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Olympics: ‘Sport has a responsibility to do no harm’

Tokyo Olympics
The Tokyo Olympic Games were scheduled to take place in summer 2020 but have been postponed until 2021. With the pandemic still raging in parts of the world, Olympic organisers are trying to figure out how to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved. Keystone / Kimimasa Mayama

With the Tokyo Olympics just over a month away, Olympic gold medallist and CEO of the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights Mary Harvey defends athletes’ right to speak out on issues they care about and says this represents a huge opportunity to advance human rights.

Harvey knows the power of sport to change mindsets. Her US team’s gold medals at the 1991 FIFA World Cup and the 1996 Olympics led millions of girls in the US to play soccer, once shunned as a boy’s game. But she also knows the sports world is far from where it should be when it comes to leading by example.  

olympic athlete
Mary Harvey is the first CEO of the Centre on Sport and Human Rights. / Photographer: Matt Cohen

“This is personal for me. I have profound humility for how lucky I have been when I hear the stories of athletes that have been through abuse. Sport has given me so much personally but I’m aware that it can also do harm.”

In an interview with SWI, Harvey explains that sport and human rights is not just about protecting athletes’ health and safety. It is about everyone involved in sporting events and day-to-day sports including communities, fans and volunteers. While sports bodies such as FIFA are key players, she also calls on event organisers, sponsors, and broadcasters to ensure respect for human rights.

The interview comes as more questions are being raised about whether even a scaled-back Olympic Games in Tokyo can go ahead in mid-July without putting people at risk of Covid-19.

Harvey is the first CEO of the Centre on Sport and Human Rights. Prior to this, she had several executive roles in sports including at FIFA where she spearheaded work to advance gender inclusion in football.

She also served as a sport envoy for the US State Department’s Sports Diplomacy Division and led the development of the human rights strategy for the successful bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup – a joint bid including the US, Canada and Mexico.

During her eight years with the US Women’s National Soccer Team, she won the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and Olympic Gold in 1996.

SWI There are so many headlines about problems in sports, from doping and corruption to sexual abuse. What do you consider to be “human rights” in sports?

Mary Harvey: We look at it the way the world of sport looks at itself. There are sporting events like the Olympic Games and then there is day-to-day sport like training. Within this, we consider what are potential harms to people that could happen and how sports bodies and other groups such as sponsors involved can prevent and mitigate that harm.

Sport has a responsibility to, at a minimum, do no harm but what can be achieved through sport when it is positive is incredible,” – Mary Harvey

As an example, I was involved in the bid for the US to host the 2026 World Cup. We weren’t going to build any stadiums. The question we asked ourselves was: how does the life of the average person in any of the cities that would host this event get better in a very real sense? Those are the sorts of things that we want to see sports bodies asking themselves and others involved in sporting events. 

SWI: This includes a huge range of issues. How should sports bodies prioritise these?

M.H: We use the same principles that business uses to prioritise issues such as looking at harms that are most egregious and most likely to happen. Some of this is responding to what is going on. For example, the Tokyo Olympic Games are coming up and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. So, the right to health and safety is a core issue.

Volunteers in Tokyo are being asked to sign health waivers, essentially signing away their rights to hold organisers responsible if they get Covid-19. What risks does this present and is everything being done to prevent harm? What happens if someone gets sick? These are questions we want event organisers to answer.

SWI: Do you agree with the proposal for athletes to sign these waivers?

M.H.: Athletes and volunteers may or may not be financially compensated, but they are like workers in that they provide economic value. Would you expect a worker to sign something that waives their rights to hold an employer responsible in case of harm?

This is a big concern and particularly for athletes, and especially given the nature of Covid, which can have lasting damage to your cardiovascular system. That’s the engine room for athletes. It’s the Olympics so of course athletes want to go and win. But it’s fraught with all this risk.

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SWI: Do you think that enough is being done to protect athletes going to the Tokyo Olympics?

M.H.: The International Olympics Committee has released an athlete handbook and it’s evolving. They’re taking into account feedback, which is terrific. We also have a lot of examples of live sporting events that are happening around the world and protocols that are either successful or not in mitigating the spread of the virus. But again, there’s nothing quite like the Olympic Games. It’s this enormous coming together not just of athletes but of many people from all over the world. That brings with it its own set of issues that are probably hard to test out in other contexts.

SWI: Tokyo aside, it seems that there are constant headlines about abuse in sports. Is the situation getting worse or are we just hearing more about them?

M.H.: I think there’s more awareness than ever. For example, in the World Cup qualifiers for 2022, you have players taking the field, spelling out human rights. Athlete abuse cases have been amplified beyond the Larry Nassar sexual abuse cases in the US as gymnasts in other parts of the world such as New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom come forward. What’s been the real enabler of a lot of what we’re hearing about is athlete voice. This is athlete representation in decision making and freedom of expression.


