International Human Rights in Sports

Sports is about achieving excellence, about working individually and collectively as a team  to reach a common goal. The world of sports today is filled with thousands of enthusiastic people amongst whom a few stand out from the rest, but the challenge is to demonstrate how the world of sport can bring these benefits while preventing harms to people at every level. [1]Human rights refer to those rights that are inherent to the person and belong equally to all human beings regardless of their race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. They deal with freedom from fear and want, and call for respect, protection, and fulfilment from duty-bearers. At the international level, human rights are laid down in numerous international treaties and declarations. There are some treaties, agreements and declarations that were signed and ratified by a great number of member countries of the UN, spread around the globe. The collection of such documents is called the Universal System of Human Rights Protection.

Sport is one of the best platforms to promote human rights and inclusion of all. Through sport, people learn values of co-existing with people of  cross gender, nationality, age or even physical condition. It is now the need of the hour to build stronger bridges to advocate for sport as a Human Right – to pledge, to defend and to promote it. Sports is closely connected to many human rights such as right to education, right to culture, right to health and wellbeing as well as the right to political participation. Sport is ought to be practiced without any kind of discrimination, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.  Sports can easily inculcate many positive values, such as fairness, teambuilding, equality, discipline, inclusion, perseverance and respect, all of which can be found in the Olympic Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Charter for Fundamental Rights.

[2]Despite this, many Human Rights violations occur in mega sporting events (MSE). The protection of various rights and freedoms have been affected during sporting events, an example of which, was the mass evictions of residents from the Rio favelas for the 2016 Olympic games. Other Human Rights violations range from labour rights, to migrants’ rights, children rights, and women rights in relation of Qatar Olympics 2022. Discriminatory policies are also introduced, against, for example, minorities, the freedom of press and the freedom of assembly in the case of the Russian-hosted FIFA World Cup 2018. Moreover, the rights of athletes are never a topic of discussion. There is still a major gap between the will to maximise results, and the dignity and the freedoms of athletes: freedom of movement, freedom of expression, religious freedoms, image rights, labour rights, right to privacy, etc. It is important that the fundamental rights of athletes are not based on a comparison between ‘the athletes’ and the ‘others’, and that their human dignity is protected. Several players across various sports have iconic moves that they perform after achieving a particular objective in the game. These players after a point in time are recognized by their celebratory moves by the common man and these particular celebratory moves are then associated with only that one person performing it. In today’s world of sports, the Ronaldo “SII” celebration is something that is largely associated with the Portuguese winger and nobody else.

Each time the celebration has been seen on television or elsewhere, the one person associated with it is Cristiano Ronaldo.[3] LeBron James is also associated with the “Silencer” celebration which has also been copied and followed by many other people across the sporting universe. Cristian Benteke, the Belgian footballer has gone on to use LeBron’s celebration during games.[4] The intent of protecting the celebrations of these persons is to maintain the originality of creator with the help of Copyright and Trademark to prevent others from taking wrongful advantages of the iconic posture or symbol that the creator of such posture or symbol uses.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also points to sport as an important enabler of development and peace. At last December’s third annual Sporting Chance Forum, hosted in Paris at UNESCO, the stories of those who have faced sport-related human rights violations were heard first hand. They included stories of young athletes that experienced sexual abuse perpetrated by coaches or others in positions of authority; those forcibly displaced to make way for the infrastructure; workers building sporting facilities whose labour rights were violated during construction and fans and communities adversely impacted by harsh security and other public authority measures.

Yet despite these and many other attributes, the world of sport doesn’t always produce one’s wanted outcomes. All too often, sport is linked with harmful impacts on people—on athletes and communities, on workers at events or in supply chains, and on fans who cheer for their teams. The famous “You’ll never walk alone” chant that is constantly sung by Liverpool fans at Anfield, had originally been written Oscar Hammerstein and was then adopted by the English club and made the Liverpool Anthem.[5]The same anthem has also been adopted by clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Celtic. The fact that these clubs alter these songs and come up with entirely new compositions with their own artistic abilities, protection under Copyright must be granted. [6]Addressing these and other human rights challenges implies a major and important change within the world of sport itself. Fortunately, there are some positive signs that reforms are beginning to take place. Historic policy commitments to ensure respect for human rights have been made in recent years by some leading sport’s governing bodies (see for example, FIFA, the Commonwealth Games Federation, and UEFA), but many more have yet to acknowledge their responsibility to do no harm. Such commitments are only a first step, though a crucial one. They must lead to a larger effort to inculcate human rights due diligence into every aspect of sporting events, as well as spread rights awareness into regional and country-level activities and actors, and into the culture of sport at large.

