Give Rights A Sporting Chance: Ending Human Rights and Labor Rights Abuses in International Mega-Sporting Events

International sporting events, at their best, have the power to demonstrate the power of diversity, break social stereotypes, and create opportunities for people from all walks of life. For proof, look no further than the triumphs of African American track and field star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals on the international stage of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, bucking Nazi Germany’s dangerous rhetoric and theories of racial inferiority. Eighty years later, the athletic competitions of the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games again showed us how sporting ideals of fair play, dedication, equal access, and teamwork both inspire and unite people across the globe. 

In mid-October, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) was proud to host the “Sporting Chance Forum” – a major international gathering focused on improving understanding and collaboration on ways to address the human rights and labor impacts of global mega-sporting events, such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. The Forum was co-sponsored with the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), an international NGO, and included participation from governments, sports governing bodies, corporate sponsors, activists, and athletes.

Along with initiatives like the Sporting Chance Forum, the U.S. Department of State promotes Sports Diplomacy exchange programs to tap into the shared passion of sports to build bridges between the United States and other countries, promote inclusion, and empower women and marginalized communities. International mega-sporting events, such as the Olympics and Paralympics, the Commonwealth Games, and the FIFA Men’s and Women’s World Cups, bring together athletes, spectators, companies, and international organizations to celebrate the ideals of sports diplomacy through competition, backed by devoted audiences, mass participation, and plentiful spending.  

With this power, comes great responsibility. History has shown that without adequate protections, these mega-sporting events can lead to negative human rights impacts, especially for members of vulnerable and marginalized groups. Even as we recognize the triumph of a sports legend like Jesse Owens, his success did not shield him and other athletes from the impact of discrimination on and off the sport field. And despite growing international attention to the industry, recurring areas of concern include discrimination, forced evictions, construction deaths, migrant worker exploitation, sweatshop labor, restrictions on protesters and street-vendors. As our keynote speaker, tennis-legend and LGBTI activist Martina Navratilova explained, illustrating through her own inspiring story “Too often, mega-sporting events, with their long lead times, have brought a high human cost, a high cost for workers, for journalists, for children, for the whole local population. Sporting events that could have celebrated diversity, gender equality, LGBTI rights, and people living with disabilities, have, in some critical ways, dropped the ball.”

The Sporting Chance Forum shone a spotlight on the work of a diverse set of dedicated organizations -- coordinated by Institute for Human Rights and Business -- to identify key human rights challenges and opportunities across the life-cycle of mega-sporting event bidding, planning, hosting, and legacy. As Martina eloquently said, “If we can agree that our sporting communities believe in the principles of equality and in the advancement and protection of human rights, then any country wishing to host a mega-sporting event should be prepared to put those principles into practice -- from the very beginning of the bid process all the way through to legacy, after the closing ceremony fireworks display.”

It also provided the impetus to develop and make public the Sporting Chance Principles, which set out eight high-level values that we believe should guide efforts to address the human rights and labor rights impacts of mega-sporting events. We were privileged to have U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken open the Forum and express the Department’s support for these principles. We were pleased to also hear support for the principles expressed by the International Olympic Committee, the International Labor Organization, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization of Employers, the International Trade Union Confederation, and others.

Looking ahead, the United States will continue to widen the circle of organizations committed to proactively working together to bring out the best in marque global sports events. Specifically, we are working with international partners to identify practical steps that can be accomplished in the near term to demonstrate progress regarding the roles and responsibilities of four sets of actors that have been identified: sports governance bodies; host actors; sponsors and broadcasters; and affected groups.

Sports can serve as a universal language to promote cultural exchange, show strength, and transcend barriers. Coming together collectively to cheer on an athlete, a team, or a nation can inspire fans from every nation and background to cheer for the achievements of all.

About the Author: Virginia Bennett serves as Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

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Deputy Secretary Blinken and PDAS Virginia Bennett pose for a photo with International Sports and Labor Officials at the Department of State.
November 3, 2016

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