Athletes are speaking up, whether it is about abuse, Black Lives Matter and racial injustice or how they feel about going to compete in a country where they may have an issue personally about how people are treated there.

Athlete voice has been the biggest change in my view. Their freedom of expression brings to light other human rights concerns. This is why it’s so incredibly important that athlete voice is protected.

SWI: What should athletes do in countries where freedom of expression is suppressed, and rights are not respected?

M.H.: We know that athletes have to be careful about what they do in stadiums. You can’t yell fire in a movie theatre but it’s tricky. In 1968, US track athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith were thrown out of the Games [after the Black Power salute], and Peter Norman from Australia was also reprimanded. Later, that same moment is held up as a pivotal human rights moment. Years later you have athletes from Colin Kaepernick in the US to athletes in Belarus, Iran, and Bahrain speaking up at significant personal risk. Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari was executed for speaking out.

We believe in some cases that athletes are being targeted because they’re seen as high profile by the political system. These athletes are advocating peacefully for the human rights of others, and that makes them human rights defenders, which some view as a controversial statement. Human rights defenders are very special people. Their freedom of expression, if it’s peaceful and not intended to incite or cause harm, should be protected.

Launched in June 2018, the Centre on Sport and Human Rights is an independent organisation based in Geneva set up to advance human rights in sport. It is the outcome of discussions as part of a network called the Mega-Sporting Events Platform for Human RightsExternal link started in 2015.

Harvey told SWI that a key moment was in 2015 when former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and business and human rights expert John Ruggie wrote a letter to then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter and asked when sport is going to do something about human rights. This was after several big events had raised questions about the impact of major sporting events on human rights including the Rio Olympics in 2016, the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and worker deaths in the lead up to the Qatar World Cup in 2022.

The decision to start an independent centre was made in 2017, on the occasion of the second Sporting Chance ForumExternal link in Geneva. The Swiss government is a founding member of the centre and has played a major role in driving the centre’s work forward, according to Harvey.

SWI: What can be done to help athletes in these situations?

M.H.: The first thing is to give them information. Athletes in England shut off their social media accounts for four days to protest tech companies allowing racist and sexist comments. Athletes are brands on social media, and they’re being asked questions like how do you feel about going to compete in Saudi Arabia? Athletes are put in that position, so the first thing we can do is to help them be informed on the issues.

Another aspect is helping them do their own due diligence. If you’re going to hire a security service, are there questions you can ask to find out what the human rights situation is for people who work at that hotel or people who work for that security company? This empowers athletes to make a responsible decision. We’ve been developing a due diligence guide, for example, around the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar so that athletes and fans know what to ask.

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SWI: Some groups are calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics because of the human rights situation in the country. This doesn’t necessarily concern sports itself, but a boycott clearly does. What’s your view?

M.H.: I’m not in favour of anything that takes something away from athletes. Any time you’re talking about a boycott, there’s been a complete failure of diplomacy. It means you’ve lost the battle and the best response is to just not participate. As a former Olympic athlete, taking an opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games away from an athlete is terrible. It puts athletes in a really tough position. They just want to go and compete. They’re being asked, how do you feel about this and that? They may be conflicted about it. The right to compete is sacrosanct and taking that away from an athlete by anyone, particularly governments, can’t be the solution.  

As regards Beijing, I think there needs to be a set of questions that are asked around press freedom and forced labour in supply chains, and a way to verify this. Then there needs to be a clear process of what happens if there is a complaint and how it is handled.



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SWI: It seems that sports bodies, many of which have their headquarters in Switzerland, operate in a legal grey zone? Who holds them accountable for respecting human rights?

M.H.: There is a legal, technical definition of accountability and the responsibility of states to protect human rights in the case of sporting events and what happens in their countries. If a child’s been assaulted, you’re breaking the law and there’s a legal duty.  

It gets into a murky area when it comes to sport though. We maintain that sport has a responsibility to respect human rights. Sports bodies govern sport, which means they develop athletes and maintain the rules of competition and determine who is eligible to compete. 

When issues arise that affect the integrity of sport such as doping or match fixing or the trafficking of athletes from one country to win the Olympics, there are ethics bodies that handle these things. These aren’t human rights cases though unless someone is forced to dope, for example. You can’t take cases of athlete abuse and try to crunch them through the same mechanism that’s dealing with sport integrity issues. It doesn’t work, it’s not fit-for-purpose.

Some sports bodies like FIFA are now considering human rights when awarding events. The IOC has human rights written into contracts as of Paris 2024. A couple weeks ago, the German Football League adopted a human rights policy. These are significant steps, but we need more of it.

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