Lessons from Sochi: getting civil society into the games

by: Niklas Kossow

“The mission of the IOC is to promote Olympism throughout the world and to lead theOlympic Movement. The IOC’s role is: to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues…to promote a positive legacy from the Olympic Games to the host cities and host countries”– Olympic Charter, Rules 2.13 and 2.14

Once upon a time, Akhmed Bilalov was a successful businessman and deputy head of the Russian Olympic committee. His brother, Magomed was not only commissioned with the construction of the Krasnaya Polyana skiing resort, but also received 100% funding for the project from Russian state-owned banks. Business was booming for the Bilalov brothers, until President Vladimir Putin visited the resort in February 2013, criticising the quality of the construction work. In the next months, both brothers were charged with misuse of Olympic construction funds and fled the country. This is but one of countless tales of corruption from the Sochi Games, which will be remembered largely for incredibly high costs, disregard for human rights and the environment. Unfortunately, civil society voices were largely shut out of the planning process for Sochi. If they had been involved, would coverage of the games have been different?

Anti-corruption research has shown a positive link between an active civil society and levels of corruption, especially in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Civil society actors are independent and represent citizens who want to have their voice heard. As independent actors, they can help prevent graft in providing oversight that is independent from private interests and state interference.

Before Sochi even won the bid to host the games, environmental activists urged the International Olympic Committee to reject the bid based on the environmental damage it would cause the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but their pleas were ignored. Just before the start of the games, Transparency International Russia published a report, “Olympic Sized Corruption”, explaining in detail where funds were misused. Russian activists have exposed corruption as the main reason for the bloated cost of the Olympic Games, despite the increasingly oppressive responses of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The games were originally budgeted at $12billion, but the final cost was closer to $50billion. The amount lost to embezzlement has been estimated at anywhere from $18billion$30billion of the total expense.

Given their claims to support environmentally sustainable games, the behavior of the IOC with regards to the Sochi Olympics is disappointing. If they are serious about future games reflecting the true nature of the Olympic charter, then civil society involvement and independent oversight has to be one of the conditions for awarding the games. The Sydney 2000 games proved to be a successful example of how increased transparency and civil society involvement can make a difference. Environmental groups were involved in the planning process and took part in making the Sydney Olympics the first “green games”.[i]

The Sochi Olympics is definitely not the first, nor is it likely to be the last example of corruption, environmental degradation and human rights violations during the planning of a mega event. The run-up to the Rio 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games have already seen major street protests and now a workers’ strike, respectively.  The IOC recently announced that it intends to review its host-city selection process, and has promised to take a more active role in Rio 2016 preparations, but they have yet to acknowledge the value of increased civil society involvement. It is not just the IOC who looks the other way when selecting a host city. FIFA selected Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup to despite reports of numerous human rights violations against migrant construction workers.[ii] By insisting on the inclusion of citizen voices in the planning of Olympics, the IOC would get closer to honouring the terms of their own charter as well as provide a good example for other international sports organizations.

Niklas Kossow is a Master’s of Public Policy candidate at the Hertie School of Governance. 

[i] Kearins, K. and Pavlovich, K. 2002. Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management 9, 157–169

[ii] For more information on this, see: ERCAS Working paper No. 40, “Corruption in Qatar? The Link between the Governance Regime and Anti-Corruption Indicators” by Lina Khatib, and an Amnesty International spotlight on migrant worker abuse: “The Dark Side of Migration.”

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