We simply abide by our tournament rules and do what is in the best interest of the entire membership and the TOUR as a whole.
At least four players, including Dustin Johnson, have already quit the PGA Tour, The New York Times reported.
During a press conference on Wednesday, Mickelson defended his right to participate in the LIV golf tournament. “It’s an opportunity that gives me a chance to have the most balance in my life going forward and I think it’s going to do a lot of good for the game,” he told reporters.
Asked about the political nature of his decision, he added that “nobody here tolerates human rights violations, nobody here tries to compensate for anything”.
The US Golf Association, which runs the US Open which begins this week and is separate from the PGA, has announced that all eligible players will be allowed to compete in a press release released on Tuesday.
The LIV Golf organization called the PGA’s decision “vindictive” and said “the era of free agency begins as we are proud to have a full group of players joining us in London and beyond. ” in a statement released Thursday.
Commentators have drawn comparisons between the LIV tournament and Nazi Germany which hosted the Olympics in 1936.
Other countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have invested in sports competition to gain political influence. Danyel Reiche, a visiting professor at Georgetown University and author of a new book on Qatar’s successful efforts to host the 2022 World Cup, told ABC News he believes the Saudi kingdom took inspiration from the book. of Qatar’s game, using investment in sport to build international political influence. .
Qatar started this process in 1993, he says, when the country hosted the “Qatar Open” tennis tournament. “Saudi Arabia recognizes that Qatar’s strategy worked quite well and copies it,” he says, with a delay of about 25 years.
Reiche, however, criticizes the term “sportswashing”. “I think [the situation] is more complex than the term suggests,” he said, that “a country would spend money just to distract from human rights abuses.”
The goal, he said, is to “gain soft power and influence in international affairs.”
Nick Wise, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who teaches tourism and sports tourism, told ABC News he thinks when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the term “sportswashing” is apt.
“They are trying to use this event as a spectacle,” he says, adding that there are likely other strategies at play, including diversifying their investments and building a new sports tourism economy.
“When you put money into something, it’s a way of controlling the narrative,” he said.