Martina Navratilova: Sports Governing Bodies Must Take Responsibility For Human Rights

WASHINGTON ― The world’s major international sporting organizations must act to prevent human rights abuses around their marquee events, tennis great Martina Navratilova told an audience of global business executives, sporting officials and human rights organizations on Thursday.

Too often, Navratilova said, governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA have failed to protect people marginalized by their events. Mega-events like the Olympics and World Cup have been plagued in recent years by human rights violations, including labor abuses in Qatar, forced evictions and police killings in Rio de Janeiro, and crackdowns on protesters, journalists, activists, and LGBT people in Russia.

“The principles of sport that are set out in the Olympic charter require sports governing bodies to promote and defend human rights,” Navratilova said. “If a sporting event is displacing a community without compensation, the local actors may also be to blame. But it is responsibility of the sport governing body … to do something about it. They are the responsible party.

“If the construction of stadiums and mega-sporting events is subjecting workers to unsafe conditions … it is again the responsibility of the sport governing body to do something about it,” she continued. “And if women are being systematically denied access to a sporting event or stadiums, it is again the responsibility of a governing body to do something about it.”

It is a responsibility of the sport governing body to do something about it. They are the responsible party.
Martina Navratilova

Navratilova addressed more than 120 international sports, business, political, and human rights officials ― including representatives from the IOC, FIFA, and their major corporate sponsors ― gathered at the U.S. State Department to discuss ways to improve human rights conditions surrounding mega-sporting events.

The conference, organized by the U.S., Switzerland, and the international think tank Institute for Human Rights and Business, stemmed from a yearlong collaboration that developed more than a dozen proposed reforms covering such issues as forced housing displacement, LGBT and gender equality, fair labor standards and workers’ rights.

The forum, perhaps the most ambitious effort yet to take on the landscape of mega-sporting events, comes at a crucial time. The industry is plagued not only by rampant human rights abuses, but also by corruption scandals, economic largesse, and increasing skepticism that the events aren’t worth hosting.

During the conference opening session, participants told how rights abuses have eroded belief in ― and begun to overshadow ― the positive ideals these sporting events are supposed to promote.

“The legitimacy and, dare I say, the credibility of sport has spiraled negatively downward in recent years, due to corruption, deceit, broken promises, and the adverse impact of major events on host communities and their citizens,” said David Grevemberg, CEO of the Commonwealth Games. “We have a reached a tipping point with those we serve most dearly ― people. It is a point where we can either rebuild our relevance and resonance, or swiftly become irrelevant and obsolete.”

“We’re a powerful force for good when we choose to be,” Grevemberg added.

Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland who oversaw the committee of 20 organizations that developed the initial reform proposals, said she hopes to release final versions on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day.

We have a reached a tipping point. It is a point where we can either rebuild our relevance and resonance, or swiftly become irrelevant and obsolete.
David Grevemberg, CEO of the Commonwealth Games

“Some of the solutions are already out there,” John Morrison, chief executive of the Institute for Human Rights and Business, told The Huffington Post after the opening session. “Around construction, land appropriation, how you treat workers, freedom of expression. I just don’t think the world of sport knows about those issues.”

The hope, Morrison and Robinson said, is that sports governing bodies begin to work collectively to address problems. In the past, sporting organizations have barely collaborated, if at all, on human rights issues, so they have failed to learn from each other. Morrison was shocked to learn, for instance, that “very little” communication took place between FIFA and Rio 2016 organizers, even as they planned a World Cup and Olympics in the same country.

The central question is whether the world’s major international sporting organizations are ready to embrace changes. The IOC recently bolstered human rights standards in its host city contracts, and FIFA has been urged to do the same. But both organizations have made a habit of shrugging off rights violations around their events, instead blaming on local organizers and governments.

Anita DeFrantz, a member of the IOC’s executive board, said the organization is committed to working with this group, and expanding its human rights protections alongside other sporting organizations. (Notably, DeFrantz did not mention forced evictions, police brutality, or other issues prominent around Rio 2016, though she did note IOC-supported programs to assist women and children in Brazil.)

“In recent months, we have opened a new dialogue with representatives of civil society groups to address concerns that have been raised around the games,” DeFrantz said. “We are actively exploring what changes can be made before, during, and after the games. … We will take forward the core principles laid before this conference as part of this work.”

The involvement of human rights, anti-corruption, and international labor groups that have criticized the current state of mega-sporting events may further bolster the process. With help from those groups, potential reforms or standards may be stronger and more focused than those FIFA and the IOC have implemented on their own. 

“There does seem to me to be very significant buy-in,” Robinson told HuffPost. “There is, I think, a real will to provide that learning across sports, that determination that human rights and labor standards must be absolutely integrated” into these events.

Navratilova, too, said she believed the forum could lead to reforms that help sporting organizations promote human rights, instead of violate them. 

“Because these events are awarded seven or 10 years ahead of time, imagine if that period was used to meaningfully improve human rights and the lives of the local population,”Navratilova said. “But too often mega-sporting events, with their long lead times, have brought high human costs for workers, for journalists, for children, for all of the local population.”

“These human rights standards should not only address those things that we hope to avoid or mitigate,” she said, “but also encourage the many ways a mega-sporting event can positively impact the country and its communities.”

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