Human rights and mega-sporting events

By Elisabeth Haugland-Austrheim

Australia has a strong, however not perfect, record on human rights (Australian Human Rights Commission 2023). The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand started on July 20th. Prior to the Cup, FIFA published a human rights policy where they committed to respect human rights in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Australian Human Rights Commission 2021a, p.9). The Australian Human Rights Commission and the New Zealand Human Rights Commission also conducted risk assessments for the cup (Australian Human Rights Commission 2021b). Preceding the tournament, the total prize money was raised to USD$150 million, which tripled the prize money from the previous Women’s World Cup. This was done as part of a three-step Gender Equality Plan to advance in closing the gender gap in football (UN Women 2023). In addition to focusing on gender equality, UN Women and FIFA called for action to unite and end violence against women (UN Women 2023). Football, and other sports, can promote inclusivity and equal participation, especially during mega-sporting events (MSEs) – in which the Women’s World Cup was expected to be viewed by more than two billion people (Lyons 2023). Concurrently, such events are also regularly linked to human rights abuses on many levels, from forced evictions of locals and the exploitation of workers and migrant workers to the discrimination and harassment against participants, volunteers, journalists, and local communities (Caudwell and McGee 2018, p.6). This article aims to present how human rights are promoted through MSEs and how they are prone to be violated. It argues that whilst there are empirical examples of human rights promotion and success stories, human rights abuses continue to be linked to the entire life cycle of such events. Human rights are overall being violated more so than promoted through MSEs which signifies the continued need for putting human rights at the forefront of the decision-making processes that take place throughout these events.


Human rights promotion in mega-sporting events

Whilst there might be a perceived negative connotation between human rights and mega-sporting events, as these events have been prone to criticisms for various human rights issues, they have also provided platforms for raising awareness for human rights. Sports put a prominent focus on fair play and respect and can be a central promotor of human rights both locally and internationally. It unites people across borders despite cultural, economic and social divisions. MSEs can, through their global attention, raise awareness about human rights issues and spark conversations on important topics like social inequality and discrimination. As an example, the 2018 Commonwealth Games shed light on Indigenous rights and reconciliation (The Queensland Cabinet and Ministerial Directory 2015). The event celebrated Indigenous culture and raised awareness of ongoing struggles. As a second example, the opening ceremony for the London Summer Olympics in 2012 paid tribute to the fight for equality, which included inclusivity and social acceptance, particularly towards the LGBT community (Higgins 2012). In a different way, the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 sparked global conversations about the challenges the LGBTQ+ community faces in Russia. Throughout the event, media, spectators, and participants advocated for LGBTQ+ rights and raised awareness of the country’s human rights issues (Reid 2018). The MSE was, thus, used to promote human rights.


MSEs have promoted diversity and inclusion by providing opportunities for athletes from various backgrounds to participate. In the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016, a Refugee Olympic Team was forged for the first time. At this time, “the number of people displaced by violence and persecution was at the highest level since the Second World War.” (UNHCR 2023). The resilience shown by the ten refugee athletes paid tribute to all refugees and their determination and courage. There has also been an increase in some hosting nations’ focus on promoting gender equality, lastly seen through the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. That being said, there is still a long way to go. In a speech at FIFA’s Women’s Football Convention in Sydney, FIFA President Gianni Infantino asked women to convince FIFA of equality in the sport (Saeed 2023). Remarks were made about how this statement not only was patronising but also ignorant of the activism that has been ongoing for years (Ainsworth 2023).

The above has shown instances where human rights promotion has been highlighted through MSEs. It is essential to recognise that while MSEs can be platforms for human rights advocacy, they are not a guaranteed catalyst for lasting change. The effectiveness of the promotion of human rights requires sustained efforts beyond the mega-sporting event itself. Whilst maybe not common, there are cases where MSEs have generated lasting human rights impacts in a country. One example of how MSEs and their institutionally involved actors have worked for lasting accountability can be seen through binding agreements. The International Olympic Committee have incorporated human rights principles into its binding agreement between the host city and the awarding body (McGillivray et al. 2019, p. 179) to ensure some level of accountability. Both the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup had their bidding and hosting regulations adjusted in 2017 to incorporate human rights standards and regulations (Heerdt 2023, p. 2).  For the 2026 FIFA World Cup, new commitments on human rights and labour standards are required from the bidding nations, including “a risk assessment report, the identification of best practices, a mechanism for addressing those risks and a concept for remedy mechanisms” (Herdt 2018, p. 177). The bidder is required to enter into and submit agreements with stadium, airport, and hotel authorities (to name a few) in the bidding country, in which all the included actors have a responsibility to respect human rights and are obliged to carry out their own remedy responsibilities (Herdt 2018, p. 178).

Another example of how an MSE promoted human rights with a lasting impact is the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s support for the event and him wearing the Springbok jersey helped bridge racial divisions and promote national unity in the post-apartheid era (Catsam 2010, p. 8). The event and Mandela’s gesture illustrated the Cup’s slogan “One Team, One Country” (Catsam 2010, p. 8). A third example of lasting change is the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. During the medal ceremony, Spanish FA president, Luis Rubiales, kissed Spanish football player, Jennifer Hermoso without consent. His behaviour was deemed unacceptable, and the World Cup-winning Spanish women’s team declared they would not play any matches until Rubiales was removed from his position (Maguire 2023). As Rubiales continuously expressed he would not resign, Spanish politicians, football coaching staff and players, and civilian demonstrators alike demanded change. About 2.5 weeks after the World Cup finale, Rubiales announced his resignation and a sexual assault probe was launched (Maguire 2023). The mega-sporting event brought great media visibility to the case and put profound pressure on the need for change.

