Mega-Sporting Events and Human Rights


Daniela Heerdt, PhD candidate, Tilburg Law School


Mega-sporting events (MSEs), such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, are more than just prestigious sporting competitions. Because of their scale and complexity, these international events present an exceptional example of the potential human rights impacts of our increasingly globalized and interconnected world. While many stakeholders benefit from mega-sporting events, the events are consistently linked to allegations of human rights violations. Reports of human rights abuses connected to the delivery of MSEs have proliferated since the Beijing Olympics in 2008.[1] The most common allegations involve forced evictions, violations of worker’s rights, and the suppression of freedom of speech or the right to protest. During preparations for the World Cup and the Summer Olympic Games in Brazil between 2009 and 2015, for example, more than 77,000 people living in and around Rio de Janeiro were displaced.[2] In some cases, house demolition began before residents were removed to other housing.[3] In the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, numerous cases of repression of political opposition became public.[4] Commentators predict that by the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, 7,000 workers building the infrastructure for the championship will have died due to hazardous working conditions.[5]

MSEs have the potential both to violate human rights and to promote greater respect for human rights by international actors. Teaching the human rights impacts of MSEs illustrates many key issues within the general business and human rights debate.

Complex Relationships

Many actors play a role in the complex process of hosting the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup. MSEs are jointly organized and staged by international sports organizing bodies such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA); national sport organizing bodies and local organizing bodies; as well as local, regional and central authorities of the host country; national and international companies; broadcasters; recruitment or other agencies; and sponsors.[6] While similar collaborative projects exist in the investment and development field, such as large-scale infrastructure projects funded by the World Bank, MSEs stand out as a unique case for two reasons: the complex constellation of actors involved and their consistently adverse human rights impacts. While infrastructure projects, such as the building of a dam, present similar human rights risks, MSE-related human rights violations occur on a larger scale and more structural basis.

Host governments see MSEs as an opportunity to attract tourism and investment. Promises are often made by governments to the local population that staging these events will advance development in the region, through urban regeneration, in form of new housing and public spaces, as well as improved infrastructure. MSE-related construction projects and other operations create jobs. Due to strict deadlines for finishing these projects, workers may often be hired from abroad. In addition to local companies, numerous multinational enterprises are involved in the delivery of MSEs, for example by providing the expertise and goods needed for hosting these events, or by producing materials and merchandise products in places far away from the event’s venue. The economic benefits of staging MSEs extend across the borders of the respective hosting countries.

Respecting and Protecting Human Rights

More than 1 billion people watched the final match of the 2016 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.[7] According to the IOC, as much as half of the world’s population watched television coverage of the 2016 Summer Games.[8]

MSEs stand out because of the immense international attention they receive and the resulting pressure to respect human rights, from the respective sports governing bodies, the sponsors, the investors, and the international community. This pressure also presents opportunities for stakeholders to push for improved human rights protection in the respective hosting country and beyond. One example is the legislative changes that the government of Qatar has implemented in response to international criticism of its “Kafala system” labour laws.[9]

Accountability and Responsibility

Efforts to compensate the victims of MSE-related human rights abuses highlight a number of key challenges. First of all, holding someone accountable for the harm suffered requires finding the responsible actor(s) – a complex undertaking given the fact that multiple actors come together and act jointly. This “problem of many hands” blurs the lines of responsibility and accountability, complicating the identification of the responsible actor(s) and the attribution of responsibility, as well as the apportioning of the respective share of responsibility to each involved party.[10] Attempting to remedy MSE-related human rights violations highlights the accountability gap that surrounds these cases. This gap arises due to the multiple actors involved in staging MSEs, as well as the complex and often non-transparent interaction among them. Most actions taken in the planning and preparatory stage of such events and during the events themselves are not carried out by one actor individually, but rather jointly by multiple of actors. If human rights are at risk or violated, victims face the challenging tasks of identifying the actors responsible for the harm.

Even if victims can identify the responsible actors, most mechanisms of legal responsibility and accountability are built on single actors and independent acts, instead of a multi-actor framework.[11] MSE projects, however, like many other large scale infrastructure or development projects, are jointly staged by multiple public, private and even hybrid actors.

