© streetfootballworld
© streetfootballworld
© streetfootballworld
© streetfootballworld

A love affair with dictators

Corruption, greed, political tactics, and human rights violations are casting clouds over recent and future mega sporting events. Looking ahead at the next locations to host such events, it is clear that there is a trend towards autocratically ruled countries. Indeed, recent examples from Switzerland, Norway, and Germany confirm that a functioning civil society and democratic structures with potential for referendums are a hindrance to being awarded such events.

By Marianne Meier

The Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup and other mega sporting events are some of the world’s great unifying moments. They bring people together in an international celebration of outstanding performance, intercultural spirit, peace, and human solidarity. Children and adults alike look forward to these events and the many benefits they have to offer.

However, these benefits are not universally shared. Corruption, greed, political tactics, and human rights violations are casting clouds over recent and future mega sporting events. They may directly and indirectly affect human and children’s rights, or aggravate those already existing in the country. Of course it is undeniable that mega sporting events provide many social opportunities and reasons for public pride. But on the other hand it is equally undeniable that they are not positive for everyone.

Most major sports governing bodies boast about the formal ethical constituencies that they have given themselves. But in many cases these exemplary objectives remain empty phrases. The Olympic Charter proclaims: 'The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity'. However, forced evictions and increased policing are illustrations of the consequences of mega sporting events for the local population, which contradict these fundamental principles of the Olympic movement.

The FIFA Statutes 2015 contain similar inconsistencies between theory and reality. The FIFA General Provisions foresee, for instance, an article on non-discrimination ‘of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion’. With regard to the FIFA Statutes and the publicly displayed homophobia linked to the Winter Olympics in Sochi 2014, how is it possible that the next FIFA World Cup will again take place in Russia? And what about the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar? This future Arab host country also criminalises homosexuality.

photo: streetfootballworld

In terms of constituencies, a milestone was set in the course of the extraordinary FIFA Congress in February 2016. In the shadow of the presidential election, 'human rights' entered the FIFA Statutes.

What is the value of charters, statutes and principles, if they are not or insufficiently respected and implemented? Looking ahead at the next locations to host mega sporting events, it is clear that there is a trend towards autocratically ruled countries. This tendency has also been noted by the Danish magazine Sport Executive, coining the title ‘When sport falls in love with dictatorship'.

This tendency seems so obvious that even Jérôme Valcke, former FIFA Secretary General, publicly stated in April 2013 that democracy can be inhibiting for a World Cup: 'When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018... that is easier for us organisers than a country such as Germany, where you have to negotiate at different levels'. Indeed, recent examples from Switzerland, Norway, and Germany confirm that a functioning civil society and democratic structures with potential for referendums are in fact a hindrance to being awarded such events.

Ongoing reports focusing on the negative effects of mega sporting events on workers and the local population, along with referendums that have decided against hosting the Olympic Games, have resulted in a paradigm shift from within the system.

The National Olympic Committees (NOCs) of Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, and Germany have presented recommendations to the IOC with regard to their negative experiences in applying for the Olympic Games. These four NOCs mainly asked for more dialogue and support for host cities and a stronger focus on sustainability. They also suggested more flexibility and solidarity in terms of the costs and risks linked to a bid. Many of their reform propositions were introduced in the Olympic Agenda 2020 that was presented by the IOC in December 2014.

Earlier in the same year – under pressure from sponsors, media and civil society – former FIFA President Blatter also made statements on the bidding mechanisms for future FIFA tournaments: 'The Congress will be called in to award the World Cup in the future and I will make sure that the Congress can also look at the social, cultural, let's say the human rights situation'.

In terms of constituencies, a milestone was set in the course of the extraordinary FIFA Congress in February 2016. In the shadow of the presidential election, ‘human rights’ entered the FIFA Statutes. Up to this point, FIFA officials had always rejected any links between human rights violations and their major tournaments. Their strategy was mainly to draw the attention to their ‘sport for development’ projects run by the FIFA CSR department to make up for the negative effects of mega sporting events on local populations. The amended FIFA Statutes now foresee that ‘FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.’ This paragraph is a first step, but FIFA and its new president will have to walk the talk.

photo: streetfootballworld

All stakeholders involved in bidding for and hosting mega sporting events must acknowledge and meet their responsibilities to minimise risks and stop any human rights violations related to such an event.

The need to both mitigate negative effects and maximise the positive opportunities before, during and after mega sporting events has been identified. For this purpose, a strong interdisciplinary alignment and coordination of research evidence is needed, together with a cross-sectoral approach.

In terms of academic work, Celia Brackenridge’s report on 'Child Exploitation and the FIFA World Cup: A Review of Risks and Protective Interventions' (Brunel University, London, 2013) was a milestone. Due to the fact that Brazil was assigned to host the two most prestigious mega sporting events within two years – 2014 and 2016 – there is a growing body of research available for this country.

