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We need to reassess who's financing the sports we love

Lucy Wilde argues sport has a responsibility to be more mindful of who and where its money comes from

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In 2020 the global sports sponsorship market was worth an estimated $57bn, with expectations predicting this to reach $89bn by 2027.

Major recent and upcoming sporting events including the Beijing Winter Olympics and 2022 Qatar Football World Cup highlight the geographic scale and cultural reach of the international sporting world, but within this, sponsorship deals and financial alliances conceal a darker tone that ought to encourage a profound rethinking of how far sport and politics, and our consciences, should be considered in threefold.

Chelsea FC’s owner Roman Abramovich was last week sanctioned for the source of his oligarchical money, and his ties to Vladimir Putin. Critics assert the sources of his wealth have been consciously overlooked until recent events in Ukraine have made the task of denying links to Russia insurmountable.

An assertive imposition of government sanctions, freezing of assets and a published report damning his apparent closeness to Putin, would suggest the Premier League and football as a sporting body in itself, have declared their position clearly.

But, questions remain about the extent of pre-existing internal knowledge concerning his links to Russia. Has his 19-year tenure as a Chelsea benefactor carried so much weight that, until now, a blind eye was turned towards the origins of his wealth?

When Abramovich took over the club back in 2003 it was common knowledge he had done so with oligarch money; players were bought and he bankrolled transfer fees and wages the club could otherwise not have afforded.

Rather than place blame entirely on governing bodies or the Football Association, it’s worth considering how the reality of Abramovich’s links to the Kremlin were willfully, and conveniently, overlooked for so long.

He has been able to cement his position as a key figurehead both within Chelsea and the broader football context for as long as the cash waves rolled in. It seems ironic then that the reasoning provided to justify government sanctions quote his “decades-long” relationship with Putin; enjoyment of “preferential treatment and concessions"; and implicate his company in supplying steel to Russian military. Has it really taken the outbreak of war to illuminate the flaws in these circumstances?

This case seemingly marks a crucial pivot point in the sporting world; not just a challenge for English football and its legitimacy, but a case in point to ask ourselves deeper questions about how far politics and sport should be considered separately, and whether we want to take a moral stance in sponsorship decision-making.

The fact that within the frameworks of English football, Abramovich is still considered a “fit and proper person” suggests now is the time to rethink our priorities.

The proposed breakaway circuit encapsulated by the Saudi Golf League marks another uncomfortable clash between sponsorship opportunities and game expansion, versus potential moral considerations.

Owned by LIV Golf and financed by the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, the promise of large sums of money has been brandished as an incentive to support a tour which would rival that of the PGA. Being offered up to $50m, some of golf’s biggest names including Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Bryson DeChambeau demonstrated lukewarm interest.

Saudi Arabia's 'sportwashing' has also extended its reach to other sports, including motorsport, boxing, tennis and wrestling, as well as purchasing an 80 percent stake in Newcastle United in 2021.

However, this does not detract from the fact that its government, directly linked to the financial frameworks that would support the new Golf League, is mottled with accusations of human-rights violations.

Just because the current state of affairs has witnessed golf legends such as Rory Mcllroy and Tiger Woods profess their loyalty to the PGA regardless of what money is on the table elsewhere, this does not mean plans for the SGL will not resurface.

In a similar vein, Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup later this year. Awarded in a free election by FIFA delegates, questions have rightly been repeatedly asked about whether FIFA should remove the tournament from the Gulf state altogether.

The continued illegality of homosexuality in Qatar; the increased risk to life of migrant workers working on the construction of the stadium; the lack of pre-existing infrastructure. All these issues serve as reasons for rethinking Qatar as a desirable venue - and they only just touch the surface. An ESPN report estimates a figure of £138bn as the overall infrastructural cost.

The US, UK and Canada’s diplomatic boycott of the recent Beijing Winter Olympics once again highlights a flawed framework which overlooked China’s human-rights abuses and the atrocities taking place in Xinjiang against the Uyghur community. Industrial-scale human-rights abuses were recognised, and symbolic action taken to express international reproach, and yet the competition itself still went ahead.

Ultimately, health and fitness, corporate money and sovereign sponsorship remain inextricably linked. Yet the series of events highlighted here indicate sport finds itself at a crucial moment - it must decide what it wants to be associated with and what the connotations are going to be.

Boycotts, media admonitions of disapproval and government sanctions are all well and good, but remain hindered by wider issues in sporting frameworks and government attitudes which pursue capital at the stake of humanism in its simplest form. If sport wishes to ensure long term survival arguably there needs to be a fundamental, and resolute, rethinking of priorities.

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