Protests Against the World Cup and the Olympics

August 27, 2013

In three readings, students learn about protests surrounding upcoming World Cup and Olympic events; consider whether such events benefit the people of host countries; and learn about Russia's recent anti-gay legislation and the debate surrounding a possible boycott of the 2014 Winter Games.  

To the Teacher: 

 Controversy surrounds several upcoming international sporting events, including the Winter Olympics in Russia, and Brazil's hosting of both the World Cup in in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.

Hosting a large international event is generally regarded as an indicator of a country's growing prominence on the world stage and its relative economic stability. However, these events can also become lightning rods for political protest.  

Some of the controversy over the games focuses on economics: Host countries spend a lot of money (including taxpayer dollars) preparing for these events, including building vast stadiums and other sports facilities. But do these games really promote economic development, as boosters claim? Critics have charged that these huge building projects are rife with corruption, that many public dollars have been misspent, and that many people are being displaced from their homes by the construction. Such grievances contributed to mass protests in Brazil this summer. In Russia too, critics have questioned whether the public will benefit from spending on the coming Olympics.

Social issues have also been in the spotlight. Russia's passage of anti-gay laws has spurred activists to speak out against the increasingly virulent homophobia that grips the country; some have called for a boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.
This lesson will explore the controversies over the hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, as well as the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. It includes three student readings: The first provides background information about protests surrounding the World Cup and Olympic events; the second considers whether such events benefit the people of host countries; and the third explores Russia's recent anti-gay legislation and the debate surrounding a possible boycott of the 2014 Winter Games.  Questions for student discussion follow each reading.


Student Reading 1:
Controversies in Brazil and Russia

Many people are looking forward to the huge international sporting events coming up in the next few years, including the Winter Olympics in Russia, and, in Brazil, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. But these events are also fraught with controversy.   

Countries typically compete hard to host these big sporting events. Being selected to host the Olympics or the World Cup is historically seen as a sign of a country's relative economic stability and growing prominence on the world stage. But such events can also become lightning rods for political protest.
Some of the controversy over the games focuses on economics: Host countries spend a lot of money (including taxpayer dollars) preparing for these events, including building vast stadiums and other sports facilities. But do these games really promote economic development, as boosters claim? Critics have charged that these huge building projects are rife with corruption, that many public dollars have been misspent, and that many people are being displaced from their homes by the construction.  
In June 2013, huge crowds of protesters (as many as 200,000) filled the streets of major Brazilian cities including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasília. The demonstrations, the largest in a generation, were initially called to protest a rise in bus fares that hit ordinary Brazilians hard. But as the protests grew, they expanded to take on other issues -- including anger over how much money the Brazilian government is spending on preparing for the upcoming World Cup. Although soccer is tremendously popular in Brazil, protesters argue that, in a country where the gap between rich and poor is very wide, public money should be spent on hospitals and schools, not stadiums and other sports facilities. 
In a June 19 article on, reporter James Montague explained: 

The initial spark for the protests was a rise in bus fares in Sao Paulo. The anger was such that, even in a country often caricatured for its deification of soccer, the World Cup, its surrogate cousin the Confederations Cup and the game's global governing body FIFA, have all become symbolic of corruption and waste.
Protesters believe the tournament has seen the rich line their pockets, while the poor make do with crumbling public services. The World Cup, it seems, has sparked something that has lain dormant for a long time.
"Tonight this is about all of Brazil, we are moving against corruption. We have been suffering for too many years," said Tainara Freitas, a teacher who had remained with the protest until the end.
"And this year we rise. We have woken up. We are on the streets like in Turkey and Greece. They have made us wake up about this. The World Cup in Brazil is about too much money. There are too many poor people suffering. The World Cup isn't good for Brazil. It will bring tourists and money but this is not good for poor people."

Similar complaints are being voiced in Russia, where the 2014 Winter Olympic will be held. Critics point to the enormous costs of the games and allege that corrupt officials have siphoned away public funds. Human rights organizations have also criticized Russia's poor treatment of migrant workers who are building the stadiums. Another concern is that people in the host city of Sochi have been displaced from their homes to make way for sports facilities.
In an article for CBS Sports, journalist Evan Hilbert reports:

In preparation for what is expected to be the most expensive Olympics in history, an independent report out of Russia has found that up $30 billion has been stolen by officials and businessmen leading up to the 2014 games in Sochi.
Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov released a report Thursday of his findings.
"The main conclusion from the first chapter of our report is that, in preparing for the Olympics, $25 to $30 billion have been stolen," Nemtsov said, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "The expenses for the Winter Olympics in Sochi turned out to be more than all expenses for all the sports structures at the previous 21 Winter Olympics put together."
Nemtsov, who is described as a Russian opposition figure, claims he came up with the monetary amounts by comparing the initial cost estimate ($12 billion) with the final price tag ($51 billion).
By contrast, Vancouver spent $6 billion on the winter games in 2010.

