Fare debates social legacy of sports events at UN Human Rights Council Social Forum03 October 2018

How major sporting events can leave behind a meaningful social legacy was the topic of discussion as the Fare network held a panel discussion at the UN Human Rights Council Social Forum in Geneva, Switzerland on October 2nd.

The debate focused on what sports event organisers, stakeholders, national associations, governing bodies and athletes can do in order to ensure that major sporting events, such as the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia or Olympic Games, can leave behind a lasting legacy of meaningful benefit for the nations in which events are hosted.

The event was moderated by Piara Powar, executive director of the Fare network, with five speakers on the panel: Kelly Sotherton, Team GB Olympic champion; Patrick Gasser, Head of Football and Social Responsibility at UEFA; Natalie Gedra, Brazil ESPN Sports correspondent; Alexander Agapov, president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation and Vitaliy Gorokhov, academic and political scientist at St. Petersburg RANEPA academy.

In his opening comments Alexander Agapov noted that the World Cup in Russia had not necessarily been a unanimous success for LGBT rights in Russia, pointing out that although there was some room for positivity, caution was very much required in the overall assessment.

Speaking from an athlete’s perspective Kelly Sotherton noted that athletes are usually in a state of ‘tunnel vision’ during major events, and tend to block out anything not directly related to their own participation. Social engagement and speaking out on social issues can often therefore be overlooked, she conceded.

The World Cups in Russia (2018) and Brazil (2014) were discussed in detail, along with the Olympic Games also hosted in Brazil. ESPN sports correspondent Natalie Gedra lamented that the legacy of these events for the Brazilian people had been minimal, describing the state of the Olympic Village in the aftermath of the Games as ‘depressing’.

The Maracana Stadium was also described as a source of frustration and symbolic of the lack of genuine progress created for Brazilian society from these mega events. Five out of 12 World Cup stadiums are now white elephants, Gedra commented.

Vitaliy Gorokhov of RANEPA did however offer a counterbalance to this point of view. The World Cup in Russia had created a warm feeling, ‘a sugar rush’ as he described it, and there was room for optimism for football in the country from a social point of view.

Gorokhov stated that Russian stadiums were becoming increasingly family-friendly in recent years and in light of the World Cup, and that he now felt the environments are safe enough to take his children, something he wouldn’t have dared to do several years ago due to the hostility at Russian football grounds.

Patrick Gasser gave a UEFA perspective. If athletes announced a boycott of a tournament due to disagreements about the host nation, for humanitarian reasons or otherwise, it would likely not sway UEFA’s decision in any way, he said. He was however mindful of having to strike a balance, and expressed hope that the UEFA European Championships in Germany in 2024 would provide an example of best practice in all areas.

Kelly Sotherton also pointed out on this that commercial interests often got in the way of athlete activism, with commercial contracts often including clauses preventing athletes from speaking out on any issues that could cause controversy.

Meanwhile, sexism at the World Cup in Russia was a central topic of discussion, as Gedra described the sickening examples of sexist abuse she and other journalists had been subjected to covering games.

All in all, the panel concluded that mega sports events do have the capacity to create a meaningful human rights legacy in the countries in which they are hosted. The challenges for this to happen though are numerous.

Host nations need to put social responsibility at the heart of any events they host, while athletes need a way to separate commercial interests and sporting ambition with their responsibility to act as highly-visible leaders that can influence people at scale and drive social change.