Words about words: sportsvaske

Norway’s “Word of the year 2021”

berlin olympics

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The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin during Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime were considered to be one of the earliest cases of sportswashing.

M. MICHAEL BRADY
Asker, Norway

In Norway, starting in 2008, Språkrådet (The Language Council), an arm of the Ministry of Culture, has selected and published its choice of a word of the year, that by frequency of its use has become prominent in public debate on contemporary issues. 

The choice in 2021 is the word sportsvaske, an  nglish-to-Norwegian translation of “sportswashing.” Sportswashing is a practice by which authoritarian countries hold international events to divert media attention from their violations of human rights, often implemented by buying up or sponsoring popular sports organizations.

Although it is a new word, sportsvaske follows established practice in Norway. The Norwegian word hvitvasking is a translation from the English term “whitewashing,” the practice in drama of using a white actor to play a character who is not white, and the Norwegian word grønnvasking is a translation from the English “greenwashing,” the overstated (and often intentionally misleading) claim for the environmental friendliness of a company or its product.

Perhaps is it no coincidence that the selection of sportsvaske as the word of the year comes on the eve of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which had stirred up controversy when it comes to mixing politics and sports. The United States has announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China because of concerns about China’s human rights record. The Chinese government has criticized the United States for its boycott of the games, calling Washington’s move a “self-directed political farce” and warning that “the United States will pay the price for its mistakes.” China has warned that the boycott could have a broader impact on the relationship between the two countries, complicating talks between the United States and China on major issues, including weapons and Taiwan.

The list of countries joining together for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics is growing and includes the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, with no government officials scheduled to attend the games in Beijing, although athletes from the countries will still compete. Japan will also withhold high-level government officials but will send Olympic officials and athletes.

Further reading: Sportsvaske er årets ord 2021, Språkrådet, Dec. 12, 2021, link: sprakradet.no/Vi-og-vart/hva-skjer/Aktuelt/2021/sportsvaske-er-arets-ord-2021.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.

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