Mohammed Suman Miah moved to Qatar in 2016, allured by stories of great Qatari wealth and prosperity. The Bangladeshi construction worker borrowed $7,000 to pay for his work visa and eventually found work on a construction project for Qatar’s upcoming World Cup. However, just four years later, Suman died from “acute heart failure [from] natural causes” according to his death certificate. Suman’s death certificate does not mention the extreme temperatures at his job site, which would often reach 100°F in the shade. His family was left with a large amount of debt and an even larger amount of unanswered questions.
Suman is one of at least 6,750 migrant workers from South Asia that has died in preparation for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. The total death toll is almost certainly higher, given that the above figure only accounts for migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. The Persian Gulf nation has faced allegations of human rights violations from the day it was awarded the right to host the tournament. Workers have been forced to labor through overbearing summers with few breaks, living in dilapidated, unsanitary working camps and often having pay withheld by abusive supervisors. While Qatar’s harmful kafala system has been abolished and other labor reforms have been gradually announced, these changes have been poorly implemented at best.
The 2022 Qatar World Cup is one of several recent international sporting events that has faced scrutiny for its human rights violations, which have ranged from forced evictions without compensation, silencing of civil rights activists, intimidation of journalists, and discrimination. What do the 2022 World Cup, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 1978 Argentina World Cup have in common? Are there any trends in human rights violations associated with international sporting events? And if there are, how can these trends guide policy decisions to minimize the violation of human rights and cleanse the image of these beloved sports? Through a data-driven approach, this article will seek to answer these guiding questions.
Data on human rights violations were taken from Our World in Data, which derived its metrics from data from V-Dem, or the Varieties of Democracy Institute. Other data were sourced from the World Bank. The 65 selected tournaments for analysis date back to 1968, and include editions of the Men’s World Cup, Women’s World Cup, Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics, Cricket World Cup, and Rugby World Cup. These specific tournaments were selected as they are frequently among the most attended international sporting events, and require stadiums and other facilities to host the event.
The primary metric that was used to measure human rights violations (“HRV Score”) was constructed from a weighted average of five metrics from Our World in Data measuring civil liberties, physical integrity rights, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. (The civil liberties metric is weighted twice as much in the HRV Score as the other metrics.) The final HRV Score represents the difference between the weighted average from the year hosting rights were granted to a country and the weighted average from the year the competition was held. For example, the hosting rights for the 2018 Russia World Cup were awarded in 2010. Therefore, this competition’s HRV Score will be Russia’s HRV Score in 2018 minus Russia’s HRV Score in 2010. HRV Score represents a change in human rights over the period of time of a country preparing to host a tournament. A higher HRV Score corresponds to a decrease in human rights violations over that period of time, whereas a lower HRV Score corresponds to an increase in human rights violations.
The dataset does have limitations. Human rights violations are a loosely defined concept, and can never be perfectly represented by quantitative measurements. Additionally, the measurements can be skewed by major political changes in the host nation that are unrelated to the hosting of international sporting events. For example, the highest HRV Score in the dataset is from the 1982 World Cup in Spain. One of the major reasons for Spain’s significant decrease in human rights violations around this time was probably the country’s transition from a fascist, repressive government under Franco to a democracy over this same period of time.
The dataset with field descriptions, and the code that was used to construct it, can be found here.
The first step in analyzing the data was to see if any of the nation metrics (namely, GDP, GDP per capita, and infant mortality rate) correlated with HRV Scores. After removing outliers, none of these metrics were found to have any significant correlative relationship.
Despite not being a strong relationship, the metric with the strongest correlation with HRV Scores is infant mortality rate. The slight positive slope of the trendline indicates that if a host country’s infant mortality rate is higher, its HRV Score tends to be higher. Infant mortality rate is typically considered an important indicator of the overall health of a society. We can therefore speculate that a host country with poor public health could be motivated to adopt human rights reforms before a major international sporting event. Ultimately, however, the relationship is not strong enough to produce conclusive findings or a causal interpretation.
Another analysis that could potentially yield significant findings is to group the data by continent and analyze for regional variance. The following chart shows the average HRV Scores for each continent.
At first glance, the graph shows notable averages for Africa and for South America. However, the dataset only contains three data points for both Africa and South America, allowing the average HRV Score for those continents to be significantly influenced by outliers. None of the other continents show enough of a trend to draw conclusions. Overall, the continent of a host country cannot be used to predict human rights violations.
Another analysis is to view the HRV Scores over time. After grouping the dataset by averaging the HRV Scores for every competition hosted in a given year, the following graph shows the time-series graph for HRV Scores over time.
The graph presents a trend showing that for more recent international sporting events, there have been worse levels of human rights violations. To corroborate this visual trend, a Mann-Kendall Trend Test shows that the data do present a statistically significant decreasing trend. The takeaway from this analysis is that over time, human rights violations associated with international sporting competitions have increased.
This is the most notable finding of this analysis—the concept that more recent tournaments can be linked with higher levels of human rights violations. The most likely reason for increased human rights violations is that recent international sporting events have raised significantly more revenue than past editions. The Summer Olympics grew 451 percent in broadcast revenue between 1996 and 2016, the Winter Olympics generated 268 percent more revenue in 2018 than it did in 1998, and the World Cup will generate 406 percent more revenue in 2022 than it did in 2002. As broadcast packages get more lucrative and major sporting events gain even more visibility, the pressure increases on a host country to present themselves as positively as possible, which could lend itself to more forced evictions, less press freedom, and higher rates of other human rights violations.
The sporting world has the obligation to prevent the continued increase of human rights violations. As tournaments become more lucrative, the implementation of comprehensive human rights protections and frameworks becomes even more vital. The Mega-Sporting Events Platform for Human Rights writes that there “is presently an absence of a binding and standing human rights policy and capacity across international sport within major international sports organizations.”
To address this concern, an independent human rights oversight committee for sports should be created, and it should work in concert with intergovernmental bodies like the United Nations. Every sporting governing body (e.g. FIFA or the IOC) should be mandated to change its bylaws to adopt a human rights framework recommended by this independent oversight committee. This framework should include a universal definition of key terms such as “harassment,” “abuse,” “harm,” and other terms that could otherwise be loosely interpreted by sporting bodies and host countries. In addition, the oversight committee—with support from intergovernmental organizations and perhaps even the international judicial system—should enforce their recommended human rights benchmarks. Most importantly, every prospective host country should be thoroughly vetted by the oversight committee. If the committee finds a prospective host country does not meet recommended human rights benchmarks, their hosting bid should be immediately rejected or pushed back to the next tournament cycle, provided they improve their human rights situation.
It will be a challenge to successfully implement these policies given the widespread corruption present in most international sporting bodies. Regardless, it is the prerogative of major international sporting bodies to ensure that sports, which provide a unique opportunity to connect people from across countries and cultures, do not exacerbate human rights abuses. Fans should be able to focus on competition and not the underlying politics. The 2022 Qatar World Cup should serve as a wake-up call for sporting bodies and for governments around the world. To prevent Mohammed Suman Miah’s story from being repeated, sporting bodies, the international community, and heads of state must demand that human rights are a fundamental consideration in all international sporting events.