The terms “Sports Whitewashing” or “Sports Washing” are used to qualify a technique whereby states with poor human rights records cover their negative international reputations by associating themselves with diverse sport events or competitions of international importance. The boxing match between Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua for the World Heavyweight Championship which took place in Saudi Arabia last year, the 2019 Europa League final in Azerbaijan or even the next Football World Cup which will take place in Qatar in 2022 are good “sports whitewashing” examples. Moreover, “Sports-Washing” also corresponds to the fact that rich heads of states (Princes, Presidents or Emirs) enter the capital or even purchase sports teams or clubs in order to benefit from their extremely positive image all around the world. It’s what happened, for instance, when the French football team PSG and Qatar signed a deal in 2011 or when, a few years later when the Bahraini royal family created the cycling team “Bahrain-Merida” (today Bahrain-McLaren).
The Al-Khalifa family turned sports-whitewashing into its favorite tactic in order to deflect the general public attention from the systematic human rights violations in Bahrain. In 2002, the King of Bahrain offered a consequent amount of money in order to obtain that a Formula 1 Grand Prix would take place annually in Bahrain from the International Automobile Federation. The first Bahrain Grand Prix took place in 2004. Eleven years later, the Bahraini royal family wanted to repeat this successful practice by creating one of the world’s best triathlon teams. The Bahraini authorities even decided to name this team “Bahrain Endurance 13.” This name is reminiscent of a group of 13 high profile activists, human rights defenders and members of the opposition arrested in 2011 and condemned to long-term prison sentences because of their implication in the pro-democracy movement. These high-profile political prisoners are called by many NGOs the “Bahrain 13.” The team was named “Bahrain Endurance 13” in order to diminish the importance of these activists by covering the name Bahrain 13 behind the triathlon team, offering a much more positive advertising to the country and its government.
In 2020, the Bahraini authorities started to invest money into soccer. It started with the Spanish team of Córdoba CF and continued when the Royal Family invested 5 millions of euros in order to purchase 20% of the Paris FC team, playing in French second division. These financial investments are part of a larger policy which aims at “whitewashing” the image of Bahrain and of the Royal family through a rather small investment (5 million while Qatar invested more than 1.5 billion euros in the other Parisian soccer team, PSG). Thanks to these investments, the Bahrain government hopes that the name “Bahrain” would be associated with sports that are viewed extremely positively by the general opinion rather than with the terrible human rights violations perpetrated by the authorities.
Indeed, the Bahraini Royal family is responsible for the repression and arbitrary persecution of numerous political or religious opponents who participated in the 2011 pro-democracy movement. This movement, carried out by activists and human rights defenders proclaiming their opposition to the regime, asking for the end of abuses made to their fundamental rights and liberties such as the freedom of expression or association, denouncing the systematic use of torture by the authorities and advocating for more transparency and representation was violently repressed by the government. Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa himself, King Hamad’s son, was deeply implicated in this repression. He firmly asserted his opposition and aversion toward the pro-democracy movement. Following the uprisings, he directly threatened athletes who would choose to take part in the protests. He said: “whoever calls for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head. Whatever his implication or support to this cause, he will be punished. Whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician, whatever he is, he will be held accountable at this time. Today is the judgement day. Bahrain is an island, there is no way out”. Some shattering testimonies even documents that Prince Nasser himself tortured opponents to the regime.
The main reason why the Bahraini government decided to invest into sports (Cordoba, Paris FC, Bahrain McLaren) that are particularly significant in Europe, is therefore to improve its image and deflect the general public and the international community’s attention from the systematic human rights violations taking place in its kingdom. This practice is called “Sport Whitewashing”.