Writing for The Nation, Sports Editor Dave Zirin argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin should be held accountable: 

If $30 billion [allegedly stolen by corrupt officials] is too much of an incomprehensible "statistic" to get our heads around, even in a country with poverty and hunger rates that spiked dramatically in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, consider the people who actually have to live in Sochi.
Thousands of families have been forcibly displaced by construction projects that will have no use once the cameras have cleared. The local environment has strip-mined and polluted the ecosystem. According to Human Rights Watch, one village, Akhshtyr, which has forty-nine homes and a population of 102 people, has been without water for a year because of Olympic construction without end. Sochi is basically being treated like Henry Hill's bar in Goodfellas: to be discarded by the Russian state once the Olympics are over and it has nothing left to give.
The 2014 Winter Games are nothing any sports fan with a conscience should support. Putin should be protested at every turn for allowing his cronies to loot his country and immiserate the people of Sochi. If there is any justice, these games will mark the beginning of his end, as the veil is lifted and the cost of his rule is revealed in stark relief for all to see.

As the World Cup and the Olympic games draw nearer, protests in both Brazil and Russia are likely to continue.

For Discussion:

1.  Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
2.  Why are protesters in Brazil and critics in Russia upset about their respective governments' preparations for the World Cup and the Olympics?
3.  Do you think the protesters are justified in their demands for government money to be spent on reducing poverty rather than on sporting events? Why or why not?
4.  Why does Dave Zirin argue that sports fans should not support the 2014 Winter Games?

5.  Do you think sports fans should concerned about the issues people in Brazil and Russia are raising about these major international sporting events? If so, what could fans do to express their concern or support the protesters?


Student Reading 2:
Sports and Economic Development

 Promoters of major events such as the Olympic Games and the World Cup contend that these events produce economic benefits for the countries that host them. They argue that, by encouraging infrastructure development, bringing in tourists, and raising a country's international profile, the events spur economic growth and ultimately benefit the people of the host country. But critics question these claims. 

In Brazil, supporters of the World Cup argue that hosting the event will be good for Brazil's economic development. According to CNN one study estimates that, by 2014, the event will bring some $50 billion into the Brazilian economy. The Brazilian Ministry of Finance maintains that the World Cup will boost the country's exports by at least $1 billion and create substantial tourism revenue.
But critics argue that the costs will outweigh any benefits, and that ordinary Brazilians are the least likely to benefit. In a June 21 article in The Nation, journalists Marina Amaral and Natalia Viana note that Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has drawn fire for directing government funding toward sporting events instead of social programs: 

"Dilma, please call me ‘World Cup' and invest in me. Signed, Education" said a poster in a protest. The Brazilian government has already spent $13.7 billion on the World Cup, and the overall investment is set to be over $16.5 billion, only a little less than the annual national budget for education ($19 billion). Such investments hugely benefit construction companies that are main financiers of political campaigns. Some stadiums are even being built in cities like Manaus and Cuiabá that lack a thriving football culture—and therefore are set to become useless "white elephants." 

According to CNN, Brazil will be giving millions of dollars in tax exemptions to organizations including soccer's governing body, FIFA, thus reducing the public benefit of the games. The article reports: 

Ex-Brazilian star Romario -- now a Brazilian politician -- is one that argues that the money spent on building stadiums would be better spent on constructing houses and schools. "FIFA will make a profit of four billion reals [equal to $1.8 billion U.S. dollars] which should provide one billion ($450 million) in tax, but they will not pay anything," Romario said in a video posted on the websites of several Brazilian newspapers. "They come, set up the circus, they don't spend anything and they take everything with them.

 Another critic cited in the article, academic and journalist Christopher Gaffney, noted a precedent for the current protests:

"We saw a response in the lead up to [the] London 2012 [Summer Olympics] that the British were revolted that the International Olympic Committee's partners were not going to pay taxes.  [Gaffney said] "A boycott ensued and the companies agreed to pay taxes on their Olympic related profits.  "There are, of course, always government subsidies to attract businesses, but legislative elements like the General Law of the World Cup in Brazil go far beyond this and effectively redirect public money into Swiss bank accounts."

FIFA maintains that the economic benefits of the games will outweigh the money lost through tax exemptions. But the debate continues.

For Discussion:

1.  Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
2.  In what ways do FIFA and the Brazilian Ministry of Finance believe that the World Cup will produce economic benefits for Brazil?
3.  What objections do critics raise to government spending on the games?
4.  What do you think about using large sporting events as a way to increase economic development? Do you think governments are justified in prioritizing this type of spending?
5.  Some Brazilians have called on the international community to boycott the 2014 World Cup. Do you think that this could be an effective tactic? Why or why not?


Student Reading 3: 
A Boycott of the Russian Winter Olympics?

The 2014 Russian Winter Olympics are contentious for another reason: Some people are calling for a global boycott of the games to protest Russia's new anti-gay laws.

