Human Rights and the Hidden Costs of International Sporting Events

Posted by Joseph Klingler – March 2, 2014 @ 15:12.

The world’s largest international sporting events are symbols of friendly competition and international unity.  The Olympic Charter seeks to “place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.” FIFA, the organizer of the World Cup, similarly sees football as a “unifying force whose virtues can make an important contribution to society.”

But the World Cup and the Olympics are also lightning rods for sometimes-violent dissent. In June 2013, for example, one million Brazilians marched to protest government policies on international sporting events, including the allocation of more than $26 billion for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics being hosted by Brazil. Protests have not abated as the kick-off approaches: earlier this month, the Guardian reported that “people are still being killed in protests.”

Brazil is not unique. After two suicide bombings killed at least 35 people in Volgograd, Russia, the militant group claiming responsibility threatened to carry out further attacks if the recently-concluded Winter Olympics were held. While the group fortunately appears not to have successfully acted on this threat, the specter of violence undoubtedly loomed large.

Such protests and attacks have received significant publicity. In stark contrast, much of the international public is almost certainly less aware of the more insidious costs of the massive infrastructure projects undertaken by Olympic and World Cup hosts. As of mid-February, six construction workers in Brazil had died in “stadium construction accidents.” Even more shocking figures are being reported from Qatar as it prepares for the 2022 World Cup, still more than 8 years away.  The Guardian, for example, recently reported that more than 700 Indian migrant workers’ deaths have been recorded “[s]ince the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in December 2010.” It is unknown how many more workers have died, but Nepalese workers alone reportedly account for hundreds more deaths.

In 2012, Human Rights Watch released a report highlighting of the impact of World Cup preparations on the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, and urging the country to comply with its obligations under international human rights law. Improvements may have been made in response to this call and others like it. But if the figures reported above are any indication, much remains to be done.