To do so requires implementation of human rights standards and legal commitments into principles that can be readily understood by all involved in the sport industry, along with formal  steps for action. In practical terms, as a starting point, that means showing those involved how human rights have been impacted by sporting events or sport activity. Workshops and interactive sessions need to be organised to engage potentially affected groups, including those advocating for a range of fundamental rights such as decent working conditions, privacy rights, the rights of the LGBTQI+ community, persons with disabilities, and journalists, among others. These workshops should aim at generating practical recommendations that will shape how the organizers of a sporting event will seek to prevent and mitigate the risks identified, as well as establish effective grievance mechanisms.

Making long-term progress requires new levels of co-operation that can produce shared learning and collective action by the vast assembling of actors involved in sport. Sports bodies, intergovernmental organisations and representatives of governments, host actors, corporate sponsors, broadcasters, civil society, trade unions, employers and their associations, national human rights institutions, as well as athletes, all have important roles to play. We need institutions to help bring these actors together to generate the power of sport in ways that lead to greater realization of rights in practice. Over a passage of time, all involved in this process of generating power of sport have developed a strong sense of collective purpose. The challenge now moves towards converting the shared purpose and commitment into practical and effective action. We need to act now, as the structures as currently constituted aren’t sufficient. As per the current scenario, existing mechanisms for sport-related harms don’t address the particular needs of children or address risks to those that are without union representation, and don’t ensure protection of athletes with refugee status, among other gaps.

[7]The attempted forcible return of football player Hakeem al-Araibi to Bahrain despite his refugee status in Australia forced FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, human rights activists, governments and millions worldwide seeking to protect the rights of an athlete who is also a human rights defender. After imprisonment for over two months, Hakeem was returned home to Melbourne, thanks to the collective action and impact of the key actors involved who created leverage in public and behind the scenes. Given this and other cases often require urgent action, a key area of focus should be supporting improvement of credible and effective mechanisms to address accountability gaps and help create new structures where needed.

The sport and human rights movement is now actively mobilised. We have trusted spaces for constructive dialogue to address real-time challenges and dilemmas linked to sport. We  also have a growing body of knowledge and expertise that can be deployed to help build the capabilities of all actors involved in sport in order to prevent and remediate harms. Sport, because of global interest has the potential to create economic, social and political changes. From ancient times when the origin of sport were shaped at the foot of Mount Olympus in Greece, humanity is concerned with sport. Today, except from sporting events, there is no other event where representatives of different nations with conflicting interests interact with each other at this level, and this is a sign of the importance of sport in the stressful world today. [8]Firstly, the relationship between sports and human rights is extended, complex and evolving. Sports and human rights have developing interaction with each other as global phenomena. All sports and physical education are human rights. The second aspect, human rights relation with sport to protect the human rights of athletes at Sport arenas.

Today, sport organizations cannot be unrelated to international human rights. The needs for gender equality between male and female athletes, the need to anticipate the protective measures to children and create equal opportunities for disabled athletes are commitments of the sports institutions and agencies. Its third area, the relation of human rights with sport concerns the role of sport in maintaining and promoting human rights. Sport is of global interest and millions or even billions of spectators can serve human rights and transform the world to a better place to live accordingly. Sport can provide the context of a developed society by reducing costs related to health and non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease.

In today’s world, the relationship between peace and human rights is undeniable. In this regard sport as a tool at the service of human rights can become a tool for creating and maintaining peace. The domestic and international disputes before the war, in a narrow sense, have brought challenge for humanity. Thus, sport can play a key role in peace building and protecting human rights at international stage.

[1] Adams, A, and Harris, K (2014). Making sense of the lack of evidence discourse, power and knowledge in the field of sport for development. International Journal of Public Sector Management. Vol 27 (2)

[2] Amnesty International November 2013 ‘TREAT US LIKE WE ARE HUMAN’ MIGRANT WORKERS IN QATAR

[3] Adnan Riaz, Cristiano Ronaldo Opens Up About His Trademark ‘Sii’ Celebration, SPORTS BIBLE, 

[4] Ryan Bailey, Christian Benteke Does LeBron James’ ‘Silencer’ Celebration After Liverpool Goal, BLEACH REPORT (Dec. 26th, 2015), 

[5] Oli Platt, YNWA: How you’ll never walk alone became a Liverpool FC anthem, Goal (Jul. 29th, 2019) 

[6] Alkemeyer, T. and Richartz, A (1993) The Olympics Games: From Ceremony to Show, The International Journal of Olympic Studies. Vol II, pp 79-89.

[7] Aljazeera (2014) Jerome Valcke: ‘FIFA is not the UN’, available at: Accessed on 12 May 2014.

[8] Transnational Corporations and the Duty to Respect Basic Human Rights, Business Ethics Quarterly, 20, 3, pp. 371-399.Bairner, A. and Molnar, G. (2010)