The Intersection of Megasports and Human Trafficking

An inquisition into the validity of Megasports as a foundation of Sports for Development and Peace



PRIOR TO 2010 World Cup in South Africa, claims circulated predicting a spike in human trafficking and a massive influx of 40,000 people for the purposes of facilitating sex tourism, indentured servitude and forced labor. This was not unique to 2010. Year after year, claims are made, implicating the relationship between Megasporting events such as the World Cup and human trafficking, and although not obvious is pertinent to our global community. 

Megasporting events, such as the World Cup often promote the development of communities, improving the economy and overall benefitting a country and its morale. Sports for Development and Peace (SDP), articulates to the same idea, and often many events bound to this institution take place on the football fields, basketball courts and other Megasports settings, often culminating at major events, such as the World Cup or Superbowl. However, in order to fully support events such as these, and SDP, we should explore each dimension of these social establishments, even if it is a bit darker, and clandestine. This includes the existence of human trafficking defined as “the illegal movement of people, typically for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation”, as defined by The Polaris Project, an anti-human trafficking organization. As we continue to explore the implications of mega-sporting events, we begin to wonder, if we are standing behind corrupt governments, or those that aim to improve communities and the lives of many individuals.

SDP & Megasports

  The   Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium   in Port Elizabeth during the construction stage. The stadium has a carrying capacity of 48 000 and hosted one of the Quarter final Matches. Image courtesy of:   2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee in South Africa

The Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth during the construction stage. The stadium has a carrying capacity of 48 000 and hosted one of the Quarter final Matches. Image courtesy of: 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee in South Africa

Sport for Development and Peace  (SDP), although a relatively new concept, employs sports as a vehicle for change, operating under the ultimate goal of improving communities. SDP has been painted as heroic in its efforts, bringing communities together, building partnerships and developing individuals. Although SDP has proven successful, in recent years, organizations such as Right To Play have been using Megasports as their foundation and platform for change. Megasporting events often take the world stage such as the Winter and Summer Olympics, FIFA soccer tournaments and the Commonwealth Games.  Through practice and analysis we can observe that soccer, amongst other Megasports, can teach people to work together, develop leadership skills and overall promote a balanced and healthy lifestyle (Right To Play). Thus, the nature of Megasports lends itself towards the mission of SDP, and optimizing on these facets can ameliorate the quality of life for many that compose a community.

Megasports events are often thought to increase a sense of national pride, stimulate economic growth, improve opportunities for foreign investment, and modernize transportation systems, amongst other national benefits. (The 2010 Football World Cup). Governments, too have made promises to combat human trafficking at certain megasports events. For example, the Chinese Government, prior to the 2008 Paraympic Games, they committed to combat sex work, as they were attempting to secure their spot as the host country. As suspected, there were no reports available about sex trafficking, in the Beijing Olympic Games. It was also suspected that HIV transmission and human sex trafficking among sex workers in South Africa, at the 2010 World Cup, would increase. A study was conducted [1] and it was discovered that there was not in fact an increase in the demand or supply of paid sex work during the 2010 South Africa World Cup. Before we jump to conclusions, it is essential to understand that, the nature of human trafficking is unpredictable and often, much of the atrocities are kept hidden, deep within the shadows of the cities, and reports can lack validity, and content that are essential to assessing certain situations (Dirty Downside).

Human Trafficking

The major hubs for human trafficking are localized in developing parts of the world, such as Thailand and India, where the political infrastructure is unstable and flawed. Government officials, and authority figures are often corrupt or turn a blind eye, even though they are aware of the implications human trafficking. Human Trafficking is a large umbrella under which indentured servitude, forced labor, sex, and prostitution fall under. Although, for the most part, when we associate human trafficking and mega-sports we turn our attention to sex tourism and prostitution.

