On the eve of the inaugural LIV Golf Series in St Albans on Thursday, Lee Westwood expressed his view that sport and politics should not mix. In doing so Westwood may have trivialised the actions of murderous and corrupt regimes throughout history who have used sport as a vehicle for propaganda, incitement of hatred, and ‘sportswashing’.
Under some pressure from journalists about his involvement in the Saudi financed LIV Golf Series, Lee Westwood could not have been more lucid. “I don’t think sport and politics should mix. The European Tour has been happy to play events in Saudi Arabia. The PGA Tour released players for that. It’s like Wimbledon banning Russian players. For what it’s worth I don’t agree with that, either.”
Westwood is entitled to his views; his point about hypocrisy in relation to Saudi influence in the sporting world is justified and it’s easy to understand his opposition to athletes being used as leverage against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, for better and for worse, sport and politics have always been wedded to each other. This is a fact and, like it or not, Westwood is in the eye of a political and moral storm right now.
The 1936 Olympics is just as good a point to start as any. When Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler in Munich, winning his four gold medals in track and field, he delivered not only a blow to the Nazi ‘superior race’ propaganda but also a challenge to white supremacists in his home country, the USA.
On the podium during the 200m medal ceremony of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, United States athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos looked downward while gesturing skyward with closed fists during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. The infamous ‘Black Power Salute’ represents unity or solidarity, generally with oppressed peoples. That Smith and Carlos chose their moment of glorious achievement to raise awareness of racism and oppression still chimes today.
Forty-eight years later NFL player Colin Kaepernick took up the mantle when he began kneeling on the side-lines at games during the US national anthem in 2016. The 49ers quarterback was protesting against police brutality and racism, following a spate of police-involved deaths of black Americans including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Billie Jean-King, Joe Louis, Jake Daniels and Jackie Robinson all deserve a mention at this juncture.
Recently, political statements in relation to LGBTQ+ initiatives – including footballers wearing rainbow armbands and bootlaces – is further evidence of sport and politics coming together to raise awareness.
When eleven Israeli athletes were executed during the Munich Olympics in 1972, at the hands of the PLO backed ‘Black September’ Arab commando group, political differences provided motivation. While the blood dried on the athletes’ corpses, a political decision was made to continue with the games.
Political interference in Eastern European sport, during the cold war, is well documented. Accusations of doping, child abuse and wide-spread cheating appear to have grounds. In 1980, the United States led a 65 nation boycott of the Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Consequently, the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted the Los Angeles games four years later.
LIV Golf has divided opinion with plenty of focus on the human rights record of the Saudis. In 2021, LIV Golf Investments was formed, with PIF – the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia – its majority shareholder.
Amnesty International UK has accused LIV Golf players of being “willing stooges of Saudi sportswashing” due to the Gulf kingdom’s “appalling human rights record”.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who heads the PIF, allegedly ordered the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Saudi money proliferates sport. Newcastle United, as Westwood pointed out is “partly owned” by the Saudi group PIF – the same group who have invested in LIV Golf. The Saudi’s investment in Newcastle didn’t come without controversy. In fact, the deal took over a year to complete and it involved a geopolitical dispute, problematic human rights issues, and dragged the British Prime Minister into the debate.
That’s sport and politics mixing right there, Lee.
The 49-year-old also sounded hopeful that the humans rights issues taking place in Saudi Arabia are being addressed.
“I think Saudi Arabia are obviously… they know they’ve got issues. I think you know lots of countries around the world have got issues and I think they’re trying to improve, they’re trying to do it through sport, which a lot of places, you know, a lot of countries do. I think they’re doing it a lot quicker than some countries are trying to do it and you know, that maybe worries people or scares people.”
As I write, Lee Westwood will be making his way to the tee in the ironically phrased ‘shotgun start’ to the London event at Centurion Club. As his ball inevitably finds the green on the short par 3 and he marches off the tee, he should perhaps reflect on how politics and sport do mix – sometimes for the better. He has decided to deflect. He has decided to take the money. He has decided.
“I’m an independent contractor that, you know, I work for myself. It’s my job and I have to do what’s right for me.”