Could the Olympics Help Human Rights?

5 August 2016, 1236 EDT

Grab your popcorn – opening ceremonies for Rio 2016 are tonight! It’s my favorite part of the Olympics; I really could do without the whole “sport” thing that comes after.  And, one of my favorite parts of tonight’s opening ceremonies are when the various country teams get to be announced: the parade of nations. I love the outfits, the flags, the background stories, the family members crying, and the look on the faces of all the athletes who are in the midst of a dream realized. It’s too much and, much to my family’s chagrin, I probably will be crying by the end of it.

Until quite recently, I hadn’t really thought about all the interesting international relations topics that are connected to the Olympics.  As someone who isn’t athletic and has never really paid attention to any competitive sporting event, the Olympics were just something that took over my regularly scheduled programming.  However, I’m now coming to realize that there are a myriad of IR puzzles and possible research questions connected to these sporting mega-events and to the international sporting organizations (ISOs) that run them.

As an example, there is a new paper in Political Research Quarterly by Zack Bowersox that looks at how “large-scale international sporting competitions provide a ready-made platform for naming and shaming states that may have dubious human rights records” (258). This makes a lot of sense: Amnesty International is releasing a lot of information on Brazilian human rights abuses right now.

Bowersox argues that states that have been selected to host a mega-event (like a FIFA World Cup or the Olympics) will respond to this increased shaming by limiting physical integrity rights violations as the event approaches.  With the increased attention that mega-events bring, “physical repression would lead to an image of the host counter that which they intend to cultivate through event media” (261). Instead, Bowersox argues, states will seek to substitute these repressive tactics with increases in “repression of empowerment and expressive rights so the host nation could manage its event appearance” (261).

What does Bowersox find? Surprisingly, Bowersox finds that shaming of soon-to-be mega-event hosts leads to an improvement in both physical integrity rights and empowerment rights performance.  Bowersox argues that this could be due to an increase in nationalist sentiment that often accompanies these events for the host country or that host states substitute repressive tactics in ways that are extremely difficult to observe when they are under such an intense international spotlight.  Regardless, Bowersox’s findings are both interesting and important in that they show an opportunity for some human rights improvement to accompany these events.  Sadly, Bowersox’s forthcoming work also shows how human trafficking increases in proximity to the Olympics.

As a very non-athletic/non-sport person, I find the influence of these events on state behavior to be both perplexing and surprising.  Bowersox and others doing work on the politics surrounding mega-events and ISOs have highlighted the need for further studies.  As Bowersox concludes:

“ISOs are… vastly understudied in relation to the influence they carry. Although it may be said that these sports organizations are of the low-politics sort, it would be short-sighted to dismiss them, and the alterations to state behavior, they may be associated with.” (264-266).

Maybe I can count watching the opening ceremonies tonight as research.  I’ll make extra popcorn!