With the Rio Olympics in full swing and news about countless human rights violations connected to the recent building of sports stadiums spilling out, the August 1972 decision to ban Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from the Olympic games comes to mind. 1972 was a particularly difficult year and remembered for the horror of the Munich Massacre. But four days before the Olympic games were set to start in Munich, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted 36-31 to exclude Rhodesia from the athletic competition. There was mounting pressure from African countries who threatened to pull their athletes out of the games if a decision was not made about Rhodesia’s expulsion. Considered an illegal regime and a country with widespread human rights violations and discriminatory laws and practices, the National Olympics Committees of Africa demanded justice from the IOC.
White Rhodesia had implemented The Colour Bar, a form of racial segregation. The Native Urban Area Act (NUAA) of 1947 and the Native Accommodation Registration Act (NARA) of 1946 aimed to alienate Africans from the white settlers. The NUAA split urban areas into African and European sections. Towns were open to Africans only between specific hours determined by the state. Movie theaters, restaurants, and other public places bore separate entrances for whites and blacks, the same segregation that existed up until the mid-60s in the United States.
With unrightfully forced evictions and human rights violations that have been taking place to make way for what is supposed to be international goodwill, the IOC, FIFA, and the UN can take a page from the IOC of the 70s. The Olympics and the FIFA World Cup are not just about the athletes—they are about the people who build the stadiums and those who watch, support, and look up to the players.
Ironically, there is a portion of world’s youth that suffers while a different youth participating in athletic competitions garner international fame and respect. According to a report created by several nongovernmental organizations in Rio, “youths have been the victims of an uptick in police and army violence as a result of a struggling favela pacification program that is part of the city’s efforts to prepare for mega-events. Some have been shot and killed, many wounded and countless others psychologically scarred by gunfights and tension.”
Reports on the abuse of workers building the Khalifa stadium for the 2022 Qatar World Cup are rampant. 132 migrant workers, most from Bangladesh, Nepal, and India, were interviewed and stated abuse of many sorts. Amnesty International reports that the construction workers and gardeners are “indebted, living in squalid camps in the desert, paid a pittance, the lot of migrant workers contrasts sharply to that of the top-flight footballers who will play in the stadium.” Hundreds of workers have died while working on the construction projects. The exploitation of the workers is the foundation of the many FIFA World Cups and Olympic games.
Although the IOC investigated the Russian human rights abuses that occurred during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic games, and pushed the Russian government to take action—$8.3 million dollars awarded in wage arrears—Human Rights Watch reports that approximately 700 workers have not yet been paid. And not to be forgotten is the fact that Russia won the bid for the 2018 World Cup, despite the FIFA confederation’s knowledge of previous abuses in the country. It is shameful that such a decision was made when it could be entirely possible that Russia would once again violate the human rights of the workers employed to build the football stadium.
The IOC, FIFA, and other such institutions should be working together to reform this gloss-over of human rights. The international games are meant to unite the people of the world through the love of sports, not through the deaths and abuse of the workers and citizens left in each competition’s wake.
Asiya Haouchine is a recent journalism and literature major from the University of Connecticut with a special interest in Algerian history. Twitter @AsiyaJournalism