The problem of accountability presented by MSEs is not only a procedural one. On a substantial level, international human rights standards do not take effect the same way for each of the different actors involved. Non-state actors, which represent the majority of actors involved in delivering MSEs, are not clearly bound by regional or international human rights mechanisms. This does not mean that non-state actors involved in staging MSEs are free of any human rights obligations. Host country governments implement their obligations under international human rights law by adopting policies and laws that non-state actors operating on their territory have to follow, for instance in the field of domestic labour law or criminal law. However, domestic laws differ from hosting country to hosting country. Therefore, the standard of human rights protection applicable to MSE actors can differ significantly. In addition, hosting countries often adopt exceptional legal regimes for those events to fulfil the requirements of the sport governing bodies and to facilitate and speed up organizational processes, often at the expense of statutory human rights protection.[12] In addition, there is no single accountability mechanism to hold all the various types of MSE actors accountable for breaches of different kinds of human rights obligations, even when all those actors contributed to the same harm. As a result, many human rights abuses committed by multiple wrongdoers, as in the case of MSEs, are often not being remedied.[13]

MSEs and the UN Guiding Principles

Applying the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) (see Introducing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights) to MSEs can help to clarify human rights obligations and responsibilities of the various actors involved. The state duty to protect human rights applies to the host governments. The corporate responsibility to respect human rights applies to all private parties involved in delivering MSEs. This also extends to the international sports organizing bodies. Both FIFA and the IOC have accepted the UNGPs as guidelines for their own human rights commitments, but also as a guideline for the role that human rights play in the overall delivery of MSEs. Interestingly, FIFA and the IOC are established as non-profit associations under Swiss law, not as business enterprises that undoubtedly fall within the scope of the Guiding Principles. Applying the UNGPs to the actors involved in delivering MSEs triggers consideration of the nature of the actors involved. In addition to FIFA and the IOC, the corporate nature of local organizing committees also becomes part of the discussion.

The UNGP’s third pillar on remedy is receiving greater attention. The revised bidding guidelines for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the Host City Contracts for the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games reference the provision of remedy mechanisms for harmful human rights impacts.[14] Consequently, the UNGPs provide a great tool to understand the different human rights commitments of the various actors involved and to analyse what can be expected of MSEs with regard to their human rights impacts.

Teaching Approaches

The key issues surrounding MSEs on human rights, such as the accountability gap, the problem of many hands, complex and nontransparent business relationships, and the lack of binding human rights standards, can be studied by business, law and policy students alike. Business and human rights teachers can use the topic of MSEs to illustrate other issues in the field, like human rights impact assessment, corporate legal accountability, and access to remedy. The topic can also be taught as a case study when addressing specific, related business and human rights issues. MSEs and human rights can be covered as a single lecture or module within a business and human rights course. The topic could also fill a one- or two-day seminar by detailing key issues and including group exercises.

General learning objectives for all students may include:

  • Understanding the diverse actors involved in delivering MSEs and how they are connected.
  • Evaluating the human rights risks attached to each stage of the MSE life-cycle.
  • Explaining, with concrete examples, the human rights violations that can occur within the context of delivering MSEs.
  • Understanding the accountability gap and being able to explain the difficulties in establishing responsibility and accountability for MSE-related human rights abuses.
  • Understanding the relevance of, and interpreting, human rights clauses in MSE-related contracts and bidding requirements.

One way to teach the key challenges connected to the human rights impact of MSEs is through open discussions or group work that gives students the opportunity to figure out these challenges on their own. Discussions can be triggered by presenting a case of MSE-related human rights infringements, by showing a video for example, and letting students discuss, in pairs or larger groups, the human rights issues connected to these cases. To prompt the discussion, teachers can ask students how human rights violations come about and which actors contributed to them, to what extent different actors have human rights obligations, and what are possible means of remedy. Each pair or group could discuss one of these aspects, or different types of violations happening in different stages of the event’s life cycle.

For law students, it is essential to understand which human rights can be affected by MSE-related operations, with reference to relevant international human rights treaties. Particular attention can be drawn to how the delivery of MSEs impact children’s or women’s rights. Law students can study to what extent the different actors involved have human rights obligations and how these obligations differ for state and non-state actors. Students should also be aware of and understand the relevance and application of documents like the UN Guiding Principles[15] and the OECD Guidelines for MNEs[16] within the MSE context. Law courses can address the challenges related to remedying cases of MSE-related human rights violations. Topics include the advantages and disadvantages of existing remedy mechanisms under private law and under international public law. Law students can also study the few cases that have been brought against FIFA in relation to the organization’s responsibilities for human rights violations connected to preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.[17]

Policy courses can address the life-cycle of MSEs and the different tasks and roles played by public officials in each stage. Policy students can study the different actors involved in delivering MSEs, in particular from the government side, and consider the implications of establishing a public, private or ‘hybrid’ local organization committee. Policy courses can address the incentives and intentions of governments that bid for and host MSEs. They can also zoom in on the procurement processes that are being implemented, as well as on the policies that governments adopt to enable the organization of these events. Teachers can focus on the engagement of local communities in the adoption of MSE-related policies and legislation. In addition, policy students should be made aware of existing multi-stakeholder initiatives that aim at making these events more sustainable and human rights-friendly, such as the MSE platform for human rights, or the collaboration between UNICEF and the Commonwealth Games Federation. Policy students can be tasked with drafting a human rights policy from the perspective of a local organizing committee, or as a human rights manager of one of the major international sports governing bodies, such as FIFA or the IOC.

