Arab News

The Lucrative Art of Sportswashing

The use of sport to polish up tarnished reputations is, despite denials, flourishing in Israel and beyond.
Bill Law, sportswashing, sports diplomacy, Chris Froome Israel Start-up, Israel sport diplomacy, Sylvan Adams Israel, Sylvan Adams cycling, Manchester City ban lifted, Manchester City Champions League ban, sport and politics Middle East, cycling news

© lassedesignen / Shutterstock

July 15, 2020 09:23 EDT

When it was announced on July 9 that the great British road racing cyclist Chris Froome was departing Team Ineos for Israel Start-up Nation, there was some surprise amongst the racing fraternity — not about his leaving Ineos, where relations were said to be fraying, but about where he was headed. As the BBC’s Matt Warwick put it: “Froome has gone to a team who, up until … last October, were in pro cycling’s second division … Think Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona to play in the English Championship, and you’ll get the idea.”

The man bringing Froome to Israel is 61-year-old Israeli-Canadian billionaire businessman Sylvan Adams. Adams has unabashedly appointed himself Israel’s ambassador at large, whose remit is to use his wealth and the vehicle of sport to improve the image of the country he now calls home. That sounds suspiciously like sportswashing, but Adams says that is not the case: “We’re not trying to cover up our sins and wash them away with something. Actually we’re just being ourselves and it’s not washing, it’s sport. It’s not called sportwashing, it’s called sport.”

A New Narrative

Adams likes to boast about bringing in celebrities like Lionel Messi for a football friendly, or Madonna when Israel hosted the Eurovision song contest. He doesn’t talk about the fees he paid to bring them in — it is all about telling positive stories, creating a new narrative. And he insists that what he is doing is not political. Adams is prepared to acknowledge that the Israelis “live in a bit of a rough neighbourhood, and we have issues with our neighbours, but that’s not the whole story.” And in his relentlessly sunny version of reality he sees but one dark cloud: “By just focusing on one aspect of life here, you are necessarily distorting the true picture and necessarily creating, and I hate to say it, fake news.”

One of his biggest coups and one he is building on with the acquisition of Froome was to secure the first leg of the famed Giro d’Italia for Israel in 2018. Adams is himself an amateur racing fanatic: He built the Middle East’s first velodrome in Tel Aviv and named it after himself. He says that, though it took a little convincing, the Giro organizers were eventually won over and the deal was done. Again, no mention of fees. “When I brought the Giro here and we had helicopter footage from the north to the south over three beautiful days, people saw it and it looked like the Giro. Really, it was fantastic,” Adams proudly recalls.

Embed from Getty Images

One doubts, however, that the footage caught the concrete wall that slashes through the land and divides Palestinian families, the illegal settlements implanted in the West Bank, the olive groves uprooted and destroyed, the nearly 2 million Palestinians crammed into the 365 square kilometers of the Gaza Strip. With a mantra of good news and pleasing views, Adams hopes that what many others see as sportswashing and what he insists is just “sports” will further facilitate the process of Israel’s normalization with the Gulf states.

He points to the presence of teams from Bahrain and the UAE in the 2018 Giro race held in Jerusalem as evidence of building friendly relations and the race itself as a “bridge of peace.” And he talks of meeting Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the king of Bahrain, a fellow racing enthusiast and head of the Bahrain Cycling Team. Adams was part of the Israeli delegation that went to the Bahraini capital Manama last year to discuss financing Donald Trump’s so-called “deal of the century,” which is where he met Prince Nasser. The prince has been credibly accused of torturing protesters in 2011.

Though the allegations against Nasser are widely known and the subject of conversation and controversy within the racing community, this news seemed either to have escaped Adams or he knew and wasn’t troubled: “I went to the palace. We had a private meeting. I told him about the velodrome and sent him an invitation.” Good news then.

More Good News

Continuing on the good news front, Manchester City, owned by a senior member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, had its two-year ban from Champions League football lifted on July 13. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned UEFA’s February ruling that punished the club for being in breach of Financial Fair Play regulations. Although Manchester City had “obstructed” UEFA in its investigation and shown “disregard” for the principle of cooperating with the authorities, CAS determined that as concerned the central finding — that the team’s Abu Dhabi ownership had played a shell game, disguising what was its own funding as independent sponsorship — “most of the alleged breaches were either not established or time-barred.” That does suggest rather strongly that at least some of the breaches were established and others disallowed on a technicality.

It is widely accepted that, in building Man City into a football behemoth, club executives played fast and loose with the financial rules. Now with this decision, it is accepted that Abu Dhabi, with the payment of a €10-million fine ($11.4 million), knocked down from the €30 million UEFA had levied, can get away with it.

For those in the business of sportswashing, that’s very good news. That and the fact that fans will look away from the unsavory, will see sport as an escape with no political intersections. As Sylvan Adams, the sportswashing denier, puts it: “I’m reaching sports fans who don’t dislike us. I’m not talking to the haters; haters gonna hate, and you know we live in a happier world. We don’t hate, we’re open, we’re free-thinking people. I’d rather live in our world. The world’s a little sunnier and nicer in our world rather than spewing hate all the time.”

*[This article was originally published by Arab Digest.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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