 Human Trafficking is also a relevant issue in South Africa

Human Trafficking is also a relevant issue in South Africa

Sex Tourism, a phenomenon associated with the organization of vacations with the purpose of taking advantage of the lack of restrictions imposed on prostitution and other sexual activities by foreign countries, not only generates revenue for the traffickers, but also improves other sectors of the economy, as these tourists spend money on accommodation, food and other necessities. It is extremely difficult to discern the manner is which we can ameliorate the situation, as the cycle of human trafficking doesn’t have a defined starting point and end. Often, many of the individuals involved in human trafficking- traffickers and transportation mules, are disposable. If they are turned in, or are in danger of being persecuted, someone equally adept and corrupt replaces them. Thus, it is difficult to acknowledge one dimension of human trafficking that must be addressed, that will most efficiently and effectively improve the lives of those being trafficked.

In many situations, victims of human trafficking are brought into the trade unknowingly by their parents, or relatives. They are promised a steady income and a stable job for their children, but are completely unaware of the dangers that lay ahead for their children- the inescapable and caustic cycle of human trafficking. In certain victims of human trafficking are exposed to STIs and HIV as they are neglected, and are seen as objects of desire, and thus treated as such, abused emotionally, physically and sexually.

The Intersection

Often, prior to events such as the 2010 World Cup claims circulate, predicting an increase in human trafficking.  It is, however important to note, due to the elusive nature of human trafficking and sex tourism, these statistics and numbers have yet to be quantitatively substantiated, but have been assessed qualitatively via case studies and interviews. There is very little limited international baseline data that allow us to explore this issue, and even less information that follows the increase or decrease in sex work and human trafficking over the course of certain megasports events.

A study conducted by the Globalization and Health Organization [2] concluded that there was no increase in indicators of female sex work supply. There didn’t seem to be an increase in the number of sex workers that had recently arrived in the city, which amounted to 2.5%, nor was there an increase in the number of women recently entering sex work, which was calculated to be an increase of about 1.5%. The study observed the median number of clients, which amounted to about 12 per week, and the amount per transaction- around $13.00.

This level of demand was stable both prior to and post World Cup, suggesting that there was not an increase in the demand for female sex worker. Another assessment, albeit, slightly less reliable, was derived from self-reported condom use with these clients. They indicated that the percentage of instances where condoms were used as a form of protection, was around 92%. In regards to health policy and safety standards, this statistic, although could have been improved, is still quite high.  

The significance of this statistics is housed under the idea that people often favor pleasure over safety, especially in this environment plagued by illegality and corruption. A decrease in protection would have been an obvious indicator to the increase of human trafficking. Additionally, there was an alternate study that turned to advertisement of female sex workers who’s services were placed in the classified advertisements in three different South African cities before and during the World Cup, which also appeared over the internet, did not find any significant changes in demand of the supply of sex work (Globalization and Health).

The qualitative portions of this study were methodical in a different sense, collecting opinions, and stories from a variety of different sex workers.  Before the World Cup, and after it had taken place, a team of four academic researchers and The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and Sisonke Sex Worker Movement collected data from four sites- two in Johannasburg, the largest city in South Africa, and the host-city for the games.

Cape Town hosted the second highest number of matches, and the last site was in the rural North West province, which was the closest city to a soccer stadium where 6 matches were hosted. They defined sex work as “the exchange of sexual services for financial reward”, where much of their information was derived from Focus Group Discussions and daily diaries that were collected from those eligible to participate- male, female and transgender sex workers of 18 years and above.  They were asked to assess whether the sex sector had changed due to the World Cup- one of many Mega-sporting events in the world.

At the conclusion of this study, we were able to find some interesting information. Two thirds of the participants[3] did not find a change in the sex industry whilst the World Cup was happening. The validity of this survey was supported by the fact that these survey participants knew the sex sector well– about 40% [4] had been working in the sex sector for more than 5 years and about 20% [5] had been sex workers for less than a year, but their data was not displayed in this survey. Changes were experienced by only a third of survey participants.


you would find that there is no-one at the streets for our services
— Survey Participant

Perhaps the most notable data collected was related to frustrated expectations of what the WC could have meant in terms of clients and financial enrichment. Many of the sex workers seemed to be disappointed by the decline in business and clientele, as much of it had been absorbed by the public’s occupation with the World Cup and soccer culture. This is not to say that we are advocating for the legalization of sex work, but is instead something that we may want to consider when we see an increase in policing and lack of change in policy as evidenced by the persistent corruption implicated by human trafficking.

