Each time a major international sporting event like the Olympics or FIFA World Cup occurs, audiences from around the world dust off their patriotism and unite under the spectacle of sport. It’s a spectacle that highlights international cooperation through sport and is often heralded as a crown jewel of international unity. Before the world unites, however, the host country is often put under a microscope intensifying the immense pressure to deliver results. Unsurprisingly, international sports governing bodies have also been put under the microscope, providing some much-needed company for the host country.

The incidents of behind-the-scenes corruption or odious behavior have, seemingly, become more frequent or, if nothing else, more visible. The demands that are placed on a host nation are not new and, without having to look too far in history, reports of poor working conditions, hasty construction, displacement of populations, and greasing of wheels have worn out literal and figurative ink ribbons for some time. However, more recently, the focus has widened to include how international organizations themselves are governed.

The 2015 FIFA scandal gripped the world with its drama, the awarding of Qatar 2022 along with its stadium construction have been flagged as highly suspect, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic bid has come under scrutiny by French prosecutors for suspicious payments. These allegations are not new in the world of international sport, but coupled with an arguable reduction in the beneficial nature of hosting these events and growing sense of economic inequality, many around the world – especially the populations most affected – are at the very least questioning why we stubbornly drudge on with the spectacle. Before moving on, it is important to understand the odd place that international sports governing bodies inhabit legally to understand how these – unapologetic at times – actions persist.

Transparency International (TI), in a worthwhile read, demonstrate that major international governing bodies of sports fall under a surprising category. Although many work closely with the UN and governments, they are not international, multilateral, non-governmental, or corporate organizations. TI notes that over 60 international sporting organizations, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA, are based in Switzerland and are non-profit organizations under Swiss law which give them special rights and tax privileges. These organizations are allowed to act with little oversight, governmental accountability, or transparency. This allows corruption to gestate within these ‘non-profit’ organizations that, in the case of the IOC, pulled in USD $5 billion over a three-year period ending in 2012.

The lack of transparency and oversight in these organizations is well documented and instances that come to the forefront are surely the tip of the iceberg. A question remains: why do governments – and the international community – allow these sporting bodies to take advantage of them and their population?


When making a bid to host a major international sports event, a government will usually play on the prestige and pride that come with being a nation that can host the world. They count on the patriotism of their population to back the spending of huge amounts of money. The other selling point is the infrastructure spending. These events will in many cases bring huge spending on transportation, city infrastructure, and sporting facilities. But how has this turned out for recent Olympics?

The 2004 Athens Olympics brought a new airport, metro, roads, and sporting infrastructure. However, in 2012 the Greek population, who were at first ecstatic to be hosting the games, called into question the logic of spending all that money, and felt they were lied to about the ability of the nation to afford the expense. Further, officials in the years following the Athens games admitted to receiving payments from Siemens, and other companies, in return for contracts.

The Sochi Olympics saw terrible migrant worker conditions, and hastily built structures. However, it ought to be noted that the migrant workers, mostly from Bosnia, had said they would do it again if the opportunity arose because of high levels of unemployment in Bosnia. The 2020 World Cup being awarded to Qatar raised many flags, and Amnesty International has cited human rights violations of migrant workers, which Qatar 2022 reflexively denies.

Brazil, for the upcoming summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, recently saw a bike lane collapse resulting in fatal injuries, and called into question the rest of the infrastructure for the games. Further, The Rio de Janeiro games are mired by political unrest, corruption, and disease.

A Harvard University publication called for the delay of the games due to the Zika virus, calling into question the logical leap of sending thousands of people to a disease ridden area of the country when it would be unthinkable if the Olympics were removed from the equation. The World Health Organization (WHO) and IOC have downplayed the disease, but they have also signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to collaborate. The MOU language has been kept private, and without the specific wording, it can’t be known what agreement the WHO and IOC have come to, which throws doubt on the incentives of the WHO.

The flagrant corruption that has come to light and ignited the passion of the body politic in that nation provides a moment for Brazilians, and international observers, to stop being distracted by the ‘prestige’ of the games and demand a transparent process in the run-up to major sporting events. The socioeconomic gorge between the wealthy and everybody else has allowed for a deeper questioning of the need for extravagance. However, as a CNN opinion piece highlights, this type of upset is unfortunately not uncommon in the run-up to these games, and has in the past led to little once the opening ceremony begins.

Remember the ‘Free Tibet’ movement in the run-up to Beijing? It is being ignited again – in small numbers – as Beijing seeks to host another Olympics. Why is it being ignited again? Well, one obvious answer is that not much changed following the international scrutiny in 2008. Remember how the homeless were unceremoniously pushed out of downtown Vancouver before the 2010 winter games? Remember the outrage surrounding anti-LGBT laws and the 2014 Sochi Olympics? All of these were major stories right up until the medals were adorned, and camera crews hightailed home.


There’s no doubt that sporting events provide an opportunity for the world to unite over a shared experience and watch exemplary athletes, hopefully, inspire some positivity. However, the governance of these events is riddled with corruption that cannot be swept aside at any level as being necessary to ‘lubricate the process’. Specifically with the Olympics, some call for a permanent Olympic venue to take out the bidding and building process altogether. This is a step up from the oft-proposed idea of hosting the games in countries that have the established infrastructure capacity to do so, avoiding awarding the games to countries that have either poor economic capacity, questionable labour practices, high likelihood of corruption, or any combination of the above.

TI calls for changes at the highest levels of government. Its solution lies in more openness in the governing bodies, more oversight, greater transparency in the bidding process, more accountability on behalf of sponsors, and more control by international organizations and host governments.

While all of that is great and worth striving for, it is all rather supply-side centric. Where the current system is set up in such a way that all of those listed above, from sponsors to governing bodies, are in a position to gain financially, this is a very uphill battle. Some of the solutions must lie on the demand-side of the equation. Strong leadership would help along the process, but spectators and host populations must take it upon themselves to resist being distracted by the glamour and excitement of the games, and demand change. If it becomes undesirable, or unprofitable to host the games, we may see meaningful change.


Nathan Seef is the Director of Observatory Media and is an Associate Editor of iAffairs Canada. He has a Masters of International Criminology from the University of Sheffield, UK. He specialises in transnational organised crime and environmental harms. He has given several guest lectures on green criminology and is passionate for finding ways to reduce the negative impacts of mass production. He has strong interests in issues of global governance, international law, and international affairs.

This is a cross-post originally published on the Observatory Media

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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