A splashy new golf tournament, which attracted some of the biggest players in the game and launched in London last week, has become the latest example of what detractors call "sportswashing," the practice of sanitizing the reputation of a country or corporation using expensive and high-profile sporting events.
In this case the tournament sponsor is the government of Saudi Arabia, which is backing the event with $2 billion from its Public Investment Fund, according to Forbes. At issue is that the Saudi government has been accused of numerous human rights violations over the years, including the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Both U.S. intelligence services and a U.N. special rapporteur have blamed the Saudi government for the murder.
The tournament will unfold over the next four months, with games at eight different courses including former President Donald Trump’s courses in Bedminster, England, and Miami. Other sites include Boston; Chicago; Portland, Oregon, Bangkok and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, according to the league's website.
Last week, the PGA announced that 17 players, including golf legends Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, would not be allowed to compete in the PGA this season because of their participation in LIV events.
“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said in a statement on Thursday. The PGA has penalized them because they did not obtain the necessary clearance to play in a tournament that is hosting events in North America.
Monahan left it uncertain whether these players would be able to compete in the future, saying only that “we’re prepared to deal with those questions.”
In a statement to ABC News, a spokesperson for the PGA said “the PGA TOUR’s decision to suspend has no connection to the Saudi funding. We’re simply upholding our Tournament Regulations and doing what is in the best interest of the entire membership and the TOUR as a whole.”
At least four players, including Dustin Johnson, have already resigned from the PGA Tour, the New York Times reported.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Mickelson defended his right to play in the LIV Golf tournament. “This is an opportunity that gives me a chance to have the most balance in my life going forward and I think this is going to do a lot of good for the game,” he told reporters.
When pressed on the political nature of his decision, he added “nobody here condones human rights violations, nobody here is trying to make up for anything.”
The U.S. Golf Association, which runs the U.S. Open that begins this week, and is separate from the PGA, announced that all eligible players will be allowed to compete in a statement published Tuesday.
The LIV Golf organization called the PGA’s decision “vindictive” and said “the era of free agency is beginning as we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London, and beyond” in a statement published on Thursday.
Commentators have been drawing comparisons between the LIV Tournament and Nazi Germany hosting the Olympics in 1936.
Other countries like Qatar and United Arab Emirates have invested in sport competition to gain political influence. Danyel Reiche, visiting professor at Georgetown University and author of a new book about Qatar’s successful efforts to host the 2022 World Cup, told ABC News he believes the Saudi kingdom is taking a page from Qatar’s playbook, using investment in sport to build international political influence.
Qatar began this process in 1993, he says, when the country hosted the ‘Qatar Open’ tennis tournament. “Saudi Arabia is recognizing that Qatar’s strategy has worked pretty well and they're copying it,” he says, with a delay of around 25 years.
Reiche is critical of the term ‘sportswashing,’ though. “I think [the situation] is more complex than the term suggests,” he said, which is “that a country would spend money just to distract from human rights violations.”
The goal, as he sees it, is to “gain soft power and influence in international affairs.”
Nick Wise, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who teaches tourism and sports tourism, told ABC News he believes that with respect to Saudi Arabia the term ‘sportswashing’ is appropriate.
“They’re trying to use this event as a spectacle,” he says, adding that there are likely other strategies at play including diversifying their investments and building a new sports tourism economy.
“When you put money into something, it’s a way of controlling the narrative,” he said.