For better and much worse, 2022 was the pinnacle of sports. The year began with the Beijing Winter Olympics, with the International Olympic Committee insisting on its position of “political neutrality” regarding the crimes against humanity faced by the Uyghurs. The war in Ukraine then forced the IOC and FIFA to back down, but they admitted – many years too late – that allowing Russia to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup was unwise.
In the months that followed, all lessons from the Russian experience were promptly forgotten by the world’s sporting elite. The International Cricket Council has sold its soul to Aramco, the Saudi oil giant controlled by a brutal regime notorious for dismembering dissidents with bone saws. There’s also the trivia that Aramco alone has caused 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in recent decades.
Formula 1 continues to enjoy the favor of repressive regimes, including Azerbaijan (crushing dissent at home and committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh) and the very same Saudis (who are also enjoying their first year as owners of an English Premier League team). The global cycling body even blacklisted a journalist who asked tough questions about the sport’s links to the oppressive Turkmen regime and Russian oligarchs.
And all this as we head into a sporting World Cup: literally, the men’s World Cup in Qatar, an autocratic state with few civil liberties where LGBTQI+ relationships can lead to imprisonment and which has overseen the deaths of at least 6,500 migrants. workers in frenetic construction activity before the tournament.
Against a gloomy backdrop, a recent athlete and fan-led backlash against domestic sports washing offered a ray of light. It is finally a showdown for those who in words former Wallabies captain Senator David Pocock “use the teams we love to advertise and buy social licence”?
The developments of the past week – in netball, cricket and AFL – are certainly a promising start. It builds on years of hard work by Australian athletes, players’ unions and activists, with Pocock and his wife Emma (co-founder of FrontRunners) at the forefront. They show the promise of the moment; growing community recognition that fossil fuel sponsorship is as reprehensible as tobacco sponsorship and should also be banned. A greater awareness of the basic premise of sportswashing – cash for social license – and an appreciation that we can do better.
This is a wave that is certainly just beginning, especially in the climate space. It seems inevitable that Santos’ sponsorship of the Wallabies and the Tour Down Under, Woodside’s sponsorship of the Fremantle Dockers and Adani’s commercial links with the North Queensland Cowboys are coming to an end. Activism breeds activism, success breeds success. As some athletes and sports have success fighting against athletes, the movement will generate its own self-sustaining momentum.
It won’t be long before state governments are involved; there is already a push to ban fossil fuel advertising in stadiums (the Greens have introduced a bill in NSW). How attractive will Woodside’s sponsorship deal look if the logo is covered every time Fremantle plays in Sydney?
But it would be premature to celebrate just yet, especially when the World Cup – the pinnacle of sports enjoyment – is so close. It is understood the Socceroos will make a public statement on human rights in Qatar ahead of the World Cup; otherwise, football Australia has been remarkably quiet.
The stance taken by Australian netballers is an instructive example of both the hope and the reality in the fight against sportswashing right now. Gina Rinehart is Australia’s richest person, one of our most influential global warming deniers, and an advocate of climate-destroying government inaction. Independently and through his companies, he has also financed swimming, volleyball, rowing and artistic swimming for years with great effect. Veteran swimmer Cate Campbell said during last year’s Tokyo Olympics that Rinehart “saved swimming” through her financial contributions to the sport.
In 2022, Hancock Prospecting stepped up its contributions, perhaps with an eye to growing community discontent with climate change deniers and the opportunity presented by Brisbane’s 2032 home Olympics. In January, Hancock became the main sponsor of the Australian Olympic team. The company recently extended this grandeur to netball, a sport facing financial oblivion, with a multi-million dollar deal.
Current and former Diamonds players have objected to the deal, noting Rinehart’s views on climate change and past comments about Indigenous Australians by her late father Lang Hancock, who founded the family business.
The Diamonds played in uniforms without the Hancock logo in the recent series, but the deal remains in place and Netball Australia has tried to play down the dispute. An objection to sponsorship by Indigenous player, Noongar woman Donnell Wallam, was described by governing body and captain Liz Watson as a “cultural sensitivity” on Tuesday. Because objecting to wearing the logo of a company founded by someone who called for the forced sterilization of the first people in Australia is clearly nothing more than cultural sensitivity.
Sport can be a powerful tool for positive social change. He can also be hijacked by companies and brutal authoritarian regimes who want to use his emotional power to improve their reputation. The backlash against sportswashing in Australia has been encouraging in recent weeks. But a lot of work needs to be done to get the likes of Santos, Woodside and Hancock Prospecting out of Australian sport.
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