Business courses can address the different corporate actors involved in delivering MSEs, introducing these actors according to their connection to the event. The business relationships for sponsors are different than for contractors or subcontractors, for example. One possible thematic hook is the sustainability of these events, from both financial and non-financial perspectives. Business students can study the particular economic challenges that developing countries face when hosting an MSE. They can also study the complex and multiple supply chains of MSEs. Dividing students into groups that each work on and present one of the supply chains is a good way to get an overview of the many different but also common challenges from a human rights perspective. Further relevant issues to address in a business course are corruption in the MSE business and its human rights impacts, as well as the human rights obligations of businesses within both the host state and the home state.

Key Questions


  • What are Mega-Sporting Events (MSEs)?
  • How are MSEs organized? What is the MSE life-cycle?
  • What are the human rights impacts of MSEs?
  • Which actors are involved in delivering MSEs?
  • What roles do different actors play?
  • Can/should all actors be held accountable for MSE-related human rights violations?
  • What standards and guidelines are in place and applicable to cases of MSE-related human rights violations?

For business students

  • What are the human rights risks facing the various kinds of companies involved in delivering MSEs?
  • What standards, tools, or guidelines exist to help companies and sponsors operate responsibly in the MSE business?
  • What are the specific human rights standards relevant for corporate actors involved in organizing and staging MSEs?
  • How do the UN Guiding Principles apply to corporate actors involved in delivering MSEs?
  • What are the incentives for companies and sponsors to apply the UNGPs to their operations?
  • How are international sport associations similar to, and different from, private corporations?
  • How can a company implement human rights standards and make sure that its sub-contractors follow the same standards?
  • How can human rights standards be implemented across MSE supply chains?
  • Should sponsors have different human rights obligations than contractors and sub-contractors?
  • Should companies establish grievance mechanisms especially for cases of human rights violations connected to their MSE operations?

For law students

  • What kinds of human rights violations have been linked to MSEs?
  • Which international human rights standards are relevant for MSEs?
  • What are the legal relationships between the different actors involved in organizing and staging MSEs?
  • To what extent are the different actors involved bound by human rights obligations? What obligations do non-state actors have? How do these obligations relate to state actors?
  • How can international law and international human rights law be used to address cases of MSE-related human rights violations?
  • What are the shortcomings of international human rights law and national legal frameworks that create an accountability gap for MSE-related human rights violations? How can this gap be addressed?
  • Are international sports bodies considered inter-governmental organizations, with similar legal obligations?
  • Should host governments bear primary responsibility for all MSE-related violations? If not, how could responsibility be shared among the various actors involved in MSE-related operations?
  • What mechanisms are in place to provide remedies to victims of human rights abuse? What challenges do rightsholders face?
  • How can host countries incorporate human rights standards in MSE-related policies and legislation?
  • How can MSE-related contracts, such as the host city contract, or contracts between the local organizing committee and contractors, incorporate internationally recognized human rights standards?
  • How can internationally recognized human rights standards best be included in the bidding process for MSEs?
  • What lessons can be learned from the cases brought against FIFA in relation to the adverse human rights impacts of preparations for the FIFA World Cup?

For policy students

  • What roles do government actors play delivering MSEs and which tasks do they have?
  • What is the relationship of government actors with other stakeholders involved in delivering MSEs?
  • How can public authorities collaborate with civil society and local communicates to ensure a sustainable and responsible delivery of the event?
  • How can local communities be engaged when governments adopt MSE-related policies and legislation?
  • What is the potential of MSEs to bring human-rights-friendly policy changes to host countries?
  • What are the human rights standards for MSE-related procurement? How can procurement processes be made more human rights-friendly?
  • What can host governments do to fight corruption within the MSE business?
  • What should a human rights policy by a local organizing committee contain? Which issues should it prioritize? To what extent could a policy differ depending on the host country?
  • What standards can host governments and local organizing committees adopt to ensure that companies involved in the MSE business conduct their operations with respect for human rights?
Teaching Resources

[*] This Teaching Note may be cited as:

Daniela Heerdt, “Teaching Note: Mega-Sporting Events and Human Rights,” in Teaching Business and Human Rights Handbook (Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum, 2018), in a new tab).

