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Slavery and the Olympics

An awareness of the links between modern slavery and major sporting events such as the Olympic games needs to keep pace with changes in the nature of slavery itself.

Shauna Leven
23 July 2012

Although slavery is often seen as a problem of the past, in truth there are more slaves living today than at any point in human history. Major sporting events create economic drivers that have the potential to increase demand for forms of modern slavery. This helps explain why a possible link between major sporting events such as the London Olympics and an increased risk of slavery and human trafficking is of increasing concern to governments, civil-society organisations and the media.

This increase in slavery is partly due to changes in the definition of slavery. Today, slavery is generally thought to include practices such as debt bondage, serfdom, forced labour, child labour, sexual slavery, forced or early marriage, trafficking for all purposes and the sale of wives. But no matter what form it takes, the practice remains a violation of individual freedom and a significant international problem.

Currently, neither the scope nor the impact of the link between slavery (including trafficking) and sporting events are understood. Both may vary widely depending on such factors as the geography and economic situation of the host country, existing practices for reporting and preventing slavery, public and government awareness of the problem, and any mechanisms put in place in the face of a potential increase. Greater understanding of these differences is essential for effectively addressing modern slavery, both within and apart from the context of sporting events.

Existing research on slavery in the context of sporting events has largely been confined to sex trafficking, following the assumption that such events create greater demand for prostitution from visiting tourists and athletes. But other avenues need to be explored. These events create jobs, both before the event,when additional infrastructure is needed, and during it, when an influx of visitors leads to opportunities in the tourism and hospitality industries. These jobs are frequently low-skilled and low-waged, opening the possibiility for exploitation by traffickers who may bring workers into the country legally or illegally.

The data problem

As anti-slavery campaigners increasingly rely on awareness-raising to put pressure on policy-makers, there is greater need for comprehensive research which produces accurate data. The issue of slavery and sports first drew significant public attention at the time of the Athens Olympics in 2004, though the statistics collected (which had a limited focus on sex trafficking, and failed to control for increased public awareness and preventative measures) were unreliable.

But in relation to the football world cup in Germany (2006) and South Africa (2010) the situation bacame even worse. The statistics circulated during and after these events were vastly exaggerated; in fact some of the numbers, such as the claim that the South African tournament would see up to 40,000 additional sex workers in the country, are now believed to have been fabricated.

The combination of huge numbers and the attention-capturing theme of sex trafficking is effective in catching public attention. But in the long run, incomplete or unsubstantiated data breeds scepticism about the problem of slavery and undermines efforts to convey its true scope.

A study sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) confirms the obvious: that effectively addressing trafficking issues depends on accurately understanding it. If public awareness is vital in tackling the issue, that awareness must be based on reliable information.

Forthcoming events in Sochi (2014), Rio de Janeiro (2016) and Qatar (2022) offer an opportunity to better assess the connection between large-scale sporting events and slavery, and in turn to deepen understanding of the problem of modern slavery in its entirety. The international community, including host-country governments, should commit to conducting comprehensive and accurate research in order to make real progress in understanding and eventually ending modern slavery.

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Tom Plotkin and Laura Salerno contributed to this article

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