II. Thematic Overview

A. General Introduction

Sport is closely linked to the promotion and protection of human rights...

Sport relies on a rules-based system, fair play, respect and the courage, cohesion, support and goodwill of society in all its facets, including athletes, fans, workers, volunteers and local communities, as well as governments, businesses large and small, the media and sports bodies. The foundational principles of the world’s preeminent sports bodies speak to universal humanitarian values, harmony among nations, solidarity and fair play, the preservation of human dignity, and commitment to non-discrimination and sport governing bodies and athletes have used sport as a mechanism to promote and educate in fundamental values and principles. These values have much in common with international human rights instruments, principles and standards.

Linking sport and human rights actually goes back to civil rights activism by leading athletes in the 1960s and the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa. Today, it plays out in various ways, and the awareness of sport’s human rights risks are rising, from the ongoing struggles for equal treatment by women athletes to exploited workers and evicted communities in the run-up to a mega-sporting event. This highlights structural issues within sport itself, and within the connection of sport as a business to supply chains and a vast array of stakeholders (public and private). A distinction can be made between human rights risks connected to day-to-day sports, which affects elite sports and grassroots level sports in the same way, and human rights risks related to sport events, which can occur in the context of bidding, preparing, staging or in the aftermath of the event.

The connection between sport and human rights is far-reaching and relevant on the national and international level. The human rights risks connected to sports can differ per country, but the underlying challenges to address these risks are similar. Sport for a long time has enjoyed considerable autonomy and remained largely free from any interference of governments. International and regional organisations even recognized this special status formally. However, this autonomy is starting to crumble and policy makers on national and international levels are showing willingness and capacity to intervene when necessary.

b. Overview of Actors in the Sport Ecosystem

A multiplicity and variety of actors are involved in the sport ecosystem...

Namely: 

International, regional, and national sports federations, e.g. World Athletics, FIFA, UEFA
athletes, volunteers and employees
representative organisations of those federations, like the ASOIF, AIOWF, GAISF
private sports leagues and clubs, like the NFL or NBA
athlete representative organisations like the World Players Association, Global Athlete and sport specific unions and associations
regulatory bodies like anti-doping organisations, such as WADA, or the Court of Arbitration for Sport;
national sport ministries and other related governmental bodies;
broadcasters;
sponsors;
suppliers of sporting goods and services.
In the case of sport events, in particular MSEs, this list can be extended to include:
Sports bodies like the IOC, Commonwealth Sport, the International Paralympic Committee, or National Olympic Committees 
national, regional and local governments
local organising entities, like the Organising Committee for the Olympic Games
private event organisers, including recruitment agencies, 
contractors and suppliers that provide goods and services for the preparation of the event.

All these actors have different levels of involvement and leverage when it comes to sport’s and sport event’s human rights risks. Regarding leverage, international federations for instance can set an example for other sport organisations by adopting a human rights policy and including human rights standards into their statutes and other policies, including their ethics code and any grievance mechanism, their sport rules and bidding and hosting requirements for events. Governments can ensure that the legislative framework in the respective country reflects that human rights standards apply to the world of sport and that adequate responsibility mechanisms are in place. Sponsors can use their influence with sport organisations and event organisers to push for the respect for and promotion of human rights in sports, and private contractors can ensure that their human rights responsibilities extend to all of their business relationships.

c. Theoretical and Normative Framework

The growing sport and human rights movement is also triggered by an increasing acceptance of the applicability of international human rights standards relating to the private sector including sports bodies and sporting event organisers, as well as sponsors, broadcasters and other business entities involved in sport...

At the same time, public actors like central, regional, or municipal governments, as well as intergovernmental organisations start showing awareness of the human rights risks and challenges linked to sports and addressing in various ways, by means of collaboration, policy instruments, or legislative changes.

A useful normative framework to study these risks and challenges and the relevant responsibilities of the different public and private actors involved is the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). They provide the authoritative global standard for what is expected behaviour of businesses in relation with human rights and clarify state duties to protect, respect and fulfil human rights in the context of abuses involving non-state actors. More specifically, the UNGPs three pillar framework outlines that:

  • Governments and public bodies have a duty to protect against human right abuses including by non-state actors (e.g. businesses) through policies, regulation and adjudication;
  • Companies and organisations involved in commercial activities (e.g. Sports Bodies) have a responsibility to respect human rights, that is to avoid people’s human rights being harmed through their activities or business relationships, and to address harms that do occur. This includes through policies and due diligence processes.
  • Where human rights have been harmed there needs to be access to effective remedy: both public and private actors may have a role to play in providing that access.

Since their endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, these Principles found their way into the world of sport and a number of sport bodies and sport event organisers have taken steps to apply them to their operations. In particular the due diligence process, which rests on the identification and assessment of human rights risks, prevention and mitigation of those risks, tracking responses, and communicating how risks and impacts are addressed, has been adopted as useful tool for the various private actors involved in the sport ecosystem to address human rights risks related to their activities.

An additional and sport-specific framework for understanding and analysing human rights risks in the world of sports can be found in the Sporting Chance Principles, which have been developed by the Advisory Council of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights.

d. Sub-themes of Sport and Human Rights

The links between sport and human rights are reflected in various scenarios, from the organisation of a Mega-Sporting Event (MSE) to the governance of Sport Governing Bodies (SGBs) or the risks related to specific groups like women and children...

In the following, more detail is provided for some of these scenarios. It should be noted that the list of sub-themes presented here is not complete but indicative of the most pressing themes that emerged within the sport and human rights movement in the past years.

