Dismissing ‘sportswashing’ claims, Saudi minister eyes Olympics

Saudi Arabia sees hosting the Olympics as its ‘ultimate goal’ in a growing sports portfolio, its sports minister has told AFP, while dismissing criticism of the kingdom over its rights record .

Investing in sport is part of a multi-pronged strategy approved six years ago to diversify the oil-dependent economy under the de facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 36.

Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal spoke to AFP in the Red Sea city of Jeddah ahead of the heavyweight boxing clash in which Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk beat the Briton Anthony Joshua in the early hours of Sunday.

In 2034, the capital Riyadh will host the Asian Games, a large-scale multi-sport event which Prince Abdulaziz says could herald a bid for the Summer Olympics.

“Our main focus now is the 2034 (Asian Games),” which will take place two years after Brisbane, Australia hosts the 2032 Summer Games, he said.

“We are open to discussing with the IOC about this (of the Olympics) for the future. I think Saudi Arabia has shown that we can host such events”.

He added: “Certainly the Olympics would be an end goal for us… But we are open to it and I think we can.”

The Usyk-Joshua fight came a day after the United Nations human rights office said it was “appalled” by the 34-year prison sentence a Saudi court imposed on Salma al-Shehab, PhD student in Great Britain.

She had been convicted of aiding dissidents seeking to “disturb public order” in the kingdom by relaying their tweets.

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Saudi Arabia has drawn heavy criticism over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and for cracking down on rights activists, many of whom have been jailed or banned from travelling.

Saudi sporting events are regularly accused of being used to distract from human rights abuses, a practice called “sportswashing”.

Prince Abdulaziz argued the criticism was misplaced and pointed to signs of change in the country.

“We are moving forward, we are moving towards a better society, we are moving towards a better quality of life, a better country, for the future,” he said.

“And the facts show that organizing these events benefits our people and benefits these changes that are happening and benefits life in Arabia.”

A 2019 fight featuring Joshua reclaiming his world heavyweight crown from Andy Ruiz marked the first time a world heavyweight title fight was staged in Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom joined the F1 circuit last year, and the state’s Public Investment Fund is funding LIV Golf, which has attracted a slew of top players with big signing bonuses and £25m purses. dollars, creating a schism in the sport.

In response to LIV, the US PGA Tour imposed indefinite bans on defecting players and lifted scholarships from several events, and this week Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy led a meeting of PGA Tour players on tackling the new competition.

Prince Abdulaziz said he did not expect LIV’s fury.

“Not really, honestly,” he said. “I think if there’s a benefit for the sport, then why not, whoever does it.

“If it benefits the athletes, if it benefits the sport, brings more attention to sport, attracts more people who want to participate in sport, it will make sport grow for everyone.”

Saudi Arabia is also a candidate to host the 2027 Asian Cup and the women’s version in 2026, as well as the 2029 Asian Winter Games at NEOM, a futuristic megacity project on the Red Sea.

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