An increasingly virulent homophobia has gripped Russia in recent times. In an August 2013 post for the website, blogger Innokenty Grekov explained how a law passed in Russia in June 2013 virtually outlaws gays in the country from publicly demonstrating: 

On June 30 this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," thus opening a new, dark chapter in the history of gay rights in Russia. The law caps a period of ferocious activities by the Russian government aimed at limiting the rights of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

The violations of fundamental, constitutionally protected rights of Russia's gay citizens have included multiple bans on gay pride parades in Moscow and other cities,... denial of registration to nongovernmental organizations, and regional laws banning the propaganda of homosexuality to minors, which served as a basis for the federal law enacted by Mr. Putin and unanimously passed by the State Duma. Against this backdrop, violent attacks on gays or "suspect gays" are becoming commonplace....
The cornerstone of Mr. Putin's "War on Gays," however, is the vaguely defined and definitively anti-gay Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses, which allows the government to fine individuals accused of the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations amongst minors...

Here is what Article 6.21 actually says:"Propaganda is the act of distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at the creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations."

Activists around the world have raised concerns about holding the upcoming Winter Olympics in a country with such discriminatory laws on the books. In a July 21, 2013, op-ed in the New York Times, actor and activist Harvey Fierstein argued that the Olympic Committee should threaten to boycott the Sochi Games if Russia refuses to repeal its anti-gay laws: 

With Russia about to hold the Winter Games in Sochi, the country is open to pressure. American and world leaders must speak out against Mr. Putin's attacks and the violence they foster. The Olympic Committee must demand the retraction of these laws under threat of boycott.
In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany. Few participants said a word about Hitler's campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war. There is a price for tolerating intolerance.

Others, however, argue that an Olympic boycott is not the most effective way of pursuing change. In an August 15, 2013 article for the Daily Beast, Garry Kasparov—a former World Chess Champion, Russian presidential candidate, and noted critic of Vladimir Putin—argued that protesters should direct their anger at Russia's political leaders, not the Olympics: 

As a lifelong professional sportsman, first for the Soviet Union and then for Russia, I cannot endorse a boycott of Sochi by the Olympic teams. Such maneuvers unfairly punish athletes with no regard for their personal views...
I believe strongly in the power of sport to break down barriers and to cross borders. The athletes will go to Sochi and I wish them all the best. May they break many records and provide joy to sports fans around the world. The focus should be on sport and the athletes, first and foremost. But sport is part of culture, of life, and there is an opportunity for the athletes and visiting fans and media to have a real impact on human rights in Russia. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and several Duma members have reiterated in recent days that despite the IOC's confused assurances, the "homosexual propaganda" law stands and Sochi athletes will "face consequences" if they violate it. I seriously doubt, however, that the militarized police forces in Sochi will dare to harass any foreign guests with the world watching.
Everyone remembers the "Black Power" salutes raised by American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal podium in Mexico City in 1968. Sochi will be ripe for similar gestures. So I hope the visitors will wave rainbow flags and speak in favor of free speech and against hatred and bigotry. The television networks should discuss the law and what it means to be gay in Putin's Russia. Sponsors should include LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] individuals and human-rights themes in their Olympic advertisements.

Numerous athletes, such as prominent gay figure skater Johnny Weir, have spoken out against the law while also reaffirming their intentions to participate in the games. In a July 25, 2013, op-ed for the Falls Church News-Press, Weir argued that LGBT athletes should proudly participate in the games as an act of defiance: 

The fact that Russia is arresting my people and openly hating a minority and violating human rights all over the place is heartbreaking and a travesty of international proportions, but I still will compete. There isn't a police officer or a government that, should I qualify, could keep me from competing at the Olympics. I respect the LGBT community full heartedly, but I implore the world not to boycott the Olympic Games because of Russia's stance on LGBT rights or lack thereof. I beg the gay athletes not to forget their missions and fight for a chance to dazzle the world. I pray that people will believe in the Olympic movement no matter where the event is being held, because the Olympics are history, and they do not represent their host, they represent the world entire. People make their own futures, and should a government or sponsor steal that future, whether it be the Russian government or American government, it is, as an athlete, the death and total demolition of a lifetime of work. 

While American athletes are unlikely to boycott the Sochi Olympics, widespread debate of the issue has put an international spotlight on Russia's discriminatory laws.

For Discussion:

1.  Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
2.  What is Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses? What does this law say?
3.  What do you think of this law's definition of propaganda?
4.  What are some of the arguments for and against a boycott of the Winter Games in Russia as a response to discriminatory laws?
5.  Do you think debate about social issues has a place in sports? Why or why not?
6.  Harvey Fierstein cites the example of the 1936 Olympics in Germany. What have you heard about the controversy around those Olympics? Do you think there is a parallel to today?
-- Research assistance provided by Meghna Chandra