The Damage Behind the Glory: Ethical Concerns Behind International Sporting Events

LOS ANGELES — Rio’s world famous Macaraña soccer stadium once symbolized Brazil’s grand entrance to the international stage through the world of sports. Yet, just days after the stadium closed the 2016 Olympic Games, its spotlight diminished. With no proper care or use, the Macaraña now stands in a shadow of its former glory, representing a much larger issue of the damage left behind by the games. 

The Olympics and other international sporting events are often presented as moments in which the world comes together, putting aside differences for friendly competition. Yet, as the world watches from afar through television screens, the damage suffered by host countries is overlooked.    

In the last decade, Rio hosted two large-scale sporting events, the 2014 Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. While there was some initial concern for the city’s capabilities, promises of structural improvements left local inhabitants hopeful. Instead, the events exacerbated existing issues and created a plethora of new problems. In preparation for the event, locals faced displacement to pave the way for new facilities and also increased police violence, as police cracked down on poor neighborhoods to polish Rio’s image. After the events occurred, Rio was left with several unfinished construction projects, unused and crumbling facilities like the Macaraña stadium and large amounts of debt — leaving Brazillians disillusioned. The trajectories of many host countries mirror that of Brazil, making it clear that mega-events like the Olympics inflict more harm than good. 

The damage of sporting mega-events not only occurs in the days after the closing ceremony but also arises throughout the preparation process. Rio, an extremely densely populated corner of the world, displaced thousands of people in order to build the massive facilities needed for the games. This displacement has occurred with almost every major sporting event, especially in heavily populated areas. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, one million people were forced out of their homes. The majority of communities facing eviction are poor and lack the resources to advocate for themselves. 

Human rights violations due to event preparation are not limited to poorer and more populated countries. Qatar, a small wealthy Gulf country that is set to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup, is a large destination for migrant workers. There is extensive evidence of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers who have been working on World Cup construction. Thousands of workers continue to face appalling conditions, abysmal or withheld wages, and restrictions on passports, among many other violations. The poor working conditions have even resulted in hundreds of deaths caused by the country’s desire to entertain the rest of the world. Still, Fifa executives and board members have not held the country accountable. While organizations like Fifa and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have the ability to take action against these host governments, they continually prioritize profit over human rights.  

The Olympics are used purposefully as a form of soft power. Through elaborate opening ceremonies and cutting-edge facilities, host countries are able to establish a level of prestige for themselves among the international community. During periods of heightened tension between the United States and Russia, the two often competed for soft power, using participation in large sporting events (or the boycotting of the events of each other) as a proxy for doing so. For nations that might be considered underdeveloped and lacking hard power, sporting events provide a ladder through which the power structure can be climbed. 

This may not always be ill-intentioned on the part of the host governments, but harmful consequences are repeatedly seen. Often, when countries bid to host an event, it’s during a time of prosperity. By the time the event approaches, the political and economic landscape could be drastically different. Brazil won the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics in 2009 during an economic boom. In the following years, the country had fallen into a severe recession and was in the midst of a tumultuous political period; simultaneously, the country was burdened with an increasing budget for the upcoming Games. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has exhibited corrupt tendencies going back to its formation in 1894. The organization has been muddled with accusations of bribery and internal corruption as well. As of early March 2020 (when Covid-19 was emerging as a clear crisis), IOC President Thomas Bach said that “neither the word cancellation nor the word postponement was even mentioned” during an executive board meeting regarding the then-upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Though the virus did have a swift turnaround, it presented a clear enough threat at this point. Still, the IOC insisted that the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics would continue as scheduled. The board’s inability to express even the slightest concern during the pandemic’s inception indicates its tendency to prioritize the success of the event over the wellbeing of those involved. It was only when faced with pressure from athletes that postponing became a conceivable course of action for the organization.

As the previously postponed Tokyo 2020 games recently concluded, the reluctance to prioritize health has had its consequences. Japan is now scrambling to vaccinate its people as the virus surges, as it initially had a slow and late vaccine rollout. “Tokyo’s daily caseloads tripled during the Games…And as hospitals fill up, nearly 20,000 infected people are isolating at home, over 10 times more than a month ago,” as reported by AP News. If the wellbeing of Japan’s inhabitants was prioritized, the IOC would have further delayed the games and the Japanese government could have focused on improving its vaccine rollout and keeping Covid cases at bay. 

Even if a country is relatively stable and there isn’t an ongoing global pandemic, any underlying economic, political and social issues are further catalyzed by the preparation for these mega-events, many times triggering or exacerbating a crisis. Looking at future Olympics, for example, the same potential for disaster arises. The 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympics are set to take place in Paris and Los Angeles, respectively. These two major cities are considered safe bids; they are advanced metropolitan centers seemingly capable of hosting large-scale events. However, the danger of these two locations lies in the already-existing and bubbling crises that are bound to burst once preparation takes full swing.  

Los Angeles holds the highest rate of unhoused individuals in the country, linked to the city’s severe affordable housing crisis. Additionally, the city suffers from gentrification, in which disadvantaged communities have become slowly displaced from their neighborhoods. With these ongoing housing issues, there is no room for further strain from Olympic planning. The NOlympicsLA coalition was formed in 2017 to actively call for cancelation of the LA Games. The group states that the city’s existing crises like housing, police brutality and worker exploitation will be further aggravated by the games. In a similarly urban city like Paris that also severely lacks affordable housing, the same problems are likely to arise. 

Two pivotal players are actively ignoring the question of wellbeing and human rights: the host country, which seeks prestige and the chance to gain international recognition, and the IOC, which scouts the highest bidder with little regard for non-monetary causes. The blatant disregard for human rights makes mega-sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup unethical as they are. The harm they inflict upon host countries lasts far beyond the temporary spotlight. While it is vital not to diminish the labor of the athletes, teams, and staff involved, it is imperative that the conversation surrounding these events highlights the detriment inflicted behind the glamour. 

There is a possibility for an ethical future of international sports. This, however, would require a mutual and corruption-free effort on the part of organizers and host countries alike. Considering that it’s unlikely that the international community will reach this stage in the short-term, nations around the world should focus on healing their existing crises, rather than exploiting their inhabitants for show. 

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Alina Mehdi

Alina Mehdi is a junior at USC from South Pasadena, California studying International Relations and Business Finance. As a Pakistani-American, she has always been drawn to the field of international relations, especially in the South Asian and Middle Eastern regions. At USC, she is a research assistant for the Security and Political Economy Lab and an editor for the Southern California International Review. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music and sitting in the sun!

Email: mehdi@usc.edu