Major, global sporting events have often been a vehicle for bringing the international community together. There are the obvious cases in which the Olympics have been used to make international political statements, like when the Soviet Union boycotted the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, or when protestors used the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a chance to fight against Chinese participation in the conflict in Darfur. Despite boycotts and protests, people tend to find a way to turn a blind eye to the global political issues at hand, religiously watching the events regardless.
However, the people at greatest harm are probably most ignored and least heard from in the political world. Global protests made over the Beijing Olympics were about an international political issue that has received countless amounts of media coverage over the years. Yet, what happens to a country domestically as it prepares for the Olympics and similar events is rarely of interest to the rest of the world. When push comes to shove, major sporting events cost a lot of money for any country, regardless of developmental status.
When the government of British Columbia raised taxes in order to host the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, citizens were angered. Similarly, in order to build the Olympic park for the upcoming 2012 London Olympics, the city shut down Europe’s second-largest housing cooperative, Clay’s Lane Estate, displacing up to 450 tenants. One must wonder: if the citizens of developed nations like Canada and the UK feel negative economic strains from hosting major sporting events, what happens to countries that can be classified as developing nations?
To answer this question, one only has to look at Brazil. The country is currently preparing for the 2014 Men’s World Cup and 2016 Olympics. As Dave Zirin notes on his blog, Edge of Sports, “In the 21st century, these sporting events require more than stadiums and hotels. The host country must provide a massive security apparatus, a willingness to crush civil liberties, and the will to create the kind of ‘infrastructure’ these games demand…That means a willingness to spend billions of dollars in the name of creating a playground for the international tourism and multi-national sponsors.”
In order to prepare for the two events, many Brazilian shantytowns, known as favelas, have been bulldozed in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, leaving many homeless without any other options. What’s more, many of these favelas were destroyed before residents had a chance to even recover their belongings. It is estimated that 1.5 million families will lose their homes in all of Brazil. McGill political science professor Rex Brynen, whose research focuses on the politics of developing nations, claims, “The effects [of major sporting events] are mixed, and in many ways hard to measure. On the one hand, redevelopment may come at the cost of poor communities who lose land that is used for sports infrastructure. There is also the ‘opportunity cost’ of investing in sports and tourist facilities, as opposed to other things like health, education, water and sanitation, and other services. Much of the infrastructure that remains (public transport, roads, airport upgrades, tourist facilities, and especially the sports facilities themselves) may be of far more benefit to middle and upper class citizens than the poor.”
Of course, one cannot ignore the obvious benefits of hosting a major sporting event. Events such as the World Cup and the Olympics bring about international recognition and attention. As Brynen notes, “public spending may create construction and other jobs, and international tourism represents a significant external injection into the economy. On top of this, there is the difficult to measure factor of international profile, and how that might affect future tourism, investment, and other areas.” Moreover, citizens of a host country may also gain an increased sense of pride in their nation.
With more and more developing nations winning the bids for major international sporting events, the call to reform the mentality around what is expected of host countries becomes ever more urgent. It is important to remember that beneath the veneer of polished excitement surrounding an event like the Olympics, there may lay hundreds, if not thousands, of displaced and disgruntled citizens.