The LIV golf tournament, sportswashing and the revolt of the aggrieved oligarch

Golf is an interminably boring sport – no offence to any avid golfing fans out there. However, golf actually captured my interest over recent months, with the rise and rise of the LIV golf tournament. Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government through its Public Investment Fund (PIF), this tournament has emerged as a challenger to the pre-eminent PGA golfing tour, the playground of wealthy golfers.

The fact that there is an upstart golfing tour challenging the long-established and predominant PGA golf organisation has something of a ‘sticking it to the man’ quality. The LIV golf tour is a kind of snub directed at golfing’s propriety. There is a certain sense of satisfaction in witnessing genteel golfing community of the PGA being offended, by the louder, obnoxious Rodney Dangerfield of the golfing tour that is LIV.

It is no exaggeration to state that LIV golf embodies the spirit of Trumpism; the aggrieved oligarch getting his/her own back at a rival grouping of the ultrawealthy. The fact that the LIV tour is backed up by Saudi money has attracted attention, and somewhat muted criticism. The blood soaked human rights-violating regime in Riyadh is getting something of a makeover, and the LIV tournament is just the vehicle for sportswashing.

Binoy Kampmark wrote that the recently concluded leg of the LIV tour, in Adelaide, South Australia, was a singular diplomatic triumph for the Riyadh petro-monarchy. Brushing aside all concerns regarding the egregious human rights abuses and appalling track record of the Saudi regime, South Australian politicians – and golfing superstars such as Greg Norman – hailed the LIV tour as a triumph.

The LIV golf tournament (LIV are the Roman numerals for 54) is structured differently from the usual PGA golf competition. The LIV tournament consists of forty eight golfers playing in a course of 54 holes. The PGA tour usually involves play over four days, with 150 golfers playing 72 holes.

More so than the structured differences between the rival golf codes, is the pay. The PGA guarantees only the winning players a huge prize paycheck. In the LIV code, all golfers are guaranteed to be paid. Oscar Rickett, writing in Middle East Eye, elaborates the details of the ongoing feud between the PGA and LIV golf tournaments.

Champion golfer Phil Mickelson, who has played in the LIV tour, admitted to his biographer earlier this year that the Saudis were, in his words, “scary motherf**kers”. Golfers such as Mickelson and Greg Norman have had to field questions from the media regarding Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record.

That’s enough about golf. Let’s broaden the discussion about sportswashing, and how sport and politics have always mixed. Liberals in the imperialist nations like to maintain the pretence that sport is completely separate from politics. However, recent events – such as the FIFA World Cup soccer in Qatar late last year, have shone a spotlight on how sport cannot be separated from political currents.

It is quite reasonable to question the role of the Qatari regime in sportswashing – using sport, such as the FIFA World Cup soccer, to soften its image. Qatar was the first Arab nation to win the bid to host the World Cup. This was an enormous success for one of the world’s Gulf petroleum monarchies. Amid this success came increased scrutiny of the Qatari regime’s economic and human rights practices.

There is no question that immigrant workers, such Bangladeshis and Filipinos, were exploited in the run-up to the soccer tournament. Indeed, labour organisations have long highlighted the appalling mistreatment of the migrant labour force in Qatar and similar Gulf monarchies. However, much of the criticism aimed at Qatar misses the mark, and is based on outrageous hypocrisy.

Qatar, in a similar fashion to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf petrostates, has been the recipient of lavish military aid and economic largesse from the Western nations for decades. Qatar has long backed the UK and the United States in foreign policy objectives for many years. The Gulf monarchies supported the US/UK backed Saudi attack on Yemen, and went along with the 2003 American war on Iraq.

The culturally regressive practices of these states – if that is how you wish to characterise the treatment of women or their approach to the LGBTQ community – has never been a barrier for cooperation from Washington and London. The corporate media in the imperialist nations is quite happy however, to denounce the allegedly ‘backward Muslim’ for those culturally regressive features, whipping up anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia.

Propping up authoritarian regimes is not a problem for the foreign policy establishments in the US and UK. Complaining that ‘Arab sheikhs are buying English soccer clubs’ has become a recurring feature of domestic political discourse, sustaining a level of hysteria regarding those ‘nefarious Muslims’.

Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, wrote that capitalism has commodified sport – indeed, has commodified the passion that sustains active participation in sport. FIFA and its associated governing bodies act like monarchs over the sport of soccer, using big money to rake in ever-greater profits. International sports have been transformed into profit-making industries. Let’s scrutinise this aspect of professional sport, before we engage in exchanging accusations and hypocritical denunciations.

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