"Games for everyone" – human rights and large sporting events

12 minute read
20 July 2022

Author(s):

With the Government's recent proposals on reforming human rights law and the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham during July and August, it seems a fitting opportunity to consider the theme of human rights in sport and, in particular, how human rights considerations factor into the staging of large sporting events.



As a company set up by the Government to perform a range of public functions, a lot of what the Organising Committee for the B2022 games does will be covered by the Human Rights Act 1998. However, beyond this, the Organising Committee has taken steps to understand and comply with the principles that apply to private companies under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the 'UNGPs') – a set of non-binding guidelines for states and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights breaches and impacts.

This is unsurprising, as the importance of the link between human rights and sport has been recognised for many years. As far back as 1949, access to sport was recognised as a right in itself with the Geneva Conventions enshrining the right of prisoners of war and civilian internees to physical exercise, including sports and games. The concept of sport as a human right has been reiterated more recently in the International Olympic Charter and the report of the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force for Development and Peace.

However, aside from being a right in itself, there has also been increasing focus on the potential for sport to affect other rights for better or worse. This is reflected in the adoption of human rights policies and statements by bodies such as FIFA, Formula 1 and the Commonwealth Games Federation. The International Olympics Committee too is on course to finalise its Human Rights Strategic Framework in September 2022 as a step towards the development of a full human rights strategy.

So how do sporting events affect human rights?

A useful way to think about the issues is by considering the impacts on certain relevant groups and then to link those impacts to salient rights.

Competitors in sporting events are the group that might first spring to mind. The relevant rights can differ depending on context – with FIFA recognising that particular issues will arise from the fact that professional footballers are salaried and can transfer between teams – or apply more generally.

For example, all competitors could potentially face impacts to the following rights:

  • Freedom of expression – examples range from Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising a black-gloved fist at the 1968 Olympics to 'taking the knee' by American footballers, and subsequently other sportspeople, in protest against racism following the murder of George Floyd. Indeed, on a larger scale sometimes whole teams and countries can use sporting events to highlight human rights issues. For example, 32 countries withdrew from the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in protest against the UK Government's refusal to enforce the Commonwealth's Gleneagles Agreement discouraging contact and competition with teams and individuals from South Africa (which maintained apartheid at the time) – one of the factors leading to the Commonwealth Games becoming more rights aware.
  • Privacy – think, for example, of media intrusion and intrusive medical testing linked to the debates around naturally-occurring testosterone in women's sports, as in the case of Caster Semenya.
  • Health – such as the physical effects of harsh training regimes, doping or mental health issues caused by stress e.g. Simone Biles getting the 'twisties' at the Tokyo Olympics.
  • Non-discrimination – one of the most widely-discussed topics at the moments is the right of transgender women athletes to compete in competitions traditionally for cisgender women – for example, in swimming, rugby and potentially athletics – or to compete only after a certain amount of time following transition, as in cycling. These cases show the difficulty in balancing the concepts of sport as a human right, fair competition and non-discrimination. There have also been recent controversies surrounding racism in English cricket and Canadian hockey, as well as ongoing issues around homophobia in football and the inclusion of disabled athletes – even in the Paralympics.
  • Freedom from violence and abuse – a particularly stark example is the murder of Columbian footballer Andrés Escobar days after scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup, which was then referenced in death threats received by the Columbian football team following setbacks during the 2018 World Cup.

In 2017, the World Players Association collected these and other rights into a Universal Declaration of Players Rights and there are, of course, particular issues around child competitors.

However, competitors are not the only group whose rights may be affected by sporting events:

  • The communities in which events are held can face clamp-downs on their rights in a range of ways.
  • Spectators and journalists can face restrictions on their freedom of expression, as well as arbitrary arrest, discrimination and violence.
  • Staff and volunteers at events – as well as the workers who build and maintain the facilities – can be forced to work in conditions, and under terms, which breach their rights – the most prominent recent example being the migrant workers employed to build venues for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
  • Third party workers undertaking activities connected to events can also face issues. For example, the TV Industry Human Rights Forum has published a report on the human rights impacts associated with the third-party support needed to make and broadcast coverage of sporting events, and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has reported on impacts on migrant workers brought in to facilitate increased demand for Qatari hotel rooms during the 2022 World Cup.
  • The suppliers who provide the materials for the construction of facilities, the merchandising and all of the other products needed to stage the event can obviously have their own impacts on their workers, the communities in which they are based and the end customers (particular products targeted at children, for example, or which have greater potential health impacts, such as gambling promotions).

Sports-washing

Prestigious sporting events can sometimes be used as a public relations tool by countries trying to improve their reputation on the world stage. This process of 'sports-washing' can present difficult dilemmas for both sport governing bodies, athletes and their corporate sponsors.

At one end of the scale, given the reaction of most Western countries, it would have been a relatively easy decision for Formula 1 to cancel the 2022 Russian Grand Prix in view of the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, but other events are more problematic. For example, the Bahrain Grand Prix continues to draw controversy, the Winter Olympics in Beijing drew criticism and there will be increasing focus in the coming months on the hosting of the 2022 World Cup by Qatar.

How do sporting events deal with human rights issues?

The above gives just a little flavour of how complex the interplay is between sports and human rights. Equally, sport can have extremely positive impacts through showcasing principles of respect, fair play and judgement on merit – Alistair Brownlee giving up his chance to win the triathlon to help his brother over the line being a shining example in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

So how do event organisers navigate the issues? The answer is the same as for other areas of business and human rights – by using the toolkit provided by the UNGPs.

In line with the UNGPs, event organisers should:

  1. put in place a policy commitment to respect human rights;
  2. seek to understand the human rights impact that might be caused by the event, or to which the event might contribute or be linked;
  3. seek to prevent any negative impacts identified, and mitigate any that cannot be completely prevented, including by including human rights obligations in host city contracts and flowing down obligations to suppliers and other third parties; and
  4. put in place a mechanism through which complaints can be raised and addressed.

Summarised in that way it sounds pretty easy. But, as with the performance of the performance of the athletes competing in such events, it involves a lot of hard work and dedicated support in the background!

To understand more about human rights issues in sport, please speak with Kieran Laird.


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