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The Sportswashing Debate: Rwandan Investment in European Football

With ‘sportswashing’ dominating the zeitgeist of the sporting landscape, the need to evaluate the usage of the term is more important than ever.

Sportswashing has been a term that has sparked debate, malaise, and eyerolls amongst sports fans. But, as every aspect of elite sport becomes globalised, the reality of how we approach and discuss these growing developments is a necessity. Without sensible discussions and analysis, we run the risk of making the complex political decisions within sport myopic. 

What is Sportswashing?

Sportswashing, simply put, is the use of sports to enhance the image of an individual, group, or nation, often to distract from controversy. This is not a new political tactic, with the likes of Hitler hosting the 1936 Olympics to legitimise his rule, and the military junta of Argentina using the 1978 FIFA World Cup doing the same.

However, nation states owning, and sponsoring sports clubs in Europe has sparked new political and moral debates. This is highly prevalent in football, with the governments of Arab Gulf states owning Manchester City (United Arab Emirates), Paris Saint Germain (Qatar), and Newcastle United (Saudi Arabia). These are policies aimed to gain points in the diplomatic league table, while diverting eyes away from their poor human rights records. While this may seem like a simple concept, contexts beyond the Arab Gulf muddy the waters, requiring political commentators and sport writers to evaluate how we use the term sportswashing. 

Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and European Football

Since 2018, Arsenal have been sponsored by Visit Rwanda, a tourism company owned by the Rwandan government, and was renewed in 2021 with Arsenal reportedly receiving £10 million a year. This has been followed by Visit Rwanda partnering with Paris Saint Germain and Bayern Munich. The East African country has been governed by authoritarian Paul Kagame since 2000, and has received criticism for campaigns of repression, persecution, and murder of political opponents and refugees. With what seems like a textbook example of sportswashing, why shoudn’t we jump to conlusions, and cry sportswashing?

Paul Kagame was praised by the global community, being credited for resolving the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990s, but is now being accused of using media campaigns to hide the actions of his government, and rebrand Rwanda as a safe country.

Is Rwanda Sportswashing?

Unlike the economically flourishing countries in the Arab Gulf, Rwanda is a poor, underdeveloped country, with limited financial opportunities and natural resources to build an economy on. To promote economic growth, the Rwandan government turned to tourism, leading to the multi million partnerships that placed the words ‘Visit Rwanda’ on players’ sleeves, and all over European football stadiums.

This investment brought a boom to Rwanda’s tourism industry, welcoming over a million visitors in 2022, and providing funds to build hospitals, provide school meals, and expand electricity grids. Furthermore, the World Bank commended the Rwandan tourism sector for helping the country bounce back post-COVID. So while accusations of sportswashing have been aimed at Rwanda from inside and outside the country, the increased development of possibly lifechanging infrastructure is hard to argue against. Whilst important to highlight the abuses of power Paul Kagame has exercised, is Rwanda utilising sport, similar to the likes of Qatar? Where little has seemed to change since hosting the 2022 World Cup. 

This provokes an interesting debate of how we define if a country is sportswashing or not, and what role the context of a country plays in making this decision. Is it on purpose? Is it coincidental? Should we criticise if these actions bring longing change? This will have to be observed over time with Rwanda, with further investments into domestic sports infrastructure, Kagame seems to want to follow the Qataris by hosting international sporting events. But is this to justify his policies and consolidate power on the global stage, or develop the economy with his nation and public in mind? 

Sportswashing and the West, Are we Hypocrites?

The criticism of Rwanda’s sports initiatives has also brought the blind spots of the sportswashing discourse to light. African and Middle Eastern journalists have stated sportswashing is a westernised term, used to criticise the global south, and they’re right. Western audiences have been quick to yell ‘sportswashing!’ at countries in the Middle East and Africa without confronting the politicisation of sport in Europe and the Americas.

Is Viktor Orbán’s use of taxpayer money to improve the performance of the Hungarian national football team sportswashing? Is the English cricket team used as a tool to justify the British Empire by establishing sporting relations with former colonies? Could having a Formula 1 Grand Prix event in Texas be used to normalise the US state’s controversial policy on gun control, abortion, and the death penalty?

While the last two are a stretch, it is representative of the attitudes western audiences have against the global south. Preconceptions and a narrow perspective lead to targeted criticism, while not examining the whole picture. For us to have a discussion about sportswashing like adults, we sometimes have to talk about the reality that we’re ignoring at home, and that may be the case for a lot of us in the west.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s diversion of taxpayer money to fund elite football infrastructure in Hungary has often been cited as reckless and more of a passion project than actual policy.

Sorry, I Don’t Have an Answer

While I can’t provide an answer as to whether Rwanda is sportswashing or not, it highlights the need to examine the wider context in which sports policies are being enacted. Without examining the important distinctions each case of nation state sponsored investment brings, the term sportswashing itself will be rendered meaningless, and will be confined to blindsided orientalist rhetoric.

While not a justification of Kagame’s regime, the economic status of Rwanda provides a murky response to the sportswashing question, in contrast to the more obvious cases of football clubs being owned by nation state governments with limitless financial resources. While this discussion is merely a summary, I hope it provides an important argument for you to think about the next time you see Visit Rwanda, or a new state owned sponsor plastered across football kits and stadia alike, and how we can develop new discussions around the politics of sports. 

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