Olympic Spirit or Sochi Shame? (and Qatar 2022)



I am currently in Canada teaching at the University of Ottawa.  Some keen students with great discussions in class.  But, it is freezing.  Minus 28 the other night when I was out walking with a wind chill I would prefer not to remember.  Actually, I do remember it!

There is another feeling in the air right now in Canada beyond the mix of extreme weather conditions and massive energy use.  The Winter Olympics are imminent: Canada’s great sporting redemption!!  Ice Hockey is number one with “Team Canada” feeling the weight of a nation with their own Richie McCaw, Sidney Crosby, an incredible athlete of whom Canadians are rightly proud.  The red mittens with maple leaf designs are out in force!  I might even buy a pair.  Well…maybe…

But, and regardless of my pressing fashion concerns, the excitement present here cannot hide the reality that these Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are built on a platform of abuse and exploitation, contrary to the lauded “Olympic Spirit”, presenting a gloss over an oppressive regime where human rights only exist to be trampled on and dismissed.

The Sochi Winter Olympics will be the most expensive in history.  Putin and Co (mainly Putin) hope this will be an expression of the new and successful Russia proving to the world that the 1990s were an aberration.  Mother Russia is back – strong and determined!

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But, peel back the superficial embrace of excess, and the Games only highlight how willing the Russian elite is to squash human dignity and the environment in favour of two weeks in the Northern Hemisphere’s spotlight.

You will have heard about the June 2013 law change in Russia discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.  Putin has been incredible in his pre-games announcements linking LGBT individuals to paedophiles.  His ignorance would astound, were it not so harmful.

My interest in LGBT issues led me to look into the Games further.  What I found only compounded my concern.  Human Rights Watch describes the lead up to the Games thus:

“But the monetary cost should not eclipse the significant human costs of preparations for the Games, which have been marred by exploitation, illegal detentions, and deportations of migrant construction workers engaged on Olympic venues and other sites in Sochi; forced evictions of Sochi residents and illegal land expropriations to make way for Olympics infrastructure; and harassment of journalists and civil society activists criticizing the preparations for the Games. Olympic construction has also compromised the health, safety, and property of many Sochi residents.”

How is it that this happens so easily?  How does the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) permit this?  Where is the proper oversight and accountability mechanisms to ensure that such a global event does not involve a huge human (and clearly in this case, environmental) cost?

But, wait, there’s more.

Things in Sochi are bad.  Terribly so.  But, they are worse in Qatar!

No, Qatar is not the host of the next Winter(!) or Summer Olympics.  That would be ridiculous, right?  I mean, who would play sport, any sport, in 50 degree temperatures in the desert?

Well, footballers, apparently.  Qatar is the host of the 2022 Football World Cup.  And, yes, a lot of the concern has been around conditions for the players and spectators: will this event will be held in winter or summer and will the Qataris have fully enclosed air conditioned stadia?

Until recently, though, very little was being said about the thousands of migrant workers brought into Qatar, primarily from South Asia to build these stadia.  To build them in 50 degree temperatures.  To die building them.

Through the work of The Guardian (watch the video that link takes you to) and advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch we know categorically that migrant workers are dying due to the extreme conditions they are working under.  Working conditions are unconscionable, with living conditions being clearly inhuman and degrading.  Payments are being withheld while there is essentially no real attempt by the Qatari government to oversee, inspect, or prosecute for abuse.

In what amounts to forced labour and modern day slavery, one of the world’s premier events chooses to celebrate humanity by denying the fundamental essence of human dignity in its treatment of migrant workers.

Qatar, like many countries in the Gulf, operates its migrant labour through what is called the “kafala” system.  This is essentially a sponsorship system where employment and your legal status in the country is tied to your employer.  If you don’t like your job, you can’t just get another one.  Also, employers will both withhold passports and are responsible for arranging exit permits meaning that workers are often stuck in Qatar when they would simply prefer to go home.

Qatar, like Russia, is not a bastion of human rights protection.  While Qatar is a member of the International Labour Organisation, it has signed very few of the relevant treaties promoting “decent work”.

