Sportswashing Running Events

The Indian Premier League or IPL, unleashed a new era of crass commercialisation of sports in India. As the late Mike Marquesse wrote in 2010,

…the IPL faithfully mirrors the dark side of the neoliberal dream and the true cost of unleashing the private sector.

– Mike Marqusee

Among the various things that were commercialised, includes hijacking the independence of the television commentary. Every time a player hits over the boundary ropes, commentators were asked to call it as ‘XXX Maximum’, XXX being the name of the company that has provided money for the coverage. A friend of mine remarked, “the day the audience in the stands starts shouting for ‘XXX Maximum’, I shall stop watching IPL.” I am not sure if that day has already come or is it waiting to happen any time sooner.

Cricket in India is neither new to sponsorships nor rampant commercialisation. The much heralded 1996 Cricket world cup was sponsored by a tobacco brand, and the team India sported its logo on their shirts until the government banned sponsorship by cigarette brands. (It is a different story that the subsequent sponsors weren’t any holy cows either). More so, cricket isn’t the only sport to suffer the unseen damages caused by an unholy confluence of greed, money, and power. The unholy confluence is legitimised through sponsorship of sports events, in the pretext of boosting the earning potential of players, usually the top 1% of the players.

The excesses of commercialisation eventually makes everyone uncomfortable. In a recent interview about his upcoming book ‘The People’s Game’, football player Gary Neville, well aware of his tainted popularity as a player, highlights the dangers of the private equity firms taking over football clubs and damage it could cause to the game of football. Even the game of Golf, an elite sport that often epitomised the aspirations of elite societies, now feels uncomfortable with the inflow of money from Saudi Arabia. The current furore, however, is largely restricted to money from undesirable sources, rather than money itself. This situation is currently described as Sportswashing, which Amnesty International define as,  –

where states guilty of human rights abuses invest heavily in sports clubs and events in order to rehabilitate their reputations

– Definition of Sportswashing by Amnesty International

Sportswashing is not a new concept in any way – Hitler did not organise the 1936 Olympics for the love of sport or BCCI were not organising tournaments in Sharjah in the 1980s and 90s to promote cricket in the middle east. All sports have their own share of unholy sponsors, politicians peddling as administrators, betting – illegal and otherwise, match fixing and other forms of murkiness for time immemorial. Towards the end of the book, ‘War minus The Shooting’, Mike Marqusee, tired of watching the rampant commercialisation of cricket during the 1996 World cup, wrote,

“At this point, having spent ten weeks following the World Cup and its aftermath, I thought that if I heard one more businessman,  bureaucrat or politician announce that he was only in it for ‘the love of the game’, I would puke.”

Coming to long distance running events or marathons, as they are called in India, they are relatively a new sports event with eclectic participation. Unlike other sports where the revenue is generated from spectators, directly or indirectly, in Marathons, the participants provide the major chunk of revenue. So, it begs a simple question – do we need someone else to pay for our participation? If so, why? While it seems obvious to organise events based on runner’s contributions, the inevitability of accepting sponsorship is often taken for granted. Events like Auroville Marathon, Anand Yana (Disclosure: I have been personally involved with these events) exist without any major sponsorship or benevolence from a single entity or individual.

The presence of sponsorship is certain to bring some benefits to the event as a whole, if not for runners individually; Be it the presence of celebrities to garner attention, electronic timing systems, widespread advertisements, covering for unforeseen expenses, and many others. They have brought in financial stability in some instances, and at times, enhances the credibility of the event. However, if they were to translate into benefits for runners, it must be visible in the form of stable or reduced entry fees. On the other hand, entry fees in Running events have always been on the rise. The entry fee for Mumbai Marathon has risen up from Rs. 200 in 2006 to Rs. 2500 in 2020 (retained at same levels for 2023). 

To be fair, the kind of sponsors that running events typically attract – mainly financial services and technology firms – have been so far less controversial. On many occasions, I have seen friends who dutifully refer the events along with the sponsors name, even if they are not obliged to – TWCM, TMM, AHM, etc. While the presence of real estate firms has been a little uncomfortable, they have not been embarrassing, for no one can ascertain their life span. It is almost impossible to answer as who can be an ‘acceptable’ sponsor and who cannot be.

The New Delhi Half-marathon is one of the oldest running events in India. The winners of the past editions includes the likes of Eliud Kipchoge and Lelisa Desisa. Since its inception, it was sponsored by telecom companies and despite frequent cries of scandals in telecom industry, the presence of these companies did not test the moral compass of participants.

This year, the title sponsor of the event, to be held on October 16th, is Vedanta Resources – A company with concerns about reputation in and outside India – Whether it was about their plans for an open cast mine bauxite in the tribal heartland of Niyamgiri or  accusations of tax evasion in the copper mines in Zambia, the company has an uncomfortable history. More recently, the protests against their copper smelting plant at Tuticorin costed 13 lives before the plant was shut down. There have also been accusations of human rights violations and safety concerns over death of minors.  

Those running in the event definitely don’t represent the sponsor or endorse their activities in any way. Runners pay the entry fee (a princely amount of Rs. 2100) and participate in the event. They cannot be blamed for the sponsorship agreement signed by the organisers. Apart from displaying the sponsor’s name in the running bibs, medals, and event tees, which ironically are paid for by the runners, there are very little compulsions of engagement with the sponsors. 

The question lingers though – whether abstinence from participating in such events can be a statement on its own? It may not be recognised or appreciated by all, when done at a personal level. For instance, not many would remember cricket player Tom Cartwright and his contribution in standing up against apartheid. I consider running as a privilege and I wish to use the privilege for better purposes. As an individual, I may not be able to force organisers to choose appropriate sponsors. It can be left to the moral compass of the participants to make the right choices.

The final word goes to my friend who made this cheeky remark,

“I’ve  never considered running Delhi because of pollution. The title sponsor looks apt if you look at it that way.”

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