Ah, the all-too-typical response. Imagine Ashe saying the same thing when visiting Schwartzel’s homeland at the height of its racist depravity. Cynics claim no one has the high ground, so it makes little sense to mix sports with politics and human rights — as, for instance, Wimbledon did this year when it barred Russian and Belarusian players because of their nations’ war against Ukraine.
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No one should accept that. Not when we’re talking about nations like Saudi Arabia, where “it is the strategy of the state” to use sports to hide its abusive rights record, said Adam Coogle, a deputy director with the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.
“Sportswashing,” as it has come to be known, has long been an unfortunate fact of life. It’s why the Nazis hosted the 1936 Olympics, and China hosted the Summer Games in 2008 and the Winter Games in 2022. Vladimir V. Putin used athletic success to make Russia seem like a respectable member of the international community and a global force. Now we know the cost.
The Saudis are still new to this type of high-stakes mirage making, but under Prince Mohammed’s de facto rule since 2016, they’re making up for lost time with sports and entertainment. Hence the hosting of Formula 1 races and professional wrestling and soccer matches. Last year, they bought the Premier League soccer club Newcastle United. Now they’re turning to golf, a sport beloved by corporate kingpins and the political class. In other words, the kind of people whose decisions directly affect the desert kingdom.
Meantime, repression remains a fact of everyday Saudi Arabian life. Saudi citizens do not enjoy the right to free assembly and association. The legal system is not independent. Due process is a farce. “There’s a total lockdown of freedom of expression,” Coogle told me, speaking from Jordan last week over the phone. Saudis, he said, “are not allowed to voice one bit of criticism” toward the nation’s leadership.
To criticize, Coogle emphasized, is to risk detention, torture or death.
“With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform,” Khashoggi wrote in 2017. “He spoke of making our country more open and tolerant.”
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