Emerging Voices: The International Olympic Committee’s Accountability for Human Rights – Learning From the World Bank

Emerging Voices: The International Olympic Committee’s Accountability for Human Rights – Learning From the World Bank

[Ryan Gauthier is a PhD Candidate at the Erasmus University Rotterdam.]

Mo’ Sporting Events, Mo’ Problems

In June, the 2015 European Olympic Games took place in Baku, Azerbaijan. Did you watch? You might not have even been aware of them! This first edition of the European Olympic Games is a symbol of the growing number of sports mega-events, joining the Olympic Games, the Fédération Intenationale de Football Association (‘FIFA’) World Cup, and others, on an ever-crowded sporting calendar. However, all is not positive. Just before the 2015 Games began, the Netherlands declined to host the 2019 edition of the European Olympic Games, citing the almost €60 million price tag as too much.

Sports mega-events have expanded not only in number, but also in geographic scope. Baku 2015 is an example of sports mega-events being held in developing countries. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and countries such as Argentina and Qatar have hosted the world’s premier sports mega-events (Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup, Commonwealth Games) since 2008.

Unfortunately for the citizens of these countries, these events have also been prime examples of the worst problems caused by sports mega-events. Families have been evicted from their homes (sometimes forcibly), ecologically sensitive areas have lost their protected status so that infrastructure such as ski runs or golf courses can be constructed, labour rights abuses have run rampant on infrastructure projects, and civil dissent has been quashed. To add insult to injury, the same old negative legacies of ‘white elephants’, such as unused or half-empty stadiums, deserted parks, unused hotel rooms, and public debt have reared their head.


My PhD research focuses on the accountability of international sporting organisations for the worst outcomes of their events. What I hope to do with this blog post is outline one aspect of accountability, the use of a monitoring mechanism. I will outline the problem of an absent state and a weak mandate. I will then discuss a comparison with the World Bank, and lessons that might be learned by international sporting organisations.

Where Does the Buck Stop?

Many organisations are involved in putting on a sports mega-event. As a start, international sporting organisations such as the IOC and FIFA hold the intellectual property rights to the event. However, these organisations do not directly engage in preparations for the event, but instead provide varying levels of financial and logistical support. The actual preparation is carried out by a local organising committee (which may be public or private), who hires contractors for construction, and so forth. The state government also supports the preparations.

When things go wrong, no party is held to account. This is due in part to the multiplicity of organisations involved, creating a ‘problem of many hands’. This situation is exacerbated because the state, the one organisation which is expected to provide a backstop to guarantee that its citizens are not harmed, is often unwilling or unable to hold anyone else to account. In some cases, particularly in regards to the eviction of individuals, and allowing construction in environmentally-sensitive areas, the government is actually complicit in the harm. Thus, with an absent state, my research examines how the international sporting organisations should be accountable, and should hold others to account, for the harms caused by hosting their sports mega-events.

Baby Steps

As part of its response to this situation, the IOC is enacting a series of reforms, known as ‘Agenda 2020’. The most noteworthy part of Agenda 2020 is the requirement that hosts “take all necessary measures to ensure that development projects necessary for the organisation of the Games comply with local, regional and national legislation and international agreements, standards and protocols, applicable in the Host Country with regard to planning, construction, protection of the environment, health and safety and labour laws.” However, this language is not necessarily guaranteed to be effective, for reasons that I have discussed elsewhere.

Sports organisations are also aware that they need to do more to reassure sceptics that the worst outcomes can be prevented, or at least mitigated. Otherwise, citizens in liberal-democratic states will vote to prevent their governments from seeking to host these events. We have already seen this occur in 2013 (St. Gallen, Munich) and 2014 (Krakow), and may see the same happen in 2015 (Hamburg) and 2016 (Boston).

Looking Outside of Sport—To the World Bank

A significant shortcoming of sports organisations (and to some degree, sports law as a discipline), is a belief that sport is a unique institution. It does not help when the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the United Nations both support the ‘specific nature of sport’, and the autonomy of sport, respectively.

