Striving for Excellence - Mega-Sporting Events and Human Rights

12 November 2013

IHRB Mega Sporting Events Paper

This second in a series of occasional papers by IHRB focuses on the breadth of human rights opportunities and risks across the life-cycle of Mega Sporting Events.

International sporting events capture global attention not only because of the excellence of the athletes who compete but also because of the intense competition among nations to host them. 

In part due to the media interest generated by these "Mega Sporting Events" (MSEs), they have become a lightning rod for civil society campaigners and trade unionists that seek to highlight a range of social and environmental concerns across the event life-cycle from host-nation bid to post-event transition.

And because the preparation and staging of major events like the Olympics or World Cup entails large-scale corporate involvement and sponsorship, the companies concerned often become specific targets for campaigning.

The wave of protests in Brazil in June 2013, which saw over a million people take to the streets during the staging of the FIFA Confederations Cup (a dress rehearsal for the 2014 World Cup to be held in Brazil), as well as controversies linked to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and the Qatar FIFA World Cup in 2022, have renewed fundamental questions over the responsibilities of host national governments, and the international sports governing bodies that set the terms for staging MSEs.

Public concern over spiralling costs associated with MSEs is not unique to Brazil, but discontent in the country - primarily focused on corruption and poor or expensive public services - found a visible manifestation in the use of public money to host the World Cup and Olympics. The scale of the opposition, particularly in a country so passionate about sport and football in particular, shines a spotlight on the extent to which social impacts and community views matter and need to be factored into MSE planning.

From the perspective of human rights, MSEs bring both opportunities and risks. Large sporting events precipitate massive public and private investment needed to create new jobs and boost employability, along with the potential for improving essential infrastructure, regenerating urban areas, developing housing and promoting increased participation in sport and healthy living.

At the same time, MSEs – including the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the South Africa 2010 FIFA World Cup, the New Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, the London 2012 Olympics, and forthcoming FIFA World Cups and Olympics in Brazil and Russia – have come under repeated scrutiny from human rights experts and campaigners over a gamut of concerns.

According to some estimates, as many as 1.5 million people were displaced for the Beijing Olympics, while some 35,000 families were evicted from public lands ahead of the New Delhi Games. At the height of the Beijing Olympic venue construction, at least 10 people were killed and some 17,000 workers complained of workplace exploitation. And in the run-up to MSEs in Brazil, a UN human rights expert has reported many allegations of housing rights abuses.

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