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Formula 1 race in Saudi Arabia draws accusations of 'sportswashing'

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

This weekend, a major coming-out party for racing and for a regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to Jeddah Corniche Circuit in Saudi Arabia, Formula One's newest, longest and fastest street circuit.

FOLKENFLIK: Sunday will feature Saudi Arabia's first Formula One Grand Prix. F1 and the Middle Eastern countries signed a more than $600 million partnership last year, ensuring the kingdom would host events for at least the next decade. When it was announced, that move brought heavy criticism. Along with it came accusations of sportswashing. That's the idea that countries with grave human rights abuses, like Saudi Arabia, use global sporting events to burnish their images. And Saudi Arabia is not alone. China will host February's Winter Olympics. And Qatar hosts next year's FIFA World Cup, despite concerns over human rights violations and autocratic regimes in both countries.

Helen Lenskyj has studied and written extensively on these issues, as well as the politics of global sports. She's professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. And she joins us now. Professor Lenskyj, welcome.

HELEN LENSKYJ: Thank you. Nice to be here.

FOLKENFLIK: The list of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia is long and daunting, including the torture and killing of dissidents, including the assassination of a Washington Post columnist. Let's talk about Formula One. The head of the racing organization, Jean Todt, said this week that motorsports should not, quote, "get involved with political issues." What do you make of his statement?

LENSKYJ: He's walking in the footsteps of a long line of people like him who are at the head of international federations of some kind, sport federations who get a lot of mileage out of saying let's not bring politics into sport or sport and politics don't mix or something along those lines. And as an Australian colleague of mine said, not just that sport and politics mix, they're married with children.

FOLKENFLIK: You began studying this question decades ago. In that time, what shift, if any, have you seen in how consumers see how closely knit or how much they want to divide the question of thinking about politics, thinking about morality and thinking about sport on the other side?

LENSKYJ: There has been some progress. When I started looking at these issues in the late 1980s, the U.K. investigative journalist Andrew Jennings was one of the lone voices saying - or uncovering the bribery and corruption behind the Olympic bid process. And that sort of opened the floodgates for a lot of scholars and activists and investigative journalists to dig deeper into sport mega-events to see the nastiness that goes on behind the scenes. When their proponents - including myself - get involved with applying these concepts to sport, especially Olympic sport and sport mega-events, we get a very negative reception because nobody wants to hear kind of negativity around their favorite teams and their favorite events and so on.

FOLKENFLIK: Is there no truth to that? That is, is there no way in which sport can bridge ideological differences, can allow people to connect across regimes, across borders in a way that perhaps cuts against the idea of repression?

LENSKYJ: The mainstream media would have you think that that's the case because they love doing these kind of feel-good human interest stories around how two opponents from different countries to embrace stuff to the event or sought asylum and got married in the host country or the kinds of stories that grab mainstream media attention. Those are really the exceptions. People who have documented the reality in Olympic villages or in the background to any Olympic event of recent history know that a lot of the political differences are actually played out on the field or in the pool. There isn't this bridging of gaps between warring countries really.

FOLKENFLIK: A spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., told NPR this week that, quote, "the notion that the transformative reforms currently underway in the kingdom are simply an attempt to improve the kingdom's image are widely off the mark," end quote. I mean, we've had this question, I guess, since the '36 Olympics in Berlin under the Nazi regime there. What have we seen countries do with repressive traditions in recent years with major global sporting events?

LENSKYJ: Well, we could start with Beijing 2008. And the major human rights watchdogs around the globe have documented how human rights abuses in China did not improve after 2008. In fact, they got worse. And we now see the situation with the Uyghurs, Tibet, Hong Kong, the same with Sochi in 2014. So there's no historical or contemporary evidence of permanent changes. And the so-called Nazi games of 1936 have been thoroughly documented. And, in fact, Hitler and Avery Brundage from the U.S. Olympic Committee talked about how it wouldn't really look too good to have anti-Semitic messages on public - in public spaces around Berlin. And Hitler said, well, we'll just remove them for the duration of the Olympics while the visitors are there. But obviously, he was going to put them back as soon as he possibly could.

FOLKENFLIK: In countries that don't have human rights violations, you've written sports can be still used for a kind of international soft power. How does it work in a way that does still burnish international reputations, international images?

LENSKYJ: Yes. It's another angle on this sort of goosebumps effect in sport exceptionalism that a democracy isn't so much interested in burnishing its image on human rights issues because, to the world, Canada's human rights issues are just fine. But Canada's treatment of Indigenous people is appalling, just as Australia's treatment of Australian Aboriginals is appalling. The sportswashing applies to that angle, where the world's attention is on the singing and dancing. I had colleagues at my Toronto University who watched the opening ceremony in Sydney in 2000. And they said to me, that was wonderful. Aboriginal people were so well-represented and kind of swallowed this mythology that if there's good representation in the opening closing ceremony and everybody's happy, that means there aren't any systemic problems involving Australian Aboriginals, when that is so far from the truth.

FOLKENFLIK: So what hope do you have that the world of sport or the presence of sport or the interest in sport can somehow be leveraged for positive benefit for people either in specific countries or globally? What hope can you give?

LENSKYJ: Well, I'm very encouraged by the Black Lives Matter and athletes taking a knee. That has spread dramatically, and that is one - in recent times - one of the most positive signs that I've seen.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Helen Lenskyj. She's a professor emerita at the University of Toronto. Her latest book is "The Olympic Games: A Critical Approach." Helen Lenskyj, thanks so much for your time.

LENSKYJ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.