It has been a sobering few years for the international governing bodies responsible for the delivery of mega sporting events.

From the withdrawal of numerous cities bidding to stage the Olympics because of the costs involved, to ongoing controversies over doping and the legacy of the Games. From human rights violations during and even before successive World Cups, and the shadow of corruption still hanging heavily over world football. The list goes on.

Yet in amidst the gloom, positive steps have been taken behind the scenes in recent months to improve the record of these governing bodies on human rights. From the human tragedy of 22,000 families being forcibly relocated during preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil, hope of real progress has emerged.

  • First it was announced that the International Olympic Committee had incorporated specific references to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into the Host City Contract for the 2024 Olympics.
  • Then FIFA appointed an independent board to provide advice and support on human rights, as recommended by Harvard professor John Ruggie in his report published in April 2016.

Of course, the world now watches and waits to see how these changes are implemented into real action. Russia and Qatar were awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals in 2010, one year before the UN’s Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights were published, so the 2026 finals will present the first opportunity for human rights criteria to be a part of the bidding process “from day one”, says FIFA’s Head of Sustainability and Diversity, Federico Addiechi. Until then, FIFA say more stringent monitoring and reporting systems have been implemented.


Meanwhile there has been talk of the hosts for the 2024 and 2028 Olympics being announced simultaneously in September, with Los Angeles and Paris vying for the 2024 Games. There, at least, there can be no prevarication around full and proper implementation of the UN’s Guiding Principles.

Yet for Christopher Gaffney, Senior Research Fellow in the Space and Organisation group at the University of Zurich’s Department of Geography, these moves in the right direction create a paradox.

At the same time as announcing more effective human rights measures, FIFA have confirmed 48 teams will compete in the World Cup from 2026, and it has been mooted that multiple countries could co-host the finals with the United States, Mexico and Canada discussing staging the 2026 finals. Spiralling costs have dogged Tokyo’s plans for the 2020 Olympics, and several bidding cities have withdrawn from the race for the 2024 Games, leading the IOC to re-evaluate the whole bidding process.

So how can the apparent good intentions keep pace with their aggressive business models which grow ever larger and increasingly dependent on commercial means?

Gaffney is not optimistic. He believes mega sporting events, as they are currently presented, are irrevocably “intertwined with capitalism and nationalism”.

“Sport governing bodies are in a very profound crisis,” he said. “They have lost a lot of legitimacy in terms of global sports and their ability to be the caretakers of global sports events has been massively damaged.

“I think they are casting around for ways to regain some social legitimacy. On the one hand, their current human rights agenda is very laudable. But, on the other hand, it is quite a cynical move on their part because they don’t recognize the fact that their businesses will inevitably harm human rights – no matters where and how they come about.


“I think without looking at the core business practices of FIFA and IOC, without questioning how they make their money, the events themselves by their very nature will violate human rights. So it’s a paradox: they are unable to negotiate the way out of unless they question fundamental practices.”

Gaffney is halfway through a four-year project which compares the planning and impact of mega sporting events in Brazil and Russia. He welcomed the initial steps, but warned that the issues run much deeper for governing bodies like FIFA and the IOC.

“I think that the gigantism of these events more or less demands a security apparatus that is so repressive against local people that it cannot possibly ensure human rights. Unless we had something like a UN observer team following each police force around, to look at what their practices are it would be very difficult to have an objective and clear picture of what the Rio police was doing during the Olympics.

“So, while it is a time of potential change and I think that human rights are a very good way to leverage that change, what we really need to question is how it is going to look on the ground in the production of the event and in the aftermath in terms of surveillance, privacy, the violation of civil rights, locking up protesters, extra policing of favelas – in the case of Rio –  or the labour rights.

“Putting in a monitoring system that not only uses UN guidelines but also potentially uses the UN as an enforcement agency would be an interesting addition to the conversation.”

Gaffney added : “Clearly engaging with them on human rights is an important first step, but it doesn’t address the systemic business model .

“The IOC and FIFA have to be either forced to, or willingly become, more modest. If we can have global leadership but which is not aloof and privileged, and does not treat themselves as ‘head of state’, then we can start to have a better discussion about the role of global sports in society in general.”


  • Gaffney’s comments open the debate on how, or even if, governing bodies can improve their governance without changing their entire business model. What do you think is the future for major sporting events, given the way they are currently planned and delivered ? Join the debate at @ChildrenWin on Twitter or via our Facebook page.
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