Last Word: Normalisation is the name of the game

Where is the sporting capital of the world? Is it somewhere in the West or in Australia? Think again. It appears to be in the Middle East, and the secret ingredient is…. money!

Money is being thrown at sport in return for respectability and acceptability, and to encourage amnesia in those who would bring up tedious issues of human rights. This is not unusual in sport, except for two things. The quantum of money and the geographical location of the moneybags.

Qatar’s success with the World Cup came after Saudi Arabia had already started a golf league to rival the PGA, and had managed to grab some of the world’s top players. LIV golf (with two billion dollars in its kitty to buy players and loyalty) is still looking for a broadcast deal, and the possibility that for once the traffic might be in the opposite direction — a sport paying television for coverage — cannot be ruled out. Last year LIV was available only on its own website.

This year will see a team league within LIV, running alongside the individual tournaments. Even moneybags have to innovate. Meanwhile the PGA and LIV have sued each other. Some players feel that if the LIV Commissioner Greg Norman steps down, they might be closer to a compromise.

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr football club in Saudi Arabia for a reported salary of 200 million dollars a year for three years guarantees the footballer useful pocket money as his career winds down. Ronaldo turns 38 this year, and you can’t begrudge him his bonus.

Then there’s heavyweight boxing — a sport that has been traditionally used for sportswashing, although that term wasn’t in use when Muhammad Ali was fighting George Foreman in Zaire. The unification bout between Englishman Tyson Fury and Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk is likely to be held in Saudi Arabia this year. After Fury beat Derek Chisora to retain his WBC title, he, in his own words, spoke to Prince Khalid in the hallway and told him, “Let’s not mess around, let’s get this fight (with Usyk) over the line.” Usyk holds the WBA, IBF and WBO titles.

Saudi Arabia was willing to pay 155 million dollars for a Usyk-Anthony Joshua fight in 2021, but that fell through.

Many top European football clubs are owned by countries in the Middle East. That caused an eyebrow or two to be raised initially, but it’s a picture that is accepted now, and no one gives it a second thought. Things have been normalised.

In 2018, Novak Djokovich and Raphael Nadal were offered a million dollars each to play an exhibition match in Saudi Arabia. It was called off following Nadal’s injury. But feelings ran high then following the murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, and both players were criticised for accepting the offer.

But normalisation is the name of the game as sportswashing recedes in the popular imagination. Soon we will be wondering what all the fuss was about.

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