Producing More Winners: Realizing the Conflict Prevention Potential of International Sporting Events

The Rio Olympic Games have attracted a steady flow of negative media coverage. While recent accidents and incidents have questioned Rio’s preparation and readiness, this is not the first time that the Olympics, among other one-off international sporting events, has exacerbated deep divisions and sparked violence in the host country. This commentary contends that a new approach to organizing international sporting events, specifically by incorporating participative and forward-looking planning, can prevent social unrest and socio-economic divisions.

Although not immediately obvious, international sporting events can potentially prevent conflict. Current research and practice demonstrate the conflict prevention potential of sport specifically. For example, focusing on individuals, one paper reveals how sport can positively influence the attitudes of individuals and enable the early detection of conflict. A UN report argues that sport can contribute to the broader efforts to prevent conflict, in particular, by bridging divisions, creating shared group identity, providing common experiences, supplying platforms for awareness raising and promoting solutions, and opening spaces for dialogue. International sporting events, as meeting grounds for top athletes and millions of spectators, are ideal occasions to bring about the abovementioned contributions to conflict prevention.

The forceful eviction of local communities, to make way for new stadia and facilities, exemplifies the socio-economic divisions created by some previous international sporting events. Such evictions have intensified inequality, social conflict, and segregation. Forced evictions in preparation for the Rio Olympics resulted in violent clashes between residents and the police in 2015. Similarly for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, 250,000 people were forcefully removed or threatened with eviction. Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an estimated 1.5 million people were displaced. The evicted commonly constitute the most vulnerable populations, who often lack secure land tenure.

In current and past hosting countries such as Brazil and China, as well as future hosts Qatar and Russia, public participation in urban planning, which forms a large part of the preparation for major sporting events, is inadequate or missing. Citizens’ rights have not been safeguarded when decisions are unilaterally taken by the organizing committee or the host government regarding gentrification or the building of infrastructure. In these cases, there has also been a lack of appropriate grievance mechanisms for the affected to seek redress.

Instead of anticipating improved practices over time, it would be more effective for international sports committees to demand countries or cities to include in their bids a conflict prevention plan especially in relation to forced evictions, social exclusion and the protection of labor rights. Such requirements seem to be present in the candidature process of the Olympic Games, which calls for the cities to ensure a “positive, long-term, sustainable legacy”. However, the evaluation of past games has narrowly focused on the environmental sustainability part of the legacy. It is worth noting that the new bidding process of the World Cup has gone further by making explicit the requirements to include, in addition to environmental protection, human rights considerations, a move that may have resulted partially from the worker’s rights controversy that has damaged FIFA’s reputation. The attention to human rights will help the host city or country identify and address some of the underlying causes of violent conflict and injustice.

Independent monitoring can in turn track whether countries or cities uphold their promises in the bid. For the 2012 London Olympics, a commission was established to monitor sustainability, a first in the history of the games. Although not perfect, in that the monitoring centered heavily on environmental aspects and there were no consequences of “non-compliance”, this concept should be made mandatory by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other international sports committees.

With the exception of forced eviction, it is not often the case that international sporting events on their own create new forms of conflict. They do, however, exacerbate and entrench existing inequalities, and create more visible protests. Research shows that some citizens’ dissatisfaction is not about the infrastructure per se, but rather that pressing needs such as sanitation, healthcare, and security deserve the allocation of more resources, which have instead benefitted elites. The Olympic Charter states that an important role of the IOC is to promote a positive legacy to the host cities and countries. The stark contrast between the modern facilities and the continued lack of provision of efficient public services hardly constitutes a positive legacy for the people of Rio and Brazil.

While it is not possible to respond to all urgent needs, a forward-looking approach can devote much of the available funds to infrastructure and technology that would provide a more inclusive legacy. Examples include roads that could bring more trade opportunities or tourism for under-privileged localities, a public transport network that increases the mobility of marginalized groups, low-cost housing, sports facilities that will remain functional and accessible for all, environmental cleanups, and affordable green technologies. Funds should also be invested in soft infrastructure, in particular employability skills training for local people.

Sport should build bridges and not cause conflict and injustice. The bullet holes in the favelas of Rio demonstrate the dark side of major sporting events and this is unlikely to be the last one where conflict occurs as a direct consequence of such events. With lessons to be learnt from Brazil, we can only hope that Russia and Qatar, whose upcoming events have also raised concerns, will better realize their conflict prevention potential. After all, any conflict is a price too high to pay for sports.

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