5 Issues Cover

5 Sport and Human Rights Issues to Look Out For in 2022

Last week the Centre published our Annual Activity Report, reviewing 2021 and looking ahead to 2022. As with last year, the annual report includes a top five sport and human rights issues we’ll be working on this year:

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Climate Action in Sport

Sport will be urged to help connect the climate and human rights agendas

Sport can’t be a bystander in ongoing climate change debates and responses. Mounting threats of extreme weather, including floods, fires and rising temperatures, will increasingly impact the sporting events calendar and infrastructure, and pose greater risks to the health and wellbeing of athletes and fans, particular the young and old who are most vulnerable. The year 2022 will likely bring greater scrutiny to how sport at every level is addressing the climate crisis and making connections to responsibilities for respecting and protecting human rights.

There are important examples of sport leaders engaging on the climate agenda. Nearly 300 sports federations and members of the wider sport ecosystem have signed up to the UN’s Sport for Climate Action initiative and have committed to reducing their climate impact, as well as advocating for responsible responses. Athlete activists are also highlighting the need for leadership on climate issues.

During 2022, sport leaders will also need to recognise and act on the links between climate change and respect for fundamental human rights. In 2021, the UN Human Rights Council officially recognised the right to a healthy environment and established a new expert mandate on climate change and human rights. What do these developments mean for sport?

Sport leaders have an opportunity to take targeted steps to scale up their own human rights due diligence in ways that account for actual and potential adverse impacts on people connected to climate change. This may cover a wide range of issues, from harms to individuals and communities relating to loss and damage of sport infrastructure, to land development decisions and use of scarce water supplies, to safety concerns for athletes relating to extreme heat, among many others.

The world of sport should also contribute to wider initiatives addressing the rights of those most vulnerable to climate change. Given that global sport has a significant emissions footprint globally, it is time for all involved to engage in constructive steps to manage the many transitions that are needed to address the climate crisis for those impacted today and for future sport loving generations to come.

Cementing human rights in sports governance

Calls will expand for leaders to fully integrate human rights in sport governance and culture

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Many human rights challenges facing the sport sector can be traced back to issues of governance, leadership and culture. Sports integrity and safe sport initiatives are certainly part of the solution, but human rights are much broader and integrating these concerns into the fabric of sport requires people-centric measures to address current and historical power imbalances and protect vulnerable stakeholders.

In 2022, expectations of those in leadership positions across sport will likely intensify with calls to set the tone on human rights risks and responses. That will require leading by example, and ensuring good governance and fair processes at all levels of sport. This is necessary to make governance structures fit for purpose in human rights terms.

In sport, responsible leadership is especially important. The sector is characterised by a high degree of autonomy and self-regulation on the basis that sport is much more than a commercial proposition. Indeed, the Revised European Sports Charter sets out that sport should enjoy autonomous decision-making processes and choose its leaders democratically, with governments and sports organisations recognising the need for mutual respect. In this context, if sport is truly to serve society, then autonomy should be underpinned by a strong social licence and clear systems of accountability. Those in leadership positions will need to continue to demonstrate a proactive willingness to participate in meaningful stakeholder engagement with those impacted by their decisions and to strengthen their individual and collective commitments towards the prevention and mitigation of harm. This includes sports bodies making daily efforts to gain and maintain the trust of athletes, local communities and all others they seek to represent and serve through their activities.

Tackling systemic issues including discrimination and sexual abuse now requires bold, empathetic and respectful leadership together with sincere levels of humility, transparency and openness within sports governance in order to create cultures that are truly fair, accessible, inclusive, and enabling. This means acknowledging, managing and mitigating conflicts of interest. It also means transforming structures and systems to ensure greater diversity and representation within governance and management frameworks, including, in searches for talent to run sports bodies, as well as the adoption of robust codes of conduct that can be relied upon. Good governance also must include independent and transparent investigations and effective remedy processes when things go wrong.

The year ahead will see continued efforts by a range of actors to develop practical tools, guidance and materials to support sports leaders in the work they must do to adopt human rights commitments, undertake due diligence, and implement robust policy, evaluation and measurement frameworks. For those willing to step up, the roadmaps and support increasingly exist to make a positive difference and strengthen the entire sports ecosystem.

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Gender fairness and inclusion

Conversations on fairness and inclusion will increasingly include human rights-based approaches

The rights of transgender athletes and athletes with variations in sex characteristics will continue to be a trending sport and human rights topic in 2022. The conversation is set to move from a focus on the right to participate in competitive sport, towards how inclusion can be managed in ways that respect human rights and ensure safe and fair competition for all. Although it has been argued by some sport entities that fairness and inclusion are two irreconcilable aims under our current sport models, the challenge this year will be to move beyond these opposing views and seek innovative solutions that are, first and foremost, based on respecting the human rights of all athletes participating or competing.

The recently released IOC Framework on Fairness, Inclusion, and non-Discrimination on the basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations provides initial guidance in that direction, which will evolve. From March 2022 onwards, International Federations (IFs) will be responsible for defining how this framework will work in practice applied to specific sports, disciplines, and events.