These cases have shown how MSEs can promote human rights and be a driver of lasting change within the host nation. However, despite evidence of impactful and lasting change, there are also numerous reports of human rights violations.

The link between human rights violations and mega-sporting events

Whilst it is important to note that not all sporting events have major human rights issues and that efforts have been made to address and mitigate human rights concerns, there are still frequently occurring violations in mega-sporting events – frequent enough to warrant continued advocacy for improved standards in the planning and execution of these events.

In the years leading up to MSEs, displacement and forced evictions have become a common feature (Adams and Piekarz 2015, p. 227). To make place for new stadiums, hotels, athlete villages, and infrastructure, whole communities and neighbourhoods are sometimes forcibly evicted without adequate compensation or alternative housing. This has been the case in several MSEs including the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa (Amnesty International 2010), the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing (Crout 2018, p. 38). In this process, local businesses may be pushed out, which can cause a loss of livelihoods for locals. The extensive construction and infrastructure development also raises environmental concerns, from deforestation and the disruption of ecosystems to environmental degradation. Construction during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi destroyed natural habitats and ecosystems which affected the livelihoods of local communities (Paramaguru 2014). In some instances, MSEs have even been held on land with cultural significance for Indigenous communities. These events can exacerbate existing inequalities, displace Indigenous people from their ancestral lands, and threaten their cultural heritage. The construction of venues and infrastructure for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio caused displacement and the disruption of Indigenous communities, including the Maracanã village (Watts 2013). Construction for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver also encroached on Indigenous territories (O’Bonsawin 2013, p. 54).

Labour exploitation is another common occurrence in MSEs. The construction of infrastructure, housing, and stadiums requires a large workforce. This can include migrant workers who are subject to low wages, long working hours, and poor working conditions. This was reported in the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, where migrant workers (particularly from South Asian countries) experienced wage exploitation, inadequate accommodation, and overall poor working conditions which resulted in both work-related and non-work-related deaths (Babar and Vora 2022, p.498). The controversial Kafala sponsorship system tied the workers’ legal status to their employers, which limited their possibilities to change jobs and leave the country without their employer’s consent (Babar and Vora 2022, p.498). Child labour can also be common in these cases, where children are used for both construction work and in other event-related areas. For the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, there were reports of children, as young as 12, producing merchandise for the Games (Aina et al. 2021, p.4) and child labour was also reported in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi (Maki 2011). Child labour can reduce children’s access to education in addition to the poor working conditions they may be subject to. Event stakeholders have also accepted that there is a risk of forced labour through human trafficking in MSEs (Sant et al. 2023, p. 204).

MSEs, with their increased international attention and tourism, can bring about or exacerbate existing xenophobia and discrimination. The host countries have also been found to restrict freedoms of expression, suppressing protests. During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, increased security measures were used to suppress protests and dissenting voices, which eventually led to both arrests and excessive use of force (Phillips 2016). The Chinese government also cracked down on protests and dissent during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics (Economy and Segal 2008, p. 50). As such events come with a big financial cost, hosting can also divert resources from welfare and essential services, including education, healthcare, and social welfare. The large budget that was allocated for hosting the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics was, for instance, criticised as it diverted funds from pressing needs in healthcare and disaster recovery (McBride and Manno 2021).

Sportswashing, in general, is a key issue in MSEs. These are instances where governments use big events to empower the ruling power and overshadow human rights abuses (Buckley 2022). Governments can use MSEs to showcase their country and whitewash its human rights records, whilst silencing any dissent. Several human rights issues loomed over the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, but the country was nevertheless chosen as host. The concerns included allegations of genocide in the Xinjiang region, strengthened oppression in Hong Kong, repression of religious freedom in Tibet, and the disappearance of human rights activists (Buckley 2022). MSEs can, thus, be used to showcase the hosting nation and simultaneously whitewash its human rights issues. While the hosting nation might pretend to have no such issues, any real change or attempt at bettering their human rights record can be hard to find evidence of. Where some efforts have been made to address the above issues in subsequent events, they continue to be persistent challenges.


The above has shown how human rights have been promoted and violated during mega-sporting events. It illustrates that the lasting impact MSEs have on human rights widely varies and is dependent on several factors external to the event, from the willingness of the host nation to address the issues to the commitment of international organisations and the international society to hold hosts accountable. As sportswashing and the hiding of human rights issues continue to take place whilst abuses are prominent throughout such events, it would be wrong to conclude that MSEs exhaustively promote human rights. That is not to say that impactful human rights promotion and lasting change as a result of MSEs is impossible, as this article has shown cases where this has happened. What can be concluded, however, is that the abuses currently overshadow the positive impacts. With the UN SDGs calling for strategic deployments of human rights protections (Caudwell and McGee 2018, p. 6), it remains important to highlight the breaches and the future steps that must be taken throughout the life cycle of MSEs to reduce violations.



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