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International Human Rights in Sports

*Archit Vyas

Sports is about attaining excellence, about working independently and together as a team to reach a shared goal. The world of sports today is filled with thousands of enthusiastic people, but only a few stand out from the rest. However, the test establishes how the world of sports can bring welfare while averting harm to people at every level. Human rights denote those intrinsic to the person and belong likewise to all human beings irrespective of their sex, language, religion, race, colour, national or social origin, property, birth, political opinion or another status.[1] They lay down autonomy from fear and want and demand respect, safety, and implementation from duty-bearers. At the global level, human rights are laid down in several international treaties and declarations. There are a few agreements, treaties, and declarations that were engaged and ratified by several member countries of the UN worldwide. The assemblage of such documents is called the Universal System of Human Rights Protection.

Sports as a Platform

Sport is one of the finest platforms to endorse human rights and the inclusion of all. Through sport, people acquire co-existing values with people of different genders, nationalities, age, or even physical conditions. It is now the need of the hour to build more vital bridges to advocate for sport as a Human Right – to pledge, defend, and promote it. Sports are closely connected to many human rights, such as the right to education, the right to culture, the right to health and well-being, and the right to political participation. The sport ought to be practised without any discrimination, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, property, birth, or another status. Sports can easily inculcate many positive values, such as fairness, team building, equality, discipline, inclusion, perseverance, and respect, all of which can be found in the European Charter for Fundamental Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Olympic Charter.

Despite this, many Human Rights violations transpire at mega sporting events (MSE)[2]. The protection of various rights and freedoms have been affected during sporting events, an example of 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's rights, and women's rights in relation to the Qatar World Cup 2022. Inequitable policies are also presented, against, for example, minorities, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of the press in the case of the Russian-hosted FIFA World Cup 2018.

Furthermore, the rights of athletes are on no occasion a topic of discussion. There is still a huge gap between the drive to maximize results and the pride and the freedoms of athletes: freedom of expression, image rights, labour rights, freedom of movement, religious freedoms, right to privacy, etc. It is imperative to note that the fundamental rights of athletes are not based on an assessment between ‘the athletes’ and the ‘others’.[3] Athletes are often told to shut up and stick to sports. However, athletes from various sports have begun to voice their opinions and use sports as a platform to promote human rights. In today’s world of sports, athletes kneel before every game as a protest to end racism across the world. This action of the sporting fraternity is something that is primarily associated with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.

Rights of an Athlete: Do they have Freedom?

Sport is an essential enabler of development and peace, as pointed out by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The need of the hour is to hear the stories of those who have faced sport-related human rights violations first hand. For example, Sporting Chance Forum is held annually by the Centre of Sport and Human Rights. They embrace stories of young athletes that faced sexual abuse committed by coaches or others in positions of authority. Further, they also include stories of those displaced by those to make way for the infrastructure and workers building sporting facilities whose labour rights were violated during construction. Lastly, they also include fans and communities adversely impacted by harsh security and other public authority measures.

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 Human Rights Report), which focuses on addressing the human rights violations across football. However, many more bodies have yet to recognize their responsibility not to harm. Such assurances are only a first step, though a vital one. They must lead to a more significant effort to teach human rights due diligence into every facade of sporting events. Further, they should spread rights awareness into country-level and regional events and actors and the ethos of sport at large.

Contemporary Challenges

The challenges can be met in a lot of ways. Effective implementation of human rights standards and legal obligations into principles that can be easily understood by all involved in the sports industry and prescribed steps for action is one such way. In practical terms, as a starting point, that means showing those involved how human rights have been impacted by sporting events or sports activity.[4] Workshops and interactive sessions need to be organized 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, journalists, and persons with disabilities, among others. These workshops should generate practical commendations that will outline how the organizers of a sporting event will seek to avert and alleviate the risks identified and establish operative grievance mechanisms.

Making long-term growth requires new levels of co-operation that can produce shared learning and joint action by the bringing together of actors involved in sport. Sports bodies, geopolitical organizations and representatives of governments, civil society, trade unions, employers and their associations, national human rights institutions host actors, corporate sponsors, broadcasters, and athletes all have significant roles to play. We need institutions to help bring these actors together to generate the power of sport in ways that lead to a greater realization of rights in practice. Over time, all involved in this process of generating power of sport have developed a strong sense of collective purpose.

The test now moves towards converting the collective purpose and commitment into practical and actual 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 certain needs of children or address hazards to those without union representation and don’t ensure the safety of athletes with refugee status loopholes.

The attempted forcible return of football player Hakeem al-Araibi to Bahrain despite his refugee status in Australia obligated FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, human rights activists, governments, and millions all over the world seeking to guard the rights of an athlete who is also a human rights defender [5]. After detention for over two months, Hakeem was returned home to Melbourne, thanks to the cooperative action and impact of the key actors involved who created influence in public and behind the scenes. Cases like these often necessitate urgent action. Hence, a key area of focus should be a backing enhancement of credible and efficient mechanisms to address liability gaps and help create new structures where needed.

The Road Ahead

The sport and human rights movement is now actively mobilized. 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 all actors involved in sport to prevent and remediate harm. Sport, because of global interest, has the potential to create economic, social, and political changes.

From primaeval times when the basis of the sport was shaped at the foot of Mount Olympus in Greece, humanity is concerned with the sport. At the moment, except for sporting events, there is no other event where representatives of so many nations with differing interests interact with each other at this level. This is a symbol of the importance of sport in the taxing world today.

Firstly, the connection between sports and human rights is extended, multifaceted and evolving. Sports and human rights have emerging interaction with each other as a worldwide phenomenon. All physical education and sports are human rights. The second facet is to protect the human rights of athletes at Sport arenas.

Today, sports organizations cannot be distinct from international human rights. The needs for gender mainstreaming between male and female athletes, the prerequisite to anticipate the protective measures to children and produce equal opportunities for disabled athletes are assurances of the sports institutions and agencies.[6] Lastly, 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 into 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 the current time, the connection between peace and human rights is irrefutable. In this regard, sport as a tool at the service of human rights can become a tool for creating and maintaining stability. The domestic and international disputes before the war, in a narrow sense, have brought challenges for humanity. Thus, sport can play a crucial role in peacebuilding and protecting human rights on the international stage.

*The author is a law scholar from Gandhinagar National Law University.

(The image used here is for representational purposes only)


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. Gill, Emmett L. 2016. “‘Hands up, Don’t Shoot’ or Shut up and Play Ball? Fan-Generated Media Views of the Ferguson Five.” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 26(3–4): 400–12.

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

5. Aljazeera (2014) Jerome Valcke: ‘FIFA is not the UN’, available at:

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


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