The IOC has committed to providing educational webinars and workshops, and more specific guidance for those who request it, in order to support IFs in reassessing and redesigning their policies and eligibility criteria in alignment with the framework’s principles. Awareness raising and capacity building for national federations, coaches, and members of athletes’ own teams will be key in avoiding misinterpretations and inappropriate use of the rules at the local level. The absence of such steps have caused harm to athletes and must not be repeated. Sports governance at all levels will need to ensure that human rights due diligence processes are undertaken and if unexpected harms do occurr, accessible and effective remedy is provided.

2022 will also likely see a significant increase in research conducted in this emerging area, as one of the key recommendations of the IOC framework is that diverse gender identities and variations in sex characteristics should not be assumed as an unquestionable sign of disproportionate advantage nor imply unavoidable risk to other athletes. Rather, any eligibility rules should be based on ethical, credible, and peer-reviewed research. Keeping human rights approaches at the centre of these developments will be critical in ensuring positive outcomes for all involved.

Overcoming institutional exclusion

Efforts to tackle institutional racism, social injustice and legacies of colonialism in sport will continue to garner global attention

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Racism, social injustice and legacies of colonialism in sport are not new, but public demands to take more effective action to address them are set to take on new urgency in 2022 and beyond.

During 2021, a number of events across every continent highlighted the prevalence and harm of racism and discrimination in sport, both on and off the field of play. Examples included relentless racial abuse targeting athletes at various competitions and online; investigations into institutional racism and exclusionary practices in sport teams and clubs; ongoing criticism and debate of athlete advocacy and activism related to social justice issues and continuous scrutiny of sport bodies related to diversity of experiences and representation in leadership roles and structures.

Despite these and other concerning developments globally, there have also been pockets of recent progress that are noteworthy. Governments and public funding bodies are becoming more engaged in providing regulatory support and more explicit guidance in addressing racism and exclusion in sport. Some sport bodies and major event organisers have made formal commitments to enable greater acknowledgement of and representation from people from historically marginalised groups, for example indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and women and girls. Broad debates and discussions have developed across a number of sports on universal, accessible and inclusive organisational design and representation in leadership, including from the global south and small, and island, states. There has also been growth in new commercial deals that will provide enhanced global coverage of events from traditionally underrepresented regions.

In reality, such progress is still sporadic and limited, and much more needs to be done. The challenges of lack of representation and equal access are endemic for a variety of social reasons, cultural norms, patriarchal constructs and the legacies of historical injustices and colonialism. In 2022, the sports ecosystem will see renewed calls and campaigns to bolster existing initiatives to transparently address these issues and for new strategies that take a zero tolerance approach to racism and social injustice. If sport and its corporate and broadcast partners can fulfil their responsibilities, be proactive about their duty of care, and be more inclusive, accessible and welcoming, then the foundations can be laid for transformational leadership with real impact for people and communities.

Mental Health and Health Inequality

Addressing ongoing health impacts of Covid-19 and fresh health issues will be a priority for the sport community

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Covid-19 continues to surge in many countries, and is of particular concern in areas with low vaccination rates. The effects of the pandemic on women’s sport, public access to sport and the mostly still unknown long-term implications of Covid-19 we raised in 2021 continue to be of concern. Going into 2022, mental health and global health inequalities join this watch list.

The pandemic has brought mental health issues to the fore. The Tokyo Olympics saw high profile athletes pull out of events citing mental health concerns. Since 2020 athlete unions have pushed for athletes, like other workers, to be protected under ILO standards, and for recognition of the importance of mental health. With many of the world’s largest sporting events convening this year, 2022 is likely to see more athletes speak up and lobby for their mental health, opening the door for workers, volunteers and others to do the same. Pressure will increase on sport federations, sponsors and others in sport to take seriously and address the mental health of athletes.

Global health inequalities drawn into sharp focus by the pandemic will also be a priority in 2022, including addressing their impacts on global sport events and athletes. The Africa Cup of Nations has been impacted by serious outbreaks of Covid-19 depleting teams’ starting line-ups. This led the hosting government of Cameroon to increase testing in a bid to encourage more fans to attend matches. Access to vaccines in the Global South will remain a challenge that needs to be met with urgency and investment this year.

For the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, whilst vaccination will not be mandatory for athletes, those not vaccinated will face a full 21 days in quarantine – significantly affecting their preparations for the event, and will disproportionately affect athletes from countries with low vaccination rates, many of them in the Global South . While athletes were prioritised for vaccination ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, it is unclear whether this will be true for the Beijing, or whether this is warranted given the urgency of prioritising at-risk individuals.

The Australian Open controversy over Novak Djokovic and his deportation from Australia raises questions over whether athletes should be offered exemptions to travel when much of the world continues to face quarantines and other constraints, and are a reminder of the ongoing challenge of coordinating rules around events with host government regulations. Vaccination requirements and exemptions for sporting events in 2022 highlight wider health inequalities in society and will likely to continue be scrutinised.


  • Image 1: Stadium 974 was built for the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar using recycled shipping containers (Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images).
  • Image 2: A Protect Our Players banner hangs in the stands before a match in the NWSL (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images).
  • Image 3: The transgender flag (top) and progress pride flag (bottom) fly at the San Francisco Cubs (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images).
  • Image 4: Lewis Hamilton was subjected to racial abuse across social media following his win at the 2021 British Grand Prix (Mark Thompson/Getty Images).
  • Image 5: Simone Biles pulled out of some of the gymnastics events at the Tokyo Olympic Games citing mental health issues (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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