The uproar over the Saudi Arabian acquisition of the Newcastle soccer club of the Premier League is the latest example of human-rights considerations emerging in the world of big-time sports. International horse racing is no exception.

The hapless Newcastle club was purchased for 300-million pounds ($409 million) by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) and two partners, British-based Reuben brothers and financier Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners.  PIF will own 80%.  With this kind of monetary wherewithal to attract top players, Newcastle is unlikely to be wretched for long.

Human rights activists strenuously objected to the sale over Saudi Arabia’s complicity in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and the Kingdom’s treatment of women and certain disapproved citizens.  This resulted in a lengthy legal fight over who would control the Newcastle team if the sale went through. That was finessed when it was agreed that PIF would buy and run the team and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would not have any say.  This distinction is largely meaningless in that the Crown Prince chairs the PIF.

Another target of human rights organizations is the 2022 winter Olympics in Beijing.  Because of the Chinese government’s authoritarian conduct toward its citizens in general and its persecution of Uyghurs and Hong Kong freedom fighters in particular, there are compelling reasons for not holding the Olympics in such a repressive country. 

Owners of world-class racehorses are faced with the value-laden decision of whether to send their horses to compete in the world’s richest race—the $20 million Saudi Cup. Likewise, owners must decide whether to continue to race in Hong Kong now that the Chinese government has committed barbaric acts against peaceful Hong Kong dissidents?

Years of experience make it clear that concerns about human rights almost always take a back seat to vast sums of money.  As perhaps the best current case in point, the National Basketball Association and some of its most prominent players are notoriously hypocritical in this respect.  While speaking out often and loudly on various social-justice issues in the United States, they are manifestly quiet when it comes to China, owing to their lucrative business in China and knowing that offending the ruling regime would jeopardize the commerce. 

One school of thought is that sports events are a diversion from the problems of everyday life and should not be mixed with politics, whereas the opposing view is that sports cannot be divorced from societal issues. In the end, an athlete—or in the case of an equine athlete, its owner—must decide for himself or herself where and when to participate, if at all. No one else can make the determination, as it is a matter of personal values.

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