Sportswashing: the billion dollar band-aid

Major sports investments from entire countries aren’t just about laundering jerseys.

Sportswashing is an attempt to fix a country’s tarnished political reputation by investing great sums of money into entertainment. It happened in 1936, when Germany hosted the Olympics in Berlin. Russia and China have also hosted many Olympic Games, such as the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow, the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, along with the 2014 summer and 2022 winter Olympics in Beijing.

This is only one microscopic strand of the history of sportswashing, as many countries have invested great amounts into some type of sporting event amid humanitarian rights violations. Recently, there have been many purchases originating from a handful of wealthy countries in the Middle East.

Just last year, Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup. On Oct. 31, it was declared that Saudi Arabia will host it in 2034. These are both examples of one way to sportswash: to host an event, in spite of their poor reputations for civil rights. This attracts tourists from around the world to come visit the country and receive hospitality. 

Just a few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia hosted one of the greatest boxing events of this century so far: Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou. It was fought in the newly constructed Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, which is set to be the new home of Al-Hilal F.C., the team that just signed soccer phenomenon Neymar Jr. to a two-year, up to USD $400 million  contract. 

“The viability makes sense, but now they’re trying to put their money where their mouth is and trying to get these sporting teams to come to them,” Montreal-based sports reporter Marco D’Amico said in an interview with The Concordian

Unless the sport is taken into global interest, however, there isn’t a large chance that a country will put itself in the spotlight. For example, as North America’s top four sports (baseball, football, basketball and hockey) have tried to expand globally, it isn’t very marketable around the world. But, there is always an opportunity to make a couple bucks here and there. 

This past July, the government of Qatar made an investment to take a minority stake of 5 per cent in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the NBA’s Washington Wizards, NHL’s Washington Capitals and WNBA’s Washington Mystics. The valuation for the entire company was placed at $4.05 billion.* Is this only a business investment for these buyers?

“The more interest you have, the higher bidding wars will be when they’re made available,” D’Amico explained. “I mean you just have to look at the sale of 10 per cent of the Montreal Canadiens brought to the owner of the Ottawa Senators.” 

Michael Andlauer, who bought the Ottawa Senators last September, had made a 500 per cent return on investment after selling his share of the Canadiens at CAD $2.5 billion enterprise value. 

“That’s a pretty good outcome in my opinion. If you can make that kind of money at an accrued rate today, I don’t doubt that Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other international investors are going to get involved,” D’Amico said.

The business aspect of sports shows that entertainment is an easy way to make profit. But it is also a way to fix wrongdoings by diverting attention, like jangling keys in front of a baby. 

*Correction issued. Previously displayed as “Qatar invested just over USD $4.05 billion for 5 per cent of Monumental Sports & Entertainment”. Updated on Dec. 4.


Education, denied

Ah, Twitter. The wonderful app that connects the universe with short bursts of 280-character tweets. Those tweets, which provide us with a way of expressing ourselves, are often funny, insightful, and inspiring. While Twitter is a great app that has been known to start careers and highlight important issues, it has also been known to end careers and relationships. And we’re not talking about relationships between people per say—unfortunately, we mean relationships between countries.

At the beginning of August, Canada’s foreign ministry tweeted: “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.” This spurred angry tweets by the Saudi foreign ministry.

In a series of tweets, the Saudi foreign ministry said they were expelling the Canadian ambassador from the country and suspended trade and investment transactions between the two nations. Most notably, the Saudi government decided to suspend scholarships for its foreign students studying at Canadian universities and colleges, according to Global News.

All students relying on Saudi-funded scholarships have either already been forced to leave, or are preparing to leave Canada in the coming weeks. Sept. 22 was announced as the final deadline for Saudi trainee doctors to leave the country, according to CBC News. The same source confirmed that 8,310 Saudi students were enrolled in Canadian post-secondary schools from Jan. to May 2018. Of that number, 435 were in Quebec, with 327 at McGill University, and more than 60 at Concordia.

We at The Concordian are frustrated to see innocent students affected by this diplomatic dispute. While we understand that each country has its own customs and political systems, we believe that no student’s education should be affected by international policy disputes—especially ones rooted in a request to respect human rights. In an ideal world, these students would be allowed to stay and strive for a bright future here in Canada.

We cannot imagine what these students are going through. But we know that Canada—our society, our educational system and our workforce—will be deeply affected by the departure of these students. Saudi Arabia was the sixth largest source of international students in Canada in 2015, according to a Global Affairs report. International students add approximately $15.5 billion annually to Canada’s economy, with Saudi students representing five per cent of that group.

Specifically, Saudi students’ impact on the Canadian economy is approximately $400 million per year, according to the same source. Although monetary value should be the last thing we look at when determining someone’s worth, it’s important to stress and recognize how detrimental this loss is for Canada.

In an ideal world, a tweet about human rights would not trigger such a hasty retaliation. In an ideal world, that tweet wouldn’t have been necessary to begin with. The common saying that students are our future is true; students are the force that shapes society’s future. The things we learn and what we choose to do with that knowledge is useful in developing our opinions and overall worldview. It’s a shame that a diplomatic dispute is interrupting something as important as education.

We consider those who finally felt Canada was becoming their home. For those of you who have to say goodbye to a place you only recently said hello to; for those who were almost finished with their degree and were beginning to step toward a bright career here in Canada. We’re disappointed that a nation that celebrates its diversity and inclusivity is losing cherished and valuable members of our society. The Concordian wishes you luck in all your future endeavours, and we hope something as trivial as a tweet is never again the reason for your goodbyes.

Graphic by Wednesday Laplante

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