Regardless, the problems associated with hosting sports mega-events has a parallel—with projects financed by the World Bank. Readers might be wondering how these two organisations are comparable. The IOC works in sport, while the World Bank focuses on economic development. Yet, many similarities appear in the execution of their mandates. Namely, hosting the Olympic Games is often justified as an economic development project, touting claims of urban renewal, increased business opportunities, and funding for infrastructure.

More importantly, the outcomes of the projects have been similar. In the 1980s, projects financed by the World Bank were criticized for being ‘development disasters’. Projects routinely failed to meet development goals. Even worse, they often left behind a legacy of displaced persons and environmental harm.

As part of its response to these problems in the early 1990s, the World Bank created the World Bank Inspection Panel (‘WBIP’). The Panel provides an avenue for those affected by World Bank projects to voice their concerns. Following a complaint that the Bank is not following their Operational Policies and Procedures (which include guidelines on environmental protection and displacement of persons), the Panel undertakes an investigation. Following the investigation, the Bank determines what remedial measures to take. While the Panel has a number of shortcomings (e.g., cannot compel the Bank to take remedial actions, no post-investigation oversight) it is an example of a mechanism where those affected by the decisions of an international actor can hold that actor to account.

A Mega-Event Inspection Panel?

Might the actions of the World Bank be a lesson for the IOC and other sporting organisations? Two questions come to immediate attention. First, why might the IOC and other sporting organisations be interested in such a mechanism? Second, what might be the hurdles to the effective functioning of an inspection panel-like mechanism?

Sporting organisations might be interested in a WBIP-like mechanism because, as it is set up by the World Bank, it is an internal mechanism. Sporting organisations have a long history of fighting against external interference from governments (which is why the current investigations by the U.S.A. and Switzerland into FIFA are so breath-taking). Having an internal accountability mechanism would then be a shield against such interference, where the organisations can say ‘we have it under control!’ This pattern worked itself out in the creation of the creation of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (‘CAS’) in 1982, or the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999. Second, having a mechanism that is non-adjudicatory in nature is less threatening to international sporting organisations than an adjudicatory forum. A WBIP-like mechanism would not be forced to make a finding of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and would not make awards of injunctions or damages. The largest risk to the sporting organisation would be the risk of bad publicity, but as seen above, that is already the case.

Two significant hurdles may arise to prevent the effective functioning of such a mechanism. First, the independence of the mechanism would need to be assured. However, sporting organisations have had problems with independent accountability mechanisms. For instance, CAS has dealt with questions of its independence for the first two decades of its existence. A second hurdle is the lack of a substantive mandate. As noted above, the current mandate on human rights (although there is more in regards to the environment) is quite thin. Without a mandate, it is difficult to assess compliance.

So What?

The solution to the problems caused by sports mega-events will not be solved by simply adding another institution to the mix. However, in conjunction with other avenues, which I discuss throughout my doctoral dissertation, to be defended in December, having a monitoring or investigatory mechanism can at least provide an avenue for complaint in states where expression is limited. It can also open an organisation to being accountable for their actions, and increasing the credibility of sports organisations, which have suffered from recent, poorly-executed events.


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el roam
el roam

Thanks for the post, worth just to note, that speaking of human rights abuses, brutal activities of police, for ” cleaning areas ” as preparations for safety games to come, causing police forces to become brutal in the streets, yielding so, very high level of abuse and killing . see link at the foot ,report of actually ,mass killing , in brazil , for the preparation of the olympic games there in 2016 . I don’t know precisely , in domestic law terms , what caused the respectable author of that post , to presume , that” lots of hands ” and personalities , bar citizens from suing for damages . There are other problems, like : having resources, determination, public policies sometimes, but not necessarily: the ” lifting of the curtains” . I shall bring an example from domestic law: ” Tort Ordinance (New Version) ” in Israel, a British law in its origin, and deriving mainly from the ” common law ” system, here I quote: “For the purposes of this Ordinance, a person who enters into any contract with any other person, not being his employee or agent, to do any act on his behalf will not… Read more »