[1] See, e.g., Minky Worden, Director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, Op-Ed, “The Olympics’ Leadership Mess,” The New York Times (August 12, 2013), available at

[2] World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee, “Mega-Events and Human Rights Violations in Rio de Janeiro Dossier – Rio Olympics: The Exclusion Games” (2015), 20, available at (accessed 2 April 2017).

[3] Tom Philipps, ‘”Rio World Cup Demolitions Leave Favela Families Trapped in Ghost Town” The Guardian (2011), available at (accessed 3 February 2017).

[4] Jules Boykoff, “The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics is a political tinderbox for Russia” The Guardian (2013), available at (accessed 8 February 2018).

[5] International Trade Union Confederation, “Frontline Report 2015 – Qatar: Profit and Loss – Counting the Cost of Modern Day Slavery in Qatar: What Price Is Freedom?” (2015), available at (accessed 24 May 2017).

[6] Jean-Loup Chappelet and Brenda Kübler-Mabbott, The International Olympic Committee and the Olympic System : The Governance of World Sport (Routledge, 2008), 5–16.

[7] FIFA, “2014 FIFA World Cup Reached 3.2 Billion Viewers, One Billion Watched Final” (  – Media Release, 2015), available at–2745519.html (accessed 28 December 2017).

[8] International Olympic Committee, ‘How Do We Know That Rio 2016 Was a Success’ (Olympic News, 2016) available at (accessed 28 December 2017).

[9] The Kafala system, also referred to as “sponsorship system”, is based in Qatari domestic law and creates a situation in which the employer controls the employee, in particular with regard to his or her migration status, as the employee has to hand in his or her passport and is not allowed to leave the country or switch employers without approval from his or her current employer. See Qatari Law No. 14 of 2004 Regulating Employment (“Labor Law”); Law No. 4 of 2009 Regulating the Entry, Exit, Residence, and Sponsorship of Expatriates (“Sponsorship Law”); and Law No. 15 of 2011 Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings.

[10] Dennis F Thompson, “Moral Responsibility of Public Officials: The Problem of Many Hands” (1980) 74 The American Political Science Review 905; Ryan Gauthier, The International Olympic Committee, Law, and Accountability (Routledge, 2017).

[11] While international rules on responsibility and accountability in both the Draft Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts and the Draft Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations take account of agents of the state, states aiding and assisting other states, or states jointly committing a wrong with an international organisation, their main objective is still to attribute responsibility separately to one actor. Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts – with commentaries (2008); ILC Draft Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations, Vol II (2011); André Nollkaemper and Dov Jacobs, “Shared Responsibility in International Law: A Conceptual Framework” 34 Michigan Journal of International Law (2013) .

[12] Megan Corrarino, ‘“Law Exclusion Zones”: Mega-Events as Sites of Procedural and Substantive Human Rights Violations’ (2014) 17 Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal 180, 180–183; Mark James and Guy Osborn, ‘The Olympics, Transnational Law and Legal Transplants: The International Olympic Committee, Ambush Marketing and Ticket Touting’ (2016) 36 Legal Studies 93, 93.

[13] Mega Sporting Events Platform for Human Rights, ‘Remedy Mechanisms for Human Rights in the Sports Context’ (2017),Sporting Chance White Paper 2.4, available at (accessed 12 September 2017).

[14] International Olympic Committee, HOST CITY CONTRACT PRINCIPLES GAMES OF THE XXXIV OLYMPIAD IN 2028 (2017), Principle 13.2.b., available at (accessed 19 October 2017); International Olympic Committee, HOST CITY CONTRACT PRINCIPLES GAMES OF THE XXXIII OLYMPIAD IN 2024 (2017), Principle 13.2.b., available at (accessed 19 October 2017); Fédération Internationale de Football Association, GUIDE TO THE BIDDING PROCESS FOR THE 2026 FIFA WORLD CUP (2017) 32, available at (accessed 13 November 2017).

[15] “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework,” Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises,” UN doc. A/HRC/17/31 (21 March 2011), available at (“UN Guiding Principles”).

[16] OECD, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD Publishing, 2011), available at

[17] Initial Assessment – Specific Instance regarding the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) submitted by Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB); Specific Instance regarding the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) submitted by the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) – Final Statement, available at (accessed 14 February 2018).