Coles Notes On Olympics, World Cups And Human Rights

Just after the 2010 Olympic Games closing ceremonies took place, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik, presented a comprehensive report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2010 on the impacts of mega-events that went largely unnoticed.

In it, she cited the era of the 1970’s as point where the use of international sporting events and processes of urban transformation became more evident.  By the 1980’s, the massive expansion of corporate funding further distorted global sporting events.  By the 1990’s, the report stated, “organizing mega-events as a component of cities’ strategic planning, with a view to repositioning them in a globalized economy, became the hegemonic practice.  Staging international games as an economic development strategy, which includes urban infrastructure renewal and real estate investments, became the contemporary approach by cities and states to mega-events.”

There are myriad examples of mass forced evictions, displacement and gentrification caused by an amplification and acceleration of urban development paths.  Furthermore, the state of exception caused by these mega-events results in criminalization of poverty, sweeping operations against the homeless through new policing and fining methods and disproportionate targeting of marginalized communities.

While the 2010 Olympic hurricane ran through Vancouver, most of the media here were asleep at the wheel as they castigated activists to provide proof of what was happening on the ground.  Rather than take my word for it, here are some quotes from her report.


Ms. Rolnik pulls no punches her criticism of mega-events like the World Cup and Olympic Games:

“In the period between the designation of the host city and the staging of the event,
cities normally undergo a series of transformations that not only affect their urban
infrastructure, but also bring about economic, social and demographic changes that have
long-term consequences for the local population. While analysis of the impact of these
events usually focuses on the economic benefits for the host city, less attention goes into
evaluating the effect on the lives of the residents, especially the most disadvantaged sectors
of society. Regrettably, the legacy of hallmark events on the situation of these people has
been far from positive. The alleged economic benefits of staging the games are not spread
evenly throughout the local population. Instead, old disparities appear to be exacerbated as
the processes of regeneration and beautification of the city usually focus on areas mostly
populated by poor and vulnerable groups.”


“Displacement and forced evictions are common features of preparations for mega-
events. The heightened demand for space to construct sports venues, accommodation and
roads is channelled through urban redevelopment projects that often require the demolition
of existing dwellings and the opening of space for new construction. The importance given
to the creation of a new international image for the cities, as an integral part of the
preparations for the games, often implies the removal of signs of poverty and
underdevelopment through reurbanization projects that prioritize city beautification over
the needs of local residents. As public authorities use the organization of mega-events as a
catalyst for the regeneration of their city, residents of the affected areas may face mass
displacement, forced evictions and the demolition of their homes. Displacement may also
result from the measures taken by local authorities to quickly remove unsightly slums from
areas exposed to visitors, even without being framed within larger redevelopment projects.

Although not directly a consequence of the construction of facilities to host the
games or the urbanization projects aimed at improving the image of the host city, mass
displacement may also result from indirect processes, such as gentrification and escalating
housing costs. Gentrification can be triggered by the redevelopment projects undertaken in
preparation for the events. Once involved in regeneration processes, underdeveloped
neighbourhoods attract high-income earners, who start moving into the area. The sudden
interest of real estate investors in areas previously considered of low market value raises
property and rental prices. This has an impact on affordability for local residents, and often
results in their de facto expulsion from the area. In particular, tenants who have no means to
rent the new premises are forced to resettle in other regions, and often receive no
compensation, alternative housing or financial aid.”


“Consequently, gentrification and escalating prices have the effect of forcing out low-
income communities in favour of middle- and upper-class residents. The community thus
suffers a major change in its demographic composition. While middle- and high- income
populations move into former poor areas and find housing increasingly available, former
residents are pushed to the outskirts of the city, losing their communal ties and enduring
further impoverishment owing to the reduction of employment and schooling opportunities,
as well as the increase in their commuting costs.

The situation of homeless people also deteriorates in the context of mega-events.
Shortly before the events are staged, some local authorities take measures to remove
homeless people from areas exposed to visitors. The homeless are sometimes offered
incentives to leave these areas, but in most cases they are subject to forced removal and
relocation during the events. Specific legislation is introduced, criminalizing acts such as
sleeping in the street and begging. Similarly, street vendors and sex workers are targeted by
laws that forbid them to carry out their activities in the city while the event is taking place.
There are reported cases in which camps or large facilities have been used to accommodate
homeless people and other “unsightly” groups during the duration of an event. In this
context, some observers have highlighted a disquieting trend in host cities to introduce a
“rationale of exception” in the management of public life in preparation for the event,
where restrictions of rights and standards of due process are allowed, if considered
necessary, to ensure the realization of the event.32 In addition, as displacement increases
and the availability of social housing, informal settlements and temporary residences
decreases, the number of homeless persons may grow. 

Examples of the criminalization of homeless persons and marginalized activities
include (a) in Seoul, beautification efforts for the 1988 Olympic Games included the
detention of homeless people in facilities outside the city;33 in preparation for the 2002
Football World Cup, local authorities in Seoul created a list of places where homeless
persons were banned;34 (b) in Barcelona, the homeless were removed outside the city
during the staging of the games;35 (c) in Atlanta, homelessness and related activities were
made illegal and over 9,000 citations were issued against homeless people.”


“The negative legacy of mega-events is particularly felt by the most disadvantaged
sectors of society. These groups are disproportionately affected by trends such as forced
evictions, displacements, decreased availability of social housing, reduced affordability of
housing, homelessness, dislocation from existing community and social networks,
restriction of civil liberties and criminalization of homelessness and marginalized activities.
Displacement and forced evictions due to beautification and gentrification tend to affect
low-income populations, ethnic minorities, migrants and the elderly, who are forced to
leave their homes and relocate in areas far from the centre of the city. Likewise, policies
and special laws adopted to “cleanse” the city result in the removal of homeless persons,
beggars, street vendors, sex workers and other marginalized groups from central areas and
their relocation into special sites or outside the city.

Examples of the disproportionate impact on groups particularly vulnerable to
discrimination include (a) in Athens, Roma communities were the main target of
displacement;37 (b) in Atlanta, displacement was predominantly experienced by African-
Americans;38 (c) in Sydney, aboriginal communities were displaced from areas close to the
Olympic sites in an effort to beautify the city;39 (d) in Beijing; most victims of evictions
were migrant workers;40 (e) in Vancouver, the city is funding private security guards to
remove homeless persons and beggars from commercial areas”


Despite invitations to participate in discussion on human rights impacts of the World Cup, FIFA has basically put its head in the sand.  The UN Special Rapporteur wrote in her report, “Given the lack of transparency and accountability of any relevant procedures, it is difficult to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the existing methods and mechanisms, and to identify the good and bad practices of the institution with regard to selection procedures.”


The human rights and civil liberties train wreck that is the Olympic Games and the World Cup are continuing their carnival in other global cities soon and are no closer to recognizing human rights standards. They are still incapable of reining in the corporate sponsors and their desire for a sanitized public sphere that places a higher value on their target market rather on citizens rights to express themselves and engage in free speech.

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