‘Sportswashing’, as it is known, has slowly become the favoured tactic of autocrats and human rights abusers to gloss over their crimes and tyranny. A number of sporting icons, however, are beginning to take a stand. Golf superstar, Rory McIlroy, is the latest to wade into the debate over the morality of taking part in events designed to ‘whitewash’ a country’s oppression.
The Northern Irish former world number one has ruled out next month’s European Tour event, in Saudi Arabia, citing concerns over the “morality” of playing in the Kingdom, a week after fellow golfer, Tiger Woods, rejected an invitation to play in the second staging of the Saudi International.
“I’d rather play a couple of west coast [of America] events. It [playing in Saudi] is not something that excites me,” McIlroy informed the Golf Channel. “One hundred per cent there’s a morality to it.” His other gripe was the atmosphere. “I’d much rather play in front of big golf fans” explained the golfer, in an implicit jibe at the artificial conditions created in the hosting of such events.
The snub of the Saudis by McIlroy comes days after British boxer, Anthony Joshua, fought in Riyadh to regain his title. The heavyweight champion came under criticism for taking the lucrative deal to fight in the kingdom, because of its human rights abuses.
McIlroy and Woods appear to have taken a rare moral stance, by not allowing their stardom to be exploited by serial human rights violators. In stark contrast, Portuguese footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, sparked controversy on social media after gifting his football shirt to Israeli foreign minister, Yisrael Katz. Israel is often seen using famous personalities to ‘sportswash’ its deplorable human rights record.
Last month, the Argentinian and Uruguayan national football teams played a ‘friendly’ match in Israel, ignoring Palestinian appeals over Israeli attacks on besieged Gaza.