It may prove to be a blip from business as usual but recent resistance in Australian sport has been encouraging
For better and very much for worse, 2022 has been an apogee for sportswashing. The year began with the Winter Olympics in Beijing, as the International Olympic Committee insisted on its position of “political neutrality” about crimes against humanity faced by Uyghur people. The war in Ukraine then forced the IOC and Fifa to backflip, all-but conceding – many years too late – that allowing Russia to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup was ill-advised.
In the subsequent months, any lessons to be learnt from the Russian experience have been promptly forgotten by the global sporting elite. The International Cricket Council sold its soul to Aramco, the Saudi oil giant controlled by a brutal regime renowned for dismembering dissidents with bone-saws. There’s also the small matter of Aramco single-handedly causing 4% of global greenhouse emissions in recent decades.
Formula One continues to curry favour with repressive regimes, including the Azeris (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 body for cycling even blacklisted a journalist for asking tough questions about the sport’s links to the repressive Turkmen regime and Russian oligarchs.
And all of this as we hurtle towards the world cup of sportswashing: literally, the men’s Fifa 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 migrant workers in the frenetic construction activity leading up to the tournament.
Against the gloomy backdrop, the recent athlete and fan-led resistance to homegrown sportswashing has offered a ray of light. Is this finally a reckoning for those who, in the words of former Wallabies captain Senator David Pocock, “use the teams we love to advertise and buy social license”?
Certainly, developments of the past week – in netball, cricket and the AFL – are a promising start. They build on years of hard work by Australian athletes, player 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 likewise be banned. Greater awareness, too, of the underlying premise of sportswashing – cash for social licence – and an appreciation that we can do better.
This is a wave that is surely only beginning, particularly in the climate space. It seems inevitable that Santos’s sponsorship of the Wallabies and the Tour Down Under, Woodside’s sponsorship of the Fremantle Dockers and Adani’s commercial ties with the North Queensland Cowboys are in their dying days. Activism empowers activism, success begets success. As some athletes and sports have successes in fighting back against the sportswashers, the movement will generate its own self-sustaining momentum.
It won’t be long until state governments are drawn in; there is already a push for bans on 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 up every time Fremantle play in Sydney?
But it would be premature to celebrate just yet, especially with the World Cup – the sportswashing pinnacle – so imminent. It is understood that the Socceroos will make a public statement on human rights in Qatar ahead of the World Cup; otherwise, Football Australia has been conspicuously quiet.
The stand taken by Australia’s netballers is an instructive example of both hope and reality in the battle against sportswashing right now. Gina Rinehart is the richest person in Australia, one of our most influential global warming deniers and a supporter of climate-wrecking government inaction. She has also, individually and through her companies, heavily funded swimming, volleyball, rowing and artistic swimming for years, to great effect. Veteran swimmer Cate Campbell said during last year’s Tokyo Olympics that Rinehart had “saved swimming” by way of her financial contributions to the sport.
In 2022 Hancock Prospecting has stepped up its contributions, perhaps with an eye to growing community dissatisfaction with climate change deniers and the opportunity window presented by the home 2032 Olympics in Brisbane. In January, Hancock , became a major sponsor of the Australian Olympic Team. The company recently extended this largesse to netball, a sport facing financial oblivion, with a multi-million dollar deal.
Current and former Diamonds players 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 a recent series but the deal remains on foot and Netball Australia has tried to quieten the dispute. An objection to the sponsorship by an Indigenous player, Noongar woman Donnell Wallam, was described on Tuesday by the governing body and captain Liz Watson as “cultural sensitivities.” Because objecting to wearing the logo of a company founded by someone who called for forced sterilisation of Australia’s first people is clearly no more than a cultural sensitivity.
Sport can be a potent tool for positive social change. It can also be hijacked by companies and brutal authoritarian regimes who want to use its emotional power to enhance their reputations. The resistance to sportswashing in Australia in recent weeks has been encouraging. But there is much work to be done to get the likes of Santos, Woodside and Hancock Prospecting out of Australian sport.