5 Ways Global Sporting Events Like Brazil's World Cup Wreck Lives and Exploit the Poor

The 2014 World Cup is highlighting the dark side of mega sporting events: displacement of the poor, police violence and exploitation of workers.  

On June 12, FIFA’s crowning event, the World Cup for soccer, is set to open in Brazil. Widely anticipated around the world, the World Cup features 32 soccer teams from regions across the globe and attracts millions of spectators who gather in homes and bars to root for their nation to win.  

But the World Cup has become notorious for the corruption and excess that comes along with it, as sports journalist Dave Zirin wrote over the weekend in the New York Times. In response to the skyrocketing cost of the game and the bulldozing of favelas (slums) to build soccer stadiums, protests by thousands of people have highlighted the ire of Brazil’s populace toward the cup, even though soccer is the most popular sport in the country.

Brazil’s World Cup isn't the only event that exposes how global sporting tournaments wreak havoc on the most vulnerable people in the countries where the tournament takes place. This is a common facet of mega sporting events. Here are five ways the World Cup and other athletic affairs are best understood as sordid events where fun and games mask violence and plunder.

1.  Displacement of the poor. Rio de Janeiro will be one site of the World Cup and will also play host to the 2016 Olympics. The mayor of the city, Eduardo Paes, says the events mean the city must modernize. The cost of that modernization, though, is being felt in the poorest communities in this city and others, as bulldozers raze communities to spruce up the areas for the visitors streaming in to play and watch games.

At least 19,000 families have been evicted from favelas to make way for roads, newly refurbished stadiums, athletic villages and more in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics. And that’s only in Rio de Janeiro. Activists say 32,000 people are at risk of eviction in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and that 250,000 have been or are threatened with eviction across the country. Conditions for families only worsen after being evicted, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, and compensation is scanty.

It was much the same story in South Africa in the runup to the 2010 World Cup, with thousands of people being evicted in Cape Town and forcibly removed to settlements of iron shacks. And in 2008, as China prepared to host the 2008 Olympics, an estimated 1.5 million people were removed from their homes.  

2.  Police violence. The Brazilian police have greeted protests over the cost of living, transportation prices and the investment in the World Cup with brutality.  

In February, a student was shot by the police during a confrontation over the World Cup. A report by Amnesty International documented how hundreds of people were detained and beaten, and that two journalists were shot in the eye with rubber bullets, during the recent wave of demonstrations in the country.  Brazilian police also tear gassed a crowd who sheltered in an emergency room. The government will deploy 157,000 troops and police to secure World Cup stadiums.  

3.  Worker mistreatment. FIFA wanted stadium construction for the World Cup to be completed by the end of 2012, in time for the 2013 Confederations Cup, another tournament that takes place in the runup to the bigger World Cup. In their zeal to complete the stadiums on time, workers’ rights were abused.

At the end of 2011, Publica, a Brazilian investigative journalism outlet, published a report detailing the labor abuses involved in constructing soccer stadiums. “The combination of the size of the projects and the tight schedule on which they're supposed to be completed has already resulted in poor working conditions and exploitation of workers, despite the million-dollar figures for the works,” Publica reports.  

In response to these abuses, worker strikes occurred at six of the 12 stadiums being constructed. The demands of the strike included wage increases, health insurance, and the end of long working hours.

And in May, a worker died in an electrical accident, the eighth such person to be killed while constructing the World Cup.

While working conditions may be bad in Brazil, they aren’t nearly as bad as in Qatar, the Gulf Arab state slated to host the World Cup in 2022. In 2013, the Guardian published a major investigation detailing the rampant abuse and exploitation of migrant laborers building Lusail, a new luxury city that will play a major role during the World Cup and will also host the main stadium during the tournament.  

The Guardian’s investigation found that dozens of Nepalese migrant laborers have died during construction of the city, and that their conditions amounted to slavery. Like other Gulf Arab states, Qatar relies on a system of imported labor from Asian countries. The laborers go into debt to pay recruitment agents for the projects in Qatar, and some workers have said they have not been paid for their labor. An international trade union warned that some 4,000 workers could die before the full stadium and city are completed. 

4. Corruption. The runup to the Brazilian World Cup has also seen attention paid to corruption allegations related to how Qatar won its bid to host the tournament in 2022. Last week, the Sunday Times (UK) alleged that Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari official who was on FIFA’s executive committee when they voted on the Gulf nation’s bid, paid millions of dollars to other officials. The allegation is that the money influenced the 24-member executive committee’s vote.

In response, FIFA has launched an investigation, and sponsors of the World Cup including Visa and Sony have urged the soccer federation to take the allegations seriously.

Brazil has also been accused of facilitating corruption during World Cup construction. In May, the Associated Press reported on how a government auditor said that fraudulent billing was the culprit behind the $900 million stadium in Brasilia. The AP also reported on how there were “skyrocketing campaign contributions by the very companies involved in the most Cup projects. The lead builder of Brasilia's stadium increased its political donations 500-fold in the most recent election.”

Corruption was also an issue during Russia’s Winter Olympics this year. An Olympic official estimated that a third of the money spent on the Sochi Olympics was siphoned off, while oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin received government contracts to build Olympic facilities.

5. Environmental damage. Mega sporting events by definition mean an increase in greenhouse gases. Private travel spikes to these countries as the games approach, dealing a blow to efforts to rein in climate change.  

As Dave Zirin reported in the Nation, in Brazil, a soccer stadium was built smack dab in the Amazon rainforest, an ecosystem that is crucial to the health of our planet. The country spent $325 million to uproot acres to build the stadium, which will only host four soccer matches.

The Sochi Olympics in Russia also did damage to the environment. The building of the Russian Olympic village destroyed wetlands home to some 65 species of birds, and a large forest was destroyed. One village near Sochi had its water wells destroyed due to construction, and pollution and construction damaged Sochi’s largest river.

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