The modern day Olympics have become a place of national pride and cause for celebration. Canada in particular has become synonymous with the Winter Olympics, with the epitome of these feelings and pride felt coast to coast during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games hosted in Vancouver. It is hard to explain the emotions that come with watching Sidney Crosby score the gold medal winning overtime goal in men’s hockey, or witnessing Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skate their way to their first Olympic gold in Ice Dance. These feelings, assisted by Olympic broadcasts painting the Games in a hyper-positive light, make it seem as though “everything that appears is good; [and] whatever is good will appear” (Compton, 2016, p.52).

However, this is only one side to the Olympic story. Under the glitter of gold medals, spontaneous street celebrations, and victory ceremonies, lies the growing issue of human trafficking at major sporting events, with Canada, as developed as it may be, no exception to this problem. Due to a lack of research, there is no definite answer to the question of if the Olympics brings about more human trafficking activity. However, this exploratory blog post, broken into three main sections: preparation, protection & protest, and prevention, will simply examine the warnings signs, facts, and lessons learned, in regards to human trafficking at Vancouver 2010. This piece hopes to bring to light truths about the claims, socially constructed and otherwise, and most importantly, what was or was not done to combat the issue when the world was watching.

Context

Firstly, it is important to establish context surrounding what will be considered human trafficking within this blog post. Sex trafficking is often the most thought of form of trafficking, but it is important to note that this is only one major aspect, with many other forms exploitation at play as well. This post will be guided by the definition of trafficking as stated in the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto (2004), which defines trafficking generally as the recruitment of an individual, by means such as threat, abduction, or deception, for the purpose of exploitation, with one of many forms of this exploitation being sexual in nature (p.42). Sex trafficking will be one of the main examples presented. This working definition will allow for a better understanding and grasp of the delicate nature of this oftentimes undiscussed issue.

Prevention: Learning from the Past

An estimated 5500 athletes, 2800 press, 25,000 volunteers and over 1 million fans from around the world descended on Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic Winter games (Heggie, 2009). As one would expect, security preparedness and prevention of any potential threat was key to an event of this magnitude. Historically, human trafficking had historically been an issue at previous sporting mega events, in the form of sex tourism, which can be defined as “tourism whose main or major motivation is to consummate commercial sex” (Matheson & Finkel, 2012, p.614). Therefore, it is undoubtedly likely that through the sheer amount of visitors to Vancouver, some may have been travelling for reasons other than watching sports.

Prior to the games commencing in Vancouver, The Future Group (2007) used lessons learned from past mega-events to give merit to their recommendations put forth for Vancouver 2010. For instance, the report cites precedent in findings of a 94% increase in known human trafficking at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, in comparison to 2003 (p.14). Similarly, multiple cases were reported of human trafficking victims at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany (p.11). These two case studies lead to multiple recommendations for Vancouver 2010, primarily surrounding what the Canadian and BC Governments could do to prevent similar cases. Suggestions such as deterring traffickers through public awareness campaigns, disrupting current trafficking networks proactively with police help, and better identifying victims in transit to the games were suggested to allow for less of the same from previous events.

In contrast, a report released by the Government of Canada’s Law Enforcement and Policing Branch (2013) regarding potential trafficking at Vancouver 2010 interviewed multiple federal informants preparing for the securitization of the games, all took a lighter approach to the issue, citing that while undoubtedly a problem, an actual uptick in sex trafficking directly associated with the games is debatable. While likely coming to this conclusion to not create a moral panic, the interviewees, ranging from RCMP officers, border security agents to Statistics Canada and immigration representatives, acknowledged that the Olympics served as a catalyst for the broader efforts in reinforcing and building on effort already being made against sex trafficking as a whole in Canada, not just surrounding one single mega event.

While severity is up for discussion oftentimes in this debate, there is no denying trafficking was an issue of consideration for all parties involved with the planning of the Games, in hopes of better preventing and minimizing what could take place in Vancouver.

Protection & Protest: Taking Action

As the games grew closer and things kicked off, the voices of those bringing to light to issue of trafficking at the Olympics amplified. Human trafficking within the context of Vancouver 2010 garnered grassroots action before and during the games. Dalia Vukmirovich (2013) cites the Buying Sex is Not a Sport campaign, launched before the Olympics and carrying over throughout the event, that they “played an important role in making concerns about sex trafficking publicly visible in the Metro Vancouver area” (p.52). The group carried out discussion forums, handed out ads in the form of postcards, and held public protests in front of Olympics venues and a local strip club to gain exposure for their cause. The campaign primarily targeted male demand for commercial sex, and was “based on the belief that sex trafficking increases in relation to large-scale sporting events due to an influx of male visitors coming to the city to watch sports” (p.53).

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One of the many protests against the Winter Olympics occurring in Vancouver. Credit: VICE

However, when one subtracts these local voices, the broader government approach to trafficking at Vancouver 2010 becomes unclear. As the Olympic cauldron was lit on February 12, 2010 at BC Place Stadium and the Vancouver Convention Centre, a security plan of $900 million dollars in proportion and 15,000 personnel strong was put into action (Meserve & Cratty, 2010). Yet, only one small group was designated to handle human trafficking.

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A few of the 15,000 personnel charged with keeping Vancouver 2010 safe. Credit: Doug Morris/Flickr

According to RCMP online archives, as part of the $900 million dollar operation, Citizen and Immigration Canada’s (CIC) designated role in the games was to provide “support of accreditations of individuals through an applicant screening and documentation process, and anti-fraud and human trafficking prevention strategies” (RCMP, 2012, Appendix B). This wide net of duties placed on one department leads to many other questions of prioritization by the government of the problem. Should the department handling illegal entry and exploitation of humans, whether for sex, labour, or otherwise, be the same department providing press passes for news reporters? Ironically, due to budget cuts, the office was even shut down permanently shortly after the games (Finkel and Finkel, 2014).

