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25 March 2014

Social injustice in international sport

Where once an event like the Olympics or the World Cup may have been seen as a triumph of corporate and athletic enterprise, today's world counts the cost of games much more carefully. Previous events have left countries with decaying venues and huge bills that take years to pay off. Local communities are increasingly unhappy that a large portion of their government's funds are directed towards events that might line the pockets of corporations, but do little to support local industry.

The $51 billion Sochi Winter Olympic Games, believed to be the most expensive Olympics in history, may have showcased modern Russia to the world, but it also shone a spotlight into the darker corners of the country's society: its treatment of LGBT people, the crackdowns on free speech of groups like Pussy Riot, and the corruption among the country's elite.

The spotlight will soon turn on Brazil, with the World Cup kicking off in June. Here too, the event has brought world attention to the country's issues. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest the enormous financial costs, the forced evictions of communities, and the exploitation of construction workers.

Marginalised people bear the brunt of costs for these global events. A new report from Caritas Australia estimates that around 200,000 people have been forced out of their homes in favelas in Brazil to make way for the construction of venues for the World Cup, that's one in every 1000 people. More than 1.25 million people were displaced due to the urban development in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Even the London Olympics resulted in the forcible eviction of 1000 people from their homes and businesses.

Caritas says the Olympics have caused the evictions of more than two million people over the past two decades.

A Caritas Australia petition to FIFA and the IOC asks them to ensure the human rights of people living in host countries are protected in the preparation of these global events, and ensure that the events are run sustainably. They call for the marginalised to be invited into the decision making, and for contractually binding minimum standards to be put in place to mitigate the impact on local communities.

It's time for us to re-think what these international events are actually trying to achieve. We live in an era of unprecedented global connection, but also an era where we are facing unprecedented challenges internationally. As well as the continuing gap in wealth between the haves and the have-nots, there is the challenge of climate change, and finding a way to sustain our growing populations with finite resources. Increasing ease of travel has led to developed countries facing an influx of refugees from conflict and resource stricken parts of the world.

These are issues of a global nature, and global collaboration is required.

The Olympics and the World Cup are events of global collaboration, but to date, that collaboration has been purely on the sporting and commercial fields.

FIFA and the IOC have the power to reimagine international sporting events as engines of economic development and prosperity for developing countries around the world. What if, instead of drawing billions of dollars from host countries, these events were an opportunity for the wealthy countries around the world to pump those billions of dollars into areas of great need? What if for every dollar that a country invested in their Olympic program, a dollar had to be provided to the host country in aid?

Australia pumps an estimated $588 million into its Olympic sports programs. Even a fraction of that funding could provide an enormous boost for development programs in host regions.

Similarly, both the IOC and FIFA have the power to draw up better guidelines for host nations. What if, for each dollar invested in Olympics or World Cup facilities, a dollar also had to be spent on building infrastructure in the country's most disadvantaged communities? With the aid from other competing nations, local industries could be given a kick-start, local jobs could be created, and vital skills could be developed across the country.

Instead of placing a burden on countries, the Olympics and World Cup could become engines for an international 'backyard blitz', bringing the resources of the world's wealthiest countries to the service of the world's poorest.

It's a pipe-dream. But the events of the 21st century require a new mantra beyond 'faster, higher, stronger'. Our world will not be made better by the superhuman efforts of individuals, but by the collaborative sacrifice and generosity of nations. A mantra of 'solidarity, sustainability and subsidiarity' might not have the same ring to it, but it's much more in the spirit of what 21st century sport should stand for.

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