Forced Evictions Defeat the Spirit of Big Sporting Events

March 19, 2014


The Olympics are beautiful. I'll admit, I watched them this year. As a human rights activist working to end forced evictions, I tried to stay away. I tried to be true to my outrage over the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) silent tolerance for human rights abuses committed in the name of the Games, in Beijing, Sochi, Rio.

But I succumbed. I love the athletes, the excitement, the stories, the flags, Queen Yuna's twirls. And what about the Jessica Long Story? Tell me that didn't make you cry. Those stories are truly inspiring, and they should be heard. I don't want them to go away. But people also need to hear about how major sporting events affect ordinary citizens.

Looking forward to the next big tournament, the World Cup that kicks off this June in my native Brazil, I want the world to hear the stories of people I have met, like Francisca, Jorge, Antonieta, Elisângela.

Francisca faced a bulldozer and, in her desperation, tried to chain herself to her front door when city workers showed up to tear down her house, without notice or warning, to make way for a new highway named the TransOlympic. This video shows what happened next:

Jorge was the last member of his community to resist, even when all his neighbors were gone and his home was deliberately flooded to force him out. He had lived there for 16 years, had built his house himself. Two years later, still nothing has been built on the land. This is his story:

Antonieta's community was terrorized and threatened for months before it was razed to the ground in May 2011. She lost her job because she was too busy fighting back. Without a home, she and her eight-year-old daughter had to sleep in an orphanage while they figured out what to do next. Why did this happen? Here's how Antonieta explains it:

Elisângela's teenage daughter was home alone with a younger cousin when city workers knocked on the door to say they were going to demolish their home within hours. She raced home and begged city workers to give her time to at least find a place to store her belongings. They didn't. It was difficult for her to discuss it:

These are only four stories among as many as 250,000 Brazilians who are at risk of losing their homes due to construction projects related to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

These are not people who have lost their homes and received compensation. They are being forcibly uprooted from their homes without regard for the law, basic rights, or the value of their property and possessions. Often residents are told to leave without notice or explanation. They are threatened, harassed, and denied proper compensation or resettlement options.

These are not isolated incidents unconnected to these major sporting events as some Brazilian authorities would have you believe. In 2013, WITNESS and its partners in Brazil compiled 114 YouTube videos, shot by people and groups working independently of each other, that illustrate a pattern of violations committed before, during, and after evictions in Rio. WITNESS also worked with partners to compile national footage from the 12 cities across Brazil that will host Olympic or World Cup events.

Here are some of the voices of those affected by these forced evictions:

Edilson, forcibly evicted resident: "There were machines, police officers, riot forces with large weapons, and they started emptying out the houses. If someone refused to leave they would take the bulldozer and start breaking down the door. The officers would come into your house, take you out by force, and then demolish it."
Michel, forcibly evicted resident: "There used to be 150 homes and small businesses here. We didn't get any kind of compensation, small businesses didn't get anything—not even one real."

A key part of the pitch made by candidate cities to the IOC and FIFA involves governments trying to persuade the organizers that they will be ready in time. "Being ready" often means a lot of construction, from tourist upgrades, to transportation infrastructure, to sports facilities, and security.

It all happens very fast. When governments sign host-city agreements, they agree to enact legislative changes to guarantee that everything will be ready in time. This could mean, for example, a new law allowing construction to move forward without proper bidding processes, or the creation of special geographic zones to protect the sponsors (and profits) of the events and prohibit local vendors from selling their goods to fans. See FIFA's exclusion zones and special courts for examples of what several bloggers have described as Brazil's "state of exception." What's more, FIFA benefits from tax exemptions.

Sometimes these special laws can even end up suspending constitutional protections for the duration of the sporting events. Think about that for a second. Imagine suspending the first amendment in the United States for 30 days per requirement of an international organization—for sports.


Which brings us to the central question of who pays for and who benefits from major sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup. More often than not, we see the following pattern: Costs are socialized (for example, new or upgraded stadiums funded with taxpayer dollars), and profits are privatized (that is, captured by a small group of sponsors, investors, and developers).

With pressing social needs such as hospitals that lack adequate staff and supplies, and poorly funded schools (in Rio, children went without school for 77 days in 2013 when teachers went on strike to demand better working conditions), it's hard to make a case for investing billions in infrastructure that will be largely useless to the city's residents once the tournaments end.

In June 2013, thousands of Brazilians zeroed in on this twisted hijacking of public priorities when mass demonstrations erupted across several cities. With the largest public protests since the end of military rule in 1985, protestors took up the chant "World Cup for whom?" and asked when the government would prioritize hospitals, schools, and transportation and deliver these basic services with the same high-quality standards imposed by FIFA for its events.

So should we do away with these events altogether, or is there an ethical way to conduct them? Opinions vary widely on this, but the most reasonable answer I've heard comes straight from the community leaders fighting forced eviction in Vila Autódromo, Rio: They don't oppose Big Sport, but they demand to be included in the purported benefits and the legacies these major events are supposed to leave behind.

So where does that leave the spectators? Is it possible to support the World Cup and Olympics while being aware of these downsides?

An important start would be to demand that governments, sponsors, and organizers adhere to the principles and values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so that these events, in the words of the Olympic Charter itself, "place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."

Priscila Néri, a Brazilian journalist and human rights defender, works at WITNESS on its global campaign to end forced evictions.