But, are we surprised?  Is it at all a shock to hear that both Russia and Qatar are like this?  Frankly, no.  Yes, I am outraged, but not surprised.

My real anger, though, is directed towards the IOC and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (“FIFA”).  I know they are corrupt.  Of course.  But, their corruption does not absolve them of culpability.

Global sporting organisations such as the IOC and FIFA have a clear responsibility to protect and promote human rights.  You might have heard about “business and human rights” or “corporate social responsibility”.  Well, this is it!!  Sport (even of the commercialised type) is a wonderful expression of what it means to be human and brings cultures together.  For sport to actively ignore human rights is just plain wrong – in New Zealand we know this acutely.

Specifically, I believe that there should be certain baseline human rights expectations that a country must prove it is committed to before being granted these events.  The IOC and FIFA (along with other global bodies) actually have an opportunity to improve human rights by tangibly seeking accession by countries to key international treaties.

Further, organisations should then have the correct oversight to ensure the kind of abuse we have seen in the lead up to Sochi and Qatar are avoided.  Independent inspectors can ensure accountability and raise baseline standards across the planet.  The cost can be borne by the host city – it is just part of the bid.

My hope is that these Winter Olympics and the disgrace that is Qatar will shine a light on the complicity of the IOC and FIFA.  This is an opportunity.  I would love to see a global movement forcing sporting organisations to spread their love of sport alongside a promotion of human rights and civil liberties.

So, I will cheer on the Kiwis and the Canucks competing at Sochi.  I will also hope that the conflict in Dagestan and other parts of Russia will not raise its head through violent acts.  But, I hope that something more comes out of the Games and that we demand in future global sporting events that not only bring us together, but also leave a lasting positive human rights landscape.

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Michael Timmins
Michael Timmins is an expert in international human rights law. Specialising in refugee rights, Michael has worked in Egypt, the United States, Australia, Thailand, Pakistan and his home country of New Zealand across roles in advocacy, academia, and government. He is also a member of the Child Poverty Action Group's Management Committee. Michael’s writing covers international human rights, counter-terrorism, international environmental law, rule of law and accountability issues, as well as anything interesting happening in international relations.


  1. “Until recently, though, very little was being said about the thousands of migrant workers brought into Qatar, primarily from South Asia to build these stadia. To build them in 50 degree temperatures. To die building them.”

    Thanks for raising this. On the one hand Qatar presents itself as “progressive”, open and liberal, like with now well respected media giant Al Jazeera, on the other it is home to supporters of Al Qaeda, of some mega rich who have spread their wealth in Swiss and other bank accounts, and ruthless exploiters.

    Indeed, it is a disgrace what goes on there, and it is modern day slavery, nothing else. But to be honest, the same happens all over the Gulf Region, in Saudi Arabia, in the Emirates and so forth, although perhaps with variations.

    Who built Dubai, one must ask, it was mainly modern day slave and servant labour from the Indian Sub-Continent and a few other places in mostly Asia. The engineers, architects and other leading professionals may have come from many “western” countries, but the low skilled and even not so low skilled work was done by others. The locals like to be the “bosses” and write out the cheques.

    As for the Olympics in general, I do not even bother following these events that much anymore, as most athletes will be engaging in some kinds of “performance enhancing” supplementation of their “diets” and so forth. The investments are usually excessive and never fully recovered, and the locals are sold much hooray and fanfare, but afterwards it is back to the dreadful conditions they have to endure. It will be the same in Rio and elsewhere.

    Only some do great business out of it all, and rake it in by the hundreds of millions, including some corporates that sponsor and advertise, and some media will have lucrative broadcasting contracts.

    The IOC should put a spending cap on Olympic events, or hold them regularly in one place, perhaps Athens.

  2. Ever since Hitler’s Olympics, they have been nothing but a celebration of ugly nationalism and corporate greed, run by neo-fascists. The soccer World Cup is the same. In Brazil it is just an excuse for more government money to be shovelled into the accounts of the already rich, while the poor lose their precarious homes. A plague on all their houses.

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