  1. Mega-Sporting Events (MSEs): MSEs are more than just prestigious sporting competitions. Because of their scale and complexity, these international events present an exceptional example of the potential human rights impacts of our increasingly globalised and interconnected world. While many stakeholders benefit from MSEs, the events are consistently linked to allegations of human rights abuses. Actors involved in MSEs have the potential both to violate human rights and to promote greater respect for human rights. Teaching the human rights impacts of MSEs also highlights many of the issues that are relevant to the broader business and human rights debate.
  2. Governance: sports governing bodies have an essential role in embedding human rights standards into their policies and practices. Through implementing human rights within their own governance, sports institutions become the central axis for the development of policies that govern a sport that fully respects human rights. This applies to all policies and regulations of a sports body, those that regulate the transfer of players, eligibility rules, or bidding requirements for hosting a tournament. It also should trickle down to the member associations or National Olympic Committees. There are a number of examples of international and national sport governing bodies taking steps to embed and implement human rights into their governance, such as Commonwealth Sport, FIFA, the IOC, UEFA, or the German football association. However, there are also huge differences between the numerous sport governing bodies.
  • Gender equity: this presents one of the systemic human rights challenges in the world of sports. In fact, gender discrimination in the sporting context occurs at elite and grassroots level and is not only reflected in lower numbers of women participating in sports genera This is also about the structural gender barriers and discrimination faced by women and girls to access, remain in and enjoy sports. It is about gender-based violence, sexual abuse and harassment in the sports environment, the lower quality infrastructure available for women athletes compared to men athletes, the lack of respect for professional standards in terms of contracts and benefits, the gender pay gap in salaries, awards and prize money with respect to men’s disciplines, the invisibility of women's sport in media broadcasting and portrayals that reproduce harmful gender stereotypes, or the low number of women in leadership and decision-making positions in sport governing bodies. Moreover, it is not just about issues of discrimination against women. The rights of transgender athletes, the discussions about regulations around athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD) and rights violations motivated by the normalisation of toxic masculinities in sport can also be considered as sport-related human rights issues.
  1. Inclusive sport: Persons with disabilities face several barriers to engaging in physical activity and sports, including inaccessible sporting facilities, attitudinal barriers, the lack of suitable equipment, disability-specific knowledge and support, accessible information, and extra financial costs. Specific eligibility requirements imposed by sport bodies can further limit access to sport for some persons with disabilities. In addition to this group, there are other groups that are often excluded from sports, such as people from the LGBTQI community, migrants, indigenous people, or people living in poverty. Regarding rights of indigenous communities, this issue often comes up in relation to sport events, in particular questions of sovereignty and rights to the land upon which a certain event occurs.
  2. Remedy ecosystem: Every affected person whose rights have been harmed has a right to effective remedy. This means that where human rights abuses occur in the world of sport, effective remedy mechanisms should be in place and accessible for those affected. This applies equally to athletes whose rights have been harmed and to other groups and individuals, like indigenous communities or migrant workers, whose rights have been harmed in the context of an MSE. Relevant mechanisms in the world of sport range from judicial to non-judicial mechanisms, and examples are the Court of Arbitration for Sport, national sport arbitration tribunals, national and international courts, or mediation-based mechanisms. However, in many cases existing mechanisms are ineffective in providing remedy and compensation for sport-related human rights harms. In particular the Court of Arbitration for Sport has been criticised for its lack of human rights capacity. A challenge for any mechanisms dealing with such cases is the need to balance the inequality of powers between those affected and those responsible for the adverse effects, by giving equal access to information and providing a fair process and fair conditions for making use of the mechanism.
  3. Children: millions of children worldwide are engaged in organised sport. For the majority of these children, sport brings a range of positive benefits and contributes to the realisation of a number of their rights. However, for some children, sport can bring  experiences of physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, peer aggression, undue stress, harassment, hazing, bullying, and other forms of non-accidental violence, as well as doping, and trafficking and child labour.  Sport can also affect children who are not directly engaged as players. MSEs can bring economic opportunities to host communities and provide a platform to advance children’s rights.  However, some MSEs have had negative impacts, including the forced relocation of families leading to a loss of access to basic services such as schools and health services, or to child labour, increased violence and sexual exploitation.    
  • Athletes’ Rights: athletes are the pillar of the sport ecosystem, at elite and grassroots level. Nevertheless, they face a number of human rights risks in the sporting context, such as violations of privacy rights, the right to equality and non-discrimination, or the right to protest or the right to freedom of expression. The recent rise in reports of cases of physical and sexual abuse that happened in the sporting context implies that some of the human rights risks athletes face highlight structural problems within the world of sport. Another source of human rights risks for athletes are the anti-doping obligations imposed on them which have a significant impact on their rights to privacy, for instance when it concerns the whereabouts requirements, but also the storing of data and medical samples.
  • Corruption: Despite efforts to increase the governance standard in sport organisations in recent years there are still deficiencies with regard to transparency, accountability, integrity and participation (stakeholder involvement and diversity) in many sport governing bodies. These deficiencies carry numerous risks from a human rights perspective. For example, risks caused by the high competition for MSE and contracts linked to MSE can lead to transparency procedures, participatory rights and proper stakeholder engagement being ignored. At the same time, the corrupt use of public money for sport or sport events can limit the resources available to guarantee important social, economic, and cultural rights of citizens. Therefore, a discussion on how to improve the structure and decision-making processes in sport is needed.