An account recorded by a 38-year old female sex worker, post-WC survey, Hillbrow, stated that “As for me, there was no business for me, no clients. People were watching ball - they don’t want to buy us.” Another sex worker in the focus group stated that “The other thing that I have noticed, especially for us who work at the streets, at the time we’re going to work, it is exactly the time all these men are sitting in the bars watching soccer, and you would find that there is no-one at the streets for our services, you see.”  

Additionally, seeing that the World Cup is often an event that families attend together, workers attributed to the decrease in business to the fact that their regular customers were with their families or their partners. One claimed to have called her client, and was brushed to the side as he mentioned that he was with his family. It was also thought that efforts conducted by the police and threats of persecution contributed to the lack of client interest, and warnings prior to the World Cup, in regards to the dangers of South Africa and the threats of HIV transmission.

Some accounts provided by sex workers described situations in which police would walk into the hotels, and threaten the sex workers so much so that they would walk out of the building even before interacting with the clients; however, there was no conclusive data that stated whether or not there was an increase in police harassment around the time of the World Cup, in some cities it seemed to increase, but in other such as Johannesburg, there was a decrease. According to the data collected from the survey, overall there seemed to be a negative correlation in regards to the increase of sex work, and the influx of tourists and foreigners.

4,000 workers will die in Qatar by the time 2022 arrives
— International Trade Union Confederation

Looking Forward

Although much of the information presented to us, points to the fact that sex tourism, one dimension of human trafficking, does not increase during times of megasporting events, this issue is still worth continuing to explore. It is also important to note that human trafficking does not just include sex trafficking, but forced labour as well. Often times, at events such as the World Cup, people are put to work building new infrastructure and cleaning the city, preparing it for the world stage, and the scrutiny that is to come. This research is occurring in the present day, and is going to be extremely important to acknowledge, as often, governments do not want to disclose any information, nor do authorities want to implicate themselves. However, as upstanding members of the global society, we must continue to explore this issue in order to discern whether or not Megasports should continue to be a pillar for SDP.

 The already hot and humid conditions in Qatar

The already hot and humid conditions in Qatar

As we look to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar it is going to become increasingly important to stay cognoscente of the other facets of human trafficking including forced labor and indentured servitude. According to reports there have already been 1,200 migrant workers that have died whilst working under extreme conditions in Qatar. They arrived in their working environment and were reportedly stripped of their identities, as they had their passports taken from their person and lived in squalid conditions. In fact, The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that 4,000 workers will die in Qatar by the time 2022 arrives. These are all factors of this next major Megasporting event.

SDP works for a noble cause, and continues to improve the lives of individuals and cultivate a sense of unity and community within certain parts of the world; however, we must also continue addressing another connection that human trafficking has to the global stage- human trafficking. Instead of increasing policing, governments should adjust their policies, and take a bottom-up approach. It is going to be extremely important for host governments and Public Health Ministries to create effective plans before sporting events. This should be one that minimizes the potential for spread of disease if only for public health prevention reasons, and maximizes the likelihood that sex trafficking victims are identified and then provided necessary medical care and protection from those who trafficked them in the first place.

By Ameeqa Ali

[1] By by Richter et al.

[2] This was a multi-method study, indirectly assessing the increase in sex work. They employed both qualitative methods, and quantitative methods- the latter being far more rare than the former. The survey included 601 female workers. They used data from 508 workers before the event and 538 after the World Cup event.

[3] male, female and transgender participants surveyed

[4] (405/979)

[5] (177/979)