Human Rights Violations are Nothing New to the Olympics

Though promoting human rights and social development are express goals of the International Olympic Committee, the Olympics and other large-scale sporting events have likely done more to harm local populations than help in recent years and throughout history. 

Photo by Richard Eriksson
Photo by Richard Eriksson

High above their heads, activists held signs readingBetter Housing, No Olympic Games”, “Better Schools, No Olympic Games” and “Safer Streets, No Olympic Games”. No Boston Olympics, the group that organized this rally, fought for months to end Boston Massachusetts’ chance to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. In July of 2015, only months after boosters began major efforts to sway local voters in favor of a Boston Olympics, the United States Olympic Committee withdrew a bid for Boston, Massachusetts to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Why would Boston, a proud, global city, reject a chance to host the prestigious Summer Olympics? Hosting the Olympics is presented as a chance to invest in infrastructure, elevate the profile of a city and country, and turn a profit, but recent history of host cities tells a different story. Americans have grown skeptical of their city hosting the Olympics, and there is a growing awareness that when a city wins the Olympics many of its citizens lose.

The International Olympic Committee is the governing body of the Olympic movement. Its official laws are codified in the Olympic Charter, the document that “governs the organization, action and operation of the Olympic Movement.” In the Charter, the second Fundamental Principle of Olympism reads: “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.”

Despite a stated commitment to advancing peace and harmony, a well-documented pattern of human rights violations casts doubt on how seriously the IOC takes this commitment. In a study published before the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) linked the following human rights violations to mega-events like the Olympics: “forced  eviction;  displacement;  rising  housing  costs  (leading  to  unaffordability  of  housing); reductions  in  the  provision  of  social,  public,  and  low-cost  housing;  discrimination  against  minorities  and  the  poor;  criminalization  of  homelessness;  expropriation  of  private  property;  and  lack  of  transparency  and  exclusion  of  local  residents  from  participation in decision-making.” The issues that surround the Olympics and other mega events can be distilled into four core issues: Exploitation of (Migrant) Workers, Unfair Housing, Limits on Freedom of Expression, and Criminalizing Poverty.

Image by Anna Rayburn
Image by Anna Rayburn

Exploitation of Migrant Workers

According to a Reuters report during the summer of 2015, one company building the Olympic village was housing its own workers in “conditions analogous to slavery”. These workers mostly came from poorer states around Brazil with the promise of company provided room and board, only to be forced to deal with “cockroaches, rats and sewage in the residences. Many slept outside given all the filth.” Even worse conditions were typical for the estimated 1 million migrant construction workers in Beijing, China during the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics. According to the Human Rights Watch abuses in China included: Denial of regular monthly wage payments, non-payment or underpayment of wages, denying migrant construction workers legally stipulated accident and medical insurance, and those who protest face threats of sometimes deadly violence.

Unfair Housing

Since 1988, millions of people have been forcibly displaced by Olympic-related construction and urban renewal. The aforementioned COHRE study details the loss of public housing, increases in cost of living, and large scale eviction and destruction of low income neighborhoods that are common practice for cities preparing for the Olympics. In Seoul, South Korea, for example, 720,000 people were “forcibly displaced from their homes in preparation for the 1988 Summer Games.” Barcelona (1992) and Sydney (2000) saw their rents climb out of reach of many of their residents; in Barcelona, “the cumulative increase from 1986 to 1993 was 139 percent for sale prices and nearly 145 percent for rentals.” Horrifyingly, an estimated 1.5 million Chinese were displaced from their homes by the start of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

Limits on Freedom of Speech, Expression

Just prior to the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, a protest was broken up by police officers with tear gas and pepper spray. Some demonstrators reportedly suffered injuries from police. The use of force to put down protests or threatening violence against activists is documented as common practice in host cities before and during the Olympics. The most disturbing restrictions on freedoms of speech and expression took place during the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, which opened only months after Russia passed strict anti-gay legislation. This law made the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” punishable by criminal prosecution with the possibility of imprisonment. According to the Human Rights Watch, Russia was guilty of “harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and threats against and arrests of civil society activists and journalists who criticized the government’s Olympic preparations and related policies.”

Criminalizing Poverty

In addition to the reality that most of the displaced and all of the migrant laborers come from the lowest classes, institutionalized attacks on impoverished citizens can take other forms. In the years leading up to the Rio Olympics, the Rio group Comitê Popular recorded how “the growing militarization of the city and racist public security policies predominately affect young black men in favelas, but generally enhance segregation and the criminalization of social movements.” Military police action was taken against street children and via police occupation of favelas. The criminalization of homelessness was also a  key  feature  of  the  1996  Atlanta  Games:  9,000  arrest  citations  were  issued  to  homeless  people  in  Atlanta in 1995 and 1996 as part of the Olympic Games clean up.

Although recent history teaches us that egregious human rights violations go hand in hand with mega-events like the Olympics, history also offers us a vision of what could be. In 1964, during the height of Apartheid in South Africa, the IOC blocked South Africa from participating in the 1964 Summer Olympics in response to the declaration that the national team would not be integrated. In 1970, South Africa was expelled from the IOC. This expulsion was not lifted until 21 years later, just before the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, in response to action taken by the South African government to dismantle the rule of Apartheid. While it isn’t clear just how much impact international sports boycotts of South Africa had on the decision to integrate, for what it’s worth, Nelson Mandela thought it had an impact:

“I wanted my people to know that I became president sooner because of the sacrifices made by our athletes during the years of the boycott.”

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