Related to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, research was conducted by the Dundee University which identified four key violations to children’s rights in Brazil related to hosting mega sporting events. These violations were police and army violence, displacement, sexual exploitation, and child labour. This research also highlighted an increased vulnerability of specific children regarding rights violations. This most vulnerable group consisted of children in street situations and residents of favelas. The available evidence also draws attention to the fact that children do not live in isolation and are also vulnerable to the rights violations experienced by their families and communities.

A UNICEF (2014) study, based on data from 190 countries, highlighted that globally in 2012 Brazil had the second highest rate of child homicide, especially among young males aged 10-19. Yet, statistical data from the National Dial 100 hotline suggests that the number of reported violations against children increased by 17% in the twelve host cities during the month of the 2014 FIFA World Cup compared to the same month in 2013 (National Secretariat for Human Rights of the Federal Government, 2014).

According to the Dossier on Mega Sporting Events and Human Rights Violations in Rio de Janeiro (2015), many disadvantaged communities in Brazil have been forcibly removed to clear space for big infrastructure projects connected to mega sporting events. In Rio, at least 4,120 families have already been evicted from their homes and 2,486 are still threatened with forced removals to make way for projects directly or indirectly associated with the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Due to these evictions many children are no longer able to go to school. They lose access to education, health and other vital social services.

In preparation for the 2016 Olympics, the community of Vila Autódromo is facing extreme pressure from Rio’s City Hall. The residents were asked to leave their homes to make way for Olympic infrastructure, often going without electricity and facing difficult living conditions. The formerly thriving community with shops, a community association and attractive streets, now resembles a war zone. For those families who remain, life is a constant battle to anticipate the next move by the authorities. The residents have to show a pass to access their own houses through the main Olympic Park site. And they are only allowed to receive visitors to their homes with an authorisation.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games have both greatly aggravated the level of police and army violence in Rio de Janeiro. Violence against homeless children and adolescents, during protests and evictions, and in favelas – particularly by the UPPs (Brazil's Military Police Force) – has been reported. These ‘security measures’, especially in the so-called ‘pacification operations’ have caused many casualties and human rights violations. Many children and adolescents have shown signs of psychological and emotional damage due to these traumatic experiences.

Despite the growing number of substantial evaluations and studies linked to mega sporting events and human rights, there is still a lack of long-term research. Moreover, the trend of staging future mega sporting events in autocratically ruled countries also increases risks for researchers and investigative journalists in terms of safety and security. Critical questions and investigations regarding mega sporting events and human rights are not welcomed in Russia, Qatar or Beijing.

With regard to the complexity of mega sporting events, a broader human rights framework is needed to advocate for labour rights, LGBT rights, children’s rights, environmental and anti-corruption requirements. Besides this cross-sectoral approach, strong coalitions are necessary if they are to be heard within major sports governing bodies. For this purpose, a united effort has been made to form the Sport and Rights Alliance (SRA), a coalition of leading NGOs and trade unions engaged in addressing the decision-makers of international sports governing bodies. Real change is based on a dialogue on values and evidence around needed reforms on the bidding process for future mega sporting events.

photo: streetfootballworld

Related to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, research was conducted by the Dundee University which identified four key violations to children’s rights in Brazil related to hosting mega sporting events. These violations were police and army violence, displacement, sexual exploitation, and child labour.

Next to alliances and pressure exerted by civil society, the aforementioned UN Principles of Human Rights and Business provide solid guidelines for concrete measures at a policy level. Currently, civil society networks are asking the major sports governing bodies to issue a public human rights commitment and policy; to put in place a human rights capacity; to ensure access to remedy; to undertake human rights due diligence; to conduct monitoring of all stages of the mega sporting events; and to enable external independent monitoring.

Within the framework of the UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland, the UEFA officials described their strategy to the host cities as: 'You bring the house, and we bring the party.' But in a respectful and decent society, people help to clean the house and share costs after a common event. The house owner will be taking the main decisions. That is why consultation with and the participation of civil society and local groups are necessary at every phase in the event’s life-cycle.

Ethical principles are set out in the Olympic Charter and the FIFA Statutes. But a lot of work still needs to be done in terms of implementation, since these key principles are nonnegotiable. The complex challenges of mega sporting events require reliable cooperation between all stakeholders and a sustainable approach for the sake of humankind.

A Global Game – Sport, Culture, Development and Foreign Policy / EUNIC, … (Hg.). Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

A Global Game – Sport, Culture, Development and Foreign Policy / EUNIC,... (Hg.). Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

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Marianne Meier; photo: private

Marianne Meier is a historian and expert in sports pedagogy. She is a lecturer and heads up the Children Win project at the Terre des Hommes International Federation.