Striving for excellence – international sporting events we can be proud of

RBC ForumJohn Morrison, Executive Director of the Institute for Human Rights and Business

This week, the OECD’s Global Forum Responsible Business Conduct includes a plenary session on the issue of “Responsibility in International Sporting Events” with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) included amongst the panellists. Although FIFA has been in the news on a daily basis due to the corruption allegations engulfing its leadership, the issues run wider and across all major sporting traditions: what should the social responsibilities of such events be? My speech this week in Paris will argue for greater oversight and due diligence at every stage of the mega-sporting events delivery process: all the way from the bidding round to the legacy (normally an 8-12 year cycle). I will make the case for an independent, impartial and trusted body to support and add legitimacy to such processes. The experience of the OECD is also directly relevant, in particular the developing role of National Contact Points under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, as Roel Nieuwenkamp has argued amongst others.

In many ways, Paris is the perfect setting for such a discussion. On 23rd June 1894, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was born here at a Congress organised by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The Olympic Charter places sport at “the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Fifty-four years later in 1948, in the wake of two devastating world wars, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais de Chaillot also in Paris. The Declaration’s Article One states clearly a similar aspiration that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” But as we gather again in Paris, sixty-seven years later, are we any closer to embedding human dignity in the heart of not just what happens on field or track, but also the dignity of those impacted by the staging of the events themselves?

Mega-sporting events appeal to the noblest aspirations, the pursuit of excellence and creativity of athletes. But they also play to the ambitions of governments and leaders and the image they wish to project internationally. As mass televised spectacles watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world, major sporting events today have also become arenas for corporate promotion and advertising – with sponsorship rights zealously protected between rival companies and brands. The very legitimacy of major international sporting traditions rests on these values. They have no social license if they do not fully embody in every way human rights both on the field of play, and in the processes involved in organising the events – the processes of tendering, bidding, acquiring land, constructing stadia and other infrastructure, managing supply chains, providing security, arranging and raising sponsorship money, and maintaining the legacy of each event after completion.

I feel confident that 2015 will be the year for commitments from sporting bodies, in the way that the Commonwealth Games Federation and Formula One have already done. The issue now becomes effective implementation. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and their full incorporation into the updated OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises are highly relevant to all aspects of Mega-Sporting Events, from planning to execution and follow up. At the Institute for Human Rights and Business where I work, we have been developing a programme of work to assist those involved in planning and implementing these complex events. We’ve developed a website – – with the support of the Governments of the UK and Brazil that provides extensive information and a compilation of good practices from London 2012, Glasgow 2014, and Rio 2016 Games as well as some of the human rights challenges of all these and other events.

We are working now to ensure that the sports governing bodies, the host governments and the games organising bodies for the next great events – Russia 2018, Tokyo 2020 and Qatar 2022 – are fully aware that there is a baton of knowledge and practical experience that can be passed from event to event about how to fully integrate concern for human rights principles and standards into all aspects of hosting such events. The same is true for sponsors, contractors and suppliers – and perhaps the ultimate of all suppliers, the athletes and sports stars themselves. A number of leading voices in sport have started to speak up – if you dedicate your life to sport shouldn’t the events that celebrate excellence in sport live by the same principles as you do?

Our aspiration is to work, with others, towards the creation of a permanent and impartial body that can sit across sporting traditions and advise the work of cities, governments, sponsors, civil society and trade unions. Such a body could play an important oversight role including support for local independent bodies for each event. I am pleased to report that a number of governments are supporting this endeavour and so too are the leaders of some sports bodies, key sponsors and other NGOs and UN agencies such as UNICEF. Let us all work together and make the vision of Paris – mega-sporting events and human rights – a fully sustainable one, so that we move faster, higher, stronger, towards a world of dignity and equality, where the pursuit of excellence is underpinned by respect for human rights.

Useful links

Third Global Foru‌‌m on Responsible Business Conduct, 18-19 June 2015, Paris, OECD