Prospect: Lessons Learned & Comparisons Drawn

Post games, it becomes clear that human trafficking is an issue that may have been discussed at greater length due to the Olympics, but goes well beyond Vancouver 2010. As Finkel and Finkel (2014) discuss, it is important to acknowledge the context in which trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, was considered as part of Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Contrary to popular belief, “buying and selling sex is not illegal in Canada” (p.20). One must therefore understand that Vancouver is actually well known sex trafficking destination, particularly from Asia. Moreover, one must also take into consideration that Vancouver is home to “one of the most deprived areas in North America, the Downtown Eastside (DTES)…rife with street and survival sex workers” (p.20). Simply put, the selling of sex in Vancouver, is unfortunately not that out of the ordinary. Finkel and Finkel also discuss that there was never a “centralized strategic plan by the national and city governments to address the issue” (p.20) at Vancouver 2010, which corroborates with the government approved interviews as discussed that trafficking was downplayed before and during the games. Other security threats were simply put first in priority.

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A unfortunate, but common sight on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Credit: John Lehmann/The Globe & Mail

Finally, as discussed previously, human trafficking does not only take the form of sexual exploitation. A similar comparison can be drawn to the ways many young African footballers make their way to Europe in hopes of international success. Darby, Akindes and Kirwin (2007) argue that “the recruitment of African playing talent by European football clubs can be interpreted as a form of neocolonial exploitation” (p.143-144). Many African players that move to Europe for a chance a stardom and a new life are simply abandoned onto the streets when they are not good enough to play in the big leagues, with “[some] migrants [turning] to child prostitution as their only means of survival” (p.148). While there are many political and social contexts that work under this particularly problem, it’s importance in our discussion is that exploitation and the grey areas of human trafficking or the illegal moving of individuals through sport is not a new occurrence, and one that is evidently not addressed enough in Canada and beyond.

Conclusion

Olympic spectacle, a larger than life, euphoria driven showcase of the best of what sport has to offer, is amazing to witness. However, it has slowly brought to light other social concerns in our Canadian society. Granted, there are many factors at play that complicate the issue. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that there is still little research around this topic because it is difficult to uncover the information. This can be due to, naturally, the secrecy around the illegal activity, in combination with the misaddressing of the issue by government agencies (Bowersox, 2016). Moreover, it is understandably difficult to talk to victims of human trafficking about for any combination of physical, emotional, and psychological feelings endured by their experiences. It is simply not an easy topic to talk about, but is a conversation that must be had. In 2013 the RCMP reported that “one sex-trafficking victim can generate between $168,000 and $336,000 a year” (Truong, 2016), while internationally, it is a $99-billion dollar industry. These staggering numbers must be addressed.

Therefore, this post hopes to start a larger and broader conversation. It quickly became clear through my research that human trafficking is an issue which not only needs to be reevaluated under the spotlight of sporting mega events, such as Vancouver 2010, but across Canada in our day to day lives, something in which the Canadian government is currently not looking at with the amount of attention the issue deserves. Clarity must be had surrounding the problem, separating fact from fiction. I call on the government to better address human trafficking in Canada, such as through harsher prosecution laws, better enforcement, and greater public awareness of the problem. In the context of Vancouver, this could be through first addressing the oftentimes forgotten DTES. Furthermore, with many conflicting opinions, I call on more scholars to engage with the topic, regardless of difficulty, using sport and what the limited research that has been done as a catalyst to better understand the inner workings of the exploitation of undeserving victims behind closed doors.

 

REFERENCES

Bowersox, C. (2016). International sporting events and human trafficking: Effects of mega-events on a state’s capacity to address human trafficking. Journal of Human Trafficking, 2, 201-220. doi:10.1080/23322705.2015.1131584

Compton, J. (2016). Mega-events, media, and the integrated world of global spectacle. In Gruneau, R., & Horne, J. (Ed.), Mega-events and globalization. (pp. 48-64). London & New York: Routledge

Darby, P., Akindes, G., & Kirwin, M. (2007). Football academies and the migration of African football labour to Europe. Journal of sport & social issues, 31, 143-161. doi:10.1177/0193723507300481

Finkel, R., & Finkel, M.L. (2015). The ‘dirty downside’ of global sporting events: focus on human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Public Health, 129(1). 17-22. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2014.11.006

Heggie, T. (2009). Traveling to Canada for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease. 7(4). 207-211. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tmaid.2009.03.004

Matheson, C., & Finkel, R. (2013). Sex trafficking and the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games: Perceptions and preventative measures. Tourism Management. 36. 613-628. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2012.08.004

Meserve, J., & Cratty, C. (2010). Canada assembles 15,000 to make Olympics secure. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/02/01/oly.winter.olympics.security/index.html

Public Safety Canada (Canada). (2013). 2010 Winter Games Analysis on Human Trafficking. Ottawa: ON. Public Safety Canada.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Canada). (2012). Games Security and the Public Safety for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Ottawa: ON. Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The Future Group. (2007). Faster higher stronger: Preventing human trafficking at the 2010 Olympics. Calgary, AB: The Future Group

Truong, M. (2016). The Trafficked: How sex trafficking works in Canada. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/the-trafficked-how-sex-trafficking-works-in-canada/article28700689/

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2004). United Nations convention against transnational organized crime and the protocols thereto. Vienna: AU. United Nations

Vukmirovich, D. (2013). Sex trafficking discourse and the 2010 Olympics games. (Thesis, Simon Fraser University). Retrieved from http://summit.sfu.ca/item/13606

 

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