The displacement effects of sports mega-events and large-scale tourism infrastructure development

International sports mega-events, such as the FIFA Men’s World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games, attract hundreds of thousands of spectators and generate increased economic investments and tourism revenues (Maharaj, 2015). The scale of such events requires the allocation of large amounts of scarce public resources and entails profound transformations of the urban built environment, thereby affecting the lives and livelihoods of many urban residents, particularly those at the fringes of society. The 21st century has seen an increasing shift of the global geography of sport megaevent hosting to countries of the Global South, raising profound questions around organisational implications, securitisation and social exclusion in political and societal settings that are marked by extreme income polarities, uneven power relations and disputed state agendas (Gaffney, 2010; Cornelissen, 2011).

Similarly, large-scale development of tourism infrastructure, such as airport and railway constructions and upgrades can have profound impacts on local people through compulsory land acquisitions, forced displacement, and insufficient compensation for loss of farmland, residential land and communal resources (Sims, 2015; Mteki, Murayama and Nishikizawa, 2017; Camargo and Vázquez-Maguirre, 2020). Indigenous peoples, ethnic minority groups, informal settlers and other marginalised groups are particularly vulnerable to the various social, cultural, economic and environmental injustices that tend to be associated with such projects that are discursively justified as being in the interest of the wider public.

In the following section, the adverse impacts of sports mega-events on the land and housing rights of poor and marginalised groups are examined, drawing on a brief global overview and more detailed analysis of recent mega-events in South Africa and Brazil. Then the physical and economic displacement effects of airport constructions and expansions in India and Laos are explored. The final section examines the discourses and conflicts around the controversial ‘Mayan Train’ mega-project on the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico.

Sports mega-events: the darker side of the global spectacle

International sports mega-events have become an important force in global urban development and are often associated with mass urban renewal schemes and large-scale displacement of people (COHRE, 2007; Porter, 2009; Davis, 2011; Miiller, 2015; Muller and Gaffney, 2018). Displacement of urban residents through such mega-events is not a new phenomenon and certainly not confined to countries in the Global South. One of the earlier and probably most notorious examples is Nazi Germany which hosted the Olympic Games in 1936 and cleared Berlin of its homeless people and informal residents to provide a ‘clean’ image to the world (Newton, 2009). In the 1990s, the Gity of Atlanta deported about 25,000 homeless people and closed most of the city’s facilities for the homeless ahead of the 1996 Olympic Games (Warrall, 2016). The London Olympics in 2012 were associated with the forced removals of several hundred low-income households and small businesses (Raco and Tunney, 2010; Watt, 2013).

Emerging economies in Asia displaced hundreds of thousands of urban residents in the context of sports mega-events, although these were not the only drivers at the time. 700,000 residents in the South Korean capital Seoul were relocated in the run-up to the 1988 Olympic Games and more than a million residents had to make way for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games as part of larger urban redevelopment strategies (Porter, 2009; Müller, 2015). About 200,000 residents were evicted from Delhi’s vast informal settlements, about 35,000 families were removed from public property and over 300,000 street vendors lost their livelihoods in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games (Maharaj, 2015).

In addition to forced removal of urban residents, i.e. through expropriation or violent evictions by state forces, population ‘redistribution’ in the context of sports mega-events can also occur through market mechanisms in the absence of public policies that guarantee the right to affordable housing (Miiller and Gaffney, 2018). Lenskyj (2002) reported how the 2000 Sydney Olympics exacerbated the housing gap and intensified homelessness and housing problems through changes in property values and urban land grabbing (cited in Newton, 2009).

The upcoming Tokyo Olympics — recently postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — are a stark reminder that mega-events organised in the Global North can have significant social and ecological ripple effects on the Global South. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) asserts that significant volumes of rainforest wood have been used to build Olympic facilities, including Tokyo’s new National Olympic Stadium (RAN, n.d.). The timber was ostensibly supplied by a Malaysian logging company with a proven history' of rainforest destruction, illegal logging and human rights abuses. Together with 46 other civil society organisations, RAN delivered an open letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo 2020 Olympic authorities, at the start of the IOC Executive Board Meeting in Lima, Peru, in September 2017. The letter reiterated concerns about the legitimacy and accountability of the IOC’s sustainability commitments and the reputation and credibility of the Olympic Games. It further criticised the Olympics “for knowingly exploiting tropical forests and potentially fueling

Mega-events and tourism infrastructure 167 human rights abuses in the construction and implementation of the games”. Finally, it urged Olympic authorities “to adopt robust social and environmental safeguards or face further criticism for fueling rainforest destruction, illegal logging and human rights violations”. KAN also accuses one of the major sponsors of the Tokyo Olympics, Nissin Food, of not taking sufficient measures to avoid the use of so-called “Conflict Palm Oil” in its food products, such as cup noodles. The NGO urges the company “to strengthen its commitment to protect rainforests and peatlands and uphold human rights including land rights of Indigenous and local community and labor rights” (RAN, n.d.).

Sports mega-events in low-income countries with high incidence of poverty have also triggered land grabs and dispossession. When Laos hosted the Southeast Asian Games in 2009, much of the infrastructure was built with financial and technical support from the Chinese and Vietnamese governments. The debt of a US$80 million loan from the China Development Bank for building the national stadium was paid through a 300-hectare land concession for a special economic zone in a biodiversity-rich marshland in the outskirts of the Lao capital Vientiane (Stuart-Fox, 2009; Boliek, 2016). The That Luang Marsh did not only provide valuable agricultural land to its former beneficiaries but was also of crucial importance for flood control and natural wastewater treatment services in the capital (Schuettler, 2008). A study by Gerrard (2004) calculated that the goods and services provided by the marshland had amounted to nearly US$5 million annually, with 40 per cent of the benefits accruing to local residents. Hundreds of residents initially refused to make way for the US$1.6 billion commercial and tourism development project implemented by the Shanghai Wan Feng Group, as they considered the compensation offered as far too low (Vandenbrink, 2013). As a result, the Chinese real estate company had to postpone its plans to complete the urban development project ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) forum in November in 2012 (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2012).

Even ten years later, the long-term impacts of the land-for-debt swap reverberate in Lao PDR’s capital. In 2019 and 2020, hundreds of residents from several peri-urban villages protested against compulsory land acquisitions for a 13km expressway built by a Lao-Chinese consortium that will connect the That Luang Marsh special economic zone to another suburb of Vientiane (Gerin, 2019; Finney, 2020). The infrastructure investments for the Southeast Asian Games had also ripple effects in other provinces. A similar ‘land-for-capital’ deal as for the That Luang Marsh area was negotiated with a Vietnamese real estate company that contributed to building the US$19 million athlete’s village for the Games and was granted a 90-year land concession of 10,000 hectares in one of Laos’ southern provinces (Fuller, 2009).

Over the past decade, displacement through sports mega-events was most pronounced for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and 2016 Rio Olympic Games (Cummings, 2015; Müller & Gaffney, 2018). These cases are discussed in more detail hereafter.

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