An Olympic-Sized Problem
Despite the Olympic Games’ mission to inspire international unity and peace through sport, advocacy groups claim the mega sporting event ignores human rights violations committed by host cities and their governments.
After a year-long delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Olympic Games are scheduled to kick off later this summer in Tokyo with billions of people worldwide watching as their nation’s greatest athletes compete for gold medals. Yet for hundreds of residents in a neighborhood called Kasumigaoka, the Games will likely serve as a reminder of their lives being completely uprooted.
In 2013, shortly after Tokyo was selected to host the Summer Olympics, Japanese officials evicted more than 350 Kasumigaoka residents from their apartments for the construction of the new $1.4 billion National Stadium where the opening ceremony is set for July 23. Among those residents was Kohei Jinno, then a 79-year-old tobacco shop owner who had already been displaced once due to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
“The Olympics can promote inequities within society,” said Jason Bocarro, a professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at NC State’s College of Natural Resources. “If you’re a wealthier person within your country, the Olympics is great. It’s like a party. You get to have your country featured and you might get to attend some of the events without having to fly half-way across the world. But if you’re part of a marginalized group, it can negatively impact your life.”
Bocarro and Mike Edwards, an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, are part of a global network of nine universities funded by the European Union that is examining the legacy and role of mega sporting events in communities across the world.
The Olympic Games, which originated in ancient Greece, were revived in the late 19th century and are now held every four years by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a non-governmental organization based in Switzerland. The Olympics has since become one of the world’s largest and most popular sporting competitions. Unfortunately, the event has also become closely linked to human rights abuses committed by host cities and their governments.
According to Bocarro, the Olympics’ human rights problem is long-running and widespread and includes the gentrification and displacement of residents, the violation of labor rights, the suppression of public opinion and expression, as well as political repression, sex and human trafficking, environmental impacts on marginalized communities and inequities in financial recuperation due to cost overruns.
“The IOC is definitely not directly supporting human rights abuses,” Edwards said. “But, in its traditional effort to remain apolitical and not involve itself in local or global political issues, it has often treated human rights issues that have occurred in host countries as outside its sphere of influence.”
The Olympics’ human rights issue mostly stems from host cities — and the governments to which they belong — failing to observe domestic and international standards set forth by the International Labour Organization, the International Bill of Human Rights, and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, according to Bocarro. These standards compose the main human rights legal framework that governs the process of organizing the Games.
“The Olympics doesn’t cause human rights abuse so much as countries with bad human rights records host the Games,” Bocarro said. “Some human rights issues are definitely exacerbated by the planning of the Games, but often these poor practices already exist in these countries.”
Bocarro added that human rights abuses can be traced back as early as the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany when Adolf Hitler attempted to use the event to promote the Nazi political platform despite the presence of a concentration camp 22 miles north of the stadium. Similar abuses continued into the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1968, for example, the Mexican Armed Forces shot and killed hundreds of unarmed civilians protesting the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
“There is strong evidence that human rights abuses increase when mega sporting events occur,” Bocarro said. “In the context of the Olympics, sport can be used to hide atrocities.”
Human rights abuses have been especially prevalent in the 21st century, according to Bocarro. During preparations for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, for example, the city hired demolition-relocation companies to forcefully evict hundreds of thousands of low-income residents from their homes to make way for stadium infrastructure. Those who protested were imprisoned indefinitely. In addition, the city detained and deported foreign journalists attempting to cover anti-Olympics protests.
Beijing, however, isn’t the only host city with a history of neglecting human rights. In preparation for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, companies contracted by the Russian government to build the stadium and other infrastructure exploited migrant workers, providing them with inadequate meals and living spaces and failing to pay them full wages. And most recently, prior to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, the government evicted tens of thousands of low-income residents from the city’s favelas.
“A lot of real estate is needed to build Olympic infrastructure, and many host cities find it easier to force evictions on low-income communities because they don’t have the resources to fight off the government and developers,” Bocarro said.
The Power of Advocacy
As of the early 2000s, there was little evidence that the IOC accepted responsibility for the Olympics’ human rights issue, according to Bocarro. Fortunately, though, advocacy organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Transparency International, Terre des hommes and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) worked to hold the IOC and host governments accountable for the impact of their actions on human rights.
Bocarro said advocacy organizations historically acted as “change agents,” monitoring human rights abuses and exerting pressure on the IOC and other mega sporting event organizers to accept responsibility for their actions. In recent years, though, many prominent organizations have shifted their strategy to instead partner with organizers to ensure human rights policies are developed, implemented and upheld.
“In the past advocacy groups tried to pressure organizers around the world to do the right thing through ‘naming and shaming’ or by threatening legal action. But they realized that this approach created an adversarial relationship with organizers that was counterproductive to promoting their agenda,” Bocarro said. “Now these groups are engaging with organizers in a meaningful way to collectively address human rights abuses. It’s much more productive than trying to fight them.”
In response to advocacy organizations, the IOC has taken several steps to address the Olympics’ human rights issue. That includes adding human rights and anti-corruption provisions to host city contracts beginning with the 2024 Games, creating its own Advisory Committee on Human Rights, and joining other sporting event organizers like FIFA and the Commonwealth Games Federation to launch the independent Centre for Sport and Human Rights “to promote effective approaches to prevent, mitigate, and remedy human rights impacts associated with sport.”
“The IOC is now attempting to intentionally do a better job at promoting human rights in its policies and host contracts but is kind of learning how best to do it within its sphere of influence and the process is taking longer than some would like, partially because previously agreed upon host contracts did not emphasize human rights,” Edwards said. “As new agreements take effect, there should be increased focus on human rights legacies with future Olympic Games.”
But some human rights organizations claim the IOC isn’t doing enough to stop host governments from committing human rights abuses. In fact, a coalition of more than 100 advocacy organizations recently issued a “call to action” urging all countries and athletes to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics over the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which the U.S. State Department has deemed “genocide.”
Unfortunately, boycotts have historically failed in addressing the Olympics’ underlying human rights problem. For example, when the U.S. and more than 60 other nations boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the IOC didn’t relocate the event from Moscow, much less enact policies and procedures to address future human rights abuses by host cities and governments.
That’s why advocacy organizations should instead continue to collaborate with the IOC to implement long-term structural reforms within the organization so that it has a framework in place to address human rights abuses going forward, according to Bocarro. “It’s unrealistic to cancel the Olympics. It’s enjoyed by billions of people,” he said. “But I do think there’s an opportunity for advocacy organizations to leverage the Games to promote their agendas and to influence the IOC to put some accountable measures in place that host cities and governments would have to agree to before their bid is considered.”
Edwards added that the inclusion of human rights and anti-corruption provisions in host city contracts offers a promising solution: “Previously, groups had no real mechanism other than media shaming of the IOC and the host organizations, which created more of an antagonistic relationship between these groups and really amounted to few lasting changes within host countries. Now there may be more incentive for all parties to work more closely together to fulfill their obligations related to human rights.”