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Can Sport Mega-events Clean a Dirty State Image?

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Some states accused of human rights violations use major sporting events to distract the criticism and embellish their reputation. Is it time for radical sanctions and boycotts to end the practice of sportswashing? Major sporting events such as the Olympics or the World Cup capture the world’s attention. Billions of people follow the events via various media outlets and digital platforms. Hence, there is the possibility of reaching a global audience with messages of many kinds. This can be handled in both constructive and problematic ways. Most organizing cities and states seem to use mega-events in line with the Olympic ideal of enlightened patriotism. With grandiose ceremonies, high-tech facilities, and (if possible) sporting success for the home team, the aim is to demonstrate progress and social and cultural flourishing with no substantial claims on superiority or dominance. The 2006 Soccer World Cup in Germany showing cheering and playful Germans challenged the international cliché of a controlled and disciplined people. The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games included humor and a series of popular-cultural references. Agent 007 James Bond parachuted the Queen into the stadium, and the Spice Girls were reunited. A global audience smiled and followed the rhythm.

There is however also the possibility of exploiting sporting mega-events in problematic ways. Historically, some events have been means to strengthen aggressive, totalitarian regimes. Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics, the so-called Nazi-Olympics, was a carefully planned propaganda show. With drilled groups on the bleachers forming the head of Lenin and the hammer and the sickle, the opening ceremony of the 1980 Moscow Olympics was embedded with communist symbols. Often, political and ideological exploitation is combined with a bread and circus-strategy, as when the Argentine hosted the soccer World Cup in 1978. Post-Peron Argentina was in the hands of a military junta eradicating the opposition with torture and executions. The tournament, ending with the Argentinian team beating the Netherlands in a controversial win, was used for whatever it........

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