Key Messages from SCF23

The 2023 Sporting Chance Forum (SCF23), hosted at the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva, coincided with the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). More than 650 speakers and delegates from across the sport ecosystem and around the world met on 5-6 December 2023 to explore innovative strategies and new forms of collective action to advance respect for human rights across the world of sport. As a contribution to the UN Human Rights 75 initiative, participants looked to prepare, engage and pledge their support to shape the coming decades of responsible sport grounded in universal human rights and labour rights principles. SCF23 was organised by CSHR and co-hosted by the Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Government of Switzerland with the support of Open Society Foundations.

SCF23 drew together representatives with varied backgrounds and roles from across the global sport ecosystem. With esteemed journalist Tracey Holmes as Master of Ceremonies, Mary Harvey, and Ambassador Anna Ifkovits Horner of the Swiss Government welcomed delegates to the UN. Opening speakers Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, ILO Assistant Director General Manuela Tomei, Canada’s Minister of Sport Carla Qualtrough, and Epsy Campbell Barr, Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent all set the scene for the event. Over the two days, participants also heard interventions from Theodore Theodoridis of UEFA, Tatiana Valovaya of the UN Office at Geneva, Daphne Panayotatos of Open Society Foundations, and footballer Vinicius Jr, culminating in Payoshni Mitra introducing South African athlete Caster Semenya in conversation with honorary chair of SCF23, Mary Robinson.

The SCF23 agenda addressed a diverse range of issues across six sessions, with the expertise and insights of panelists from all parts of the sport and human rights ecosystem. The sessions included exploring how to go beyond commitments towards transformational leadership and culture change, with the help of David Rodin, Mayi Cruz Blanco, Ruben Escalante Hasbun, Matthew Graham, and Michelle Moore; addressing the social and governance risks, regulations & responsibilities shaping the future of sport led by Anita Ramasastry, Tihana Bule, Rae Lindsay and Magali Martowicz;  tackling systemic challenges in sport through the voices of those with lived experience, first in relation to racial inequality and legacies of colonialism on questions of truth, justice, repair & reconciliation with David Grevemberg, Stan Grant, Marjorie Guillaume, Keith Joseph and Azeem Rafiq; second, on questions embracing intersectionality and solidarity in policies and practices in women’s sport with Lombe Mwambwa, Gabriela Garton, Khalida Popal, and Natalie Washington, and third, by focussing on young journalists in communities and at sporting events with Sabrina Razack, Shireen Ahmed, Nénucha Ciss, Monifa Monderoy and Miriam Walker-Khan; through to considering how to respond to and remedy cases of abuse in sport by conducting safe, effective and appropriate investigations with the expertise of Kat Craig, Miles Benjamin, Kirsty Burrows and Joanna Maranhao. SCF23 culminated with insights on how to bring sport and human rights to life at the host city level with Minal Davis, Danne Diamond, Matt Mullen and Lee Strieb. With thanks to all the speakers, this summary report distills and identifies consistent and emerging themes from participants across SCF23.


When sport leads by example, it has the potential to champion social and environmental transformation, break down barriers and unite diverse peoples in confronting complex challenges. Speakers throughout SCF23 reinforced the reality that for too long sport has not delivered for everyone, with hierarchical and patriarchal structures helping perpetuate power imbalances in modern-day sport, and preserving European and North American centrism. Participants explored how to rekindle the hope of realising human rights in sport and the importance of rebuilding trust, listening and collaboration. A number of broad themes and priorities for action were identified that should inform the work of all stakeholders in the time ahead.

Addressing the trust deficit in sport

The institutions of sport and its leaders must do more to earn the trust of all stakeholders. Multiple sessions highlighted how hierarchies thrive on control and conflict, and sport - by conscious or unconscious design - has sometimes pitted those who are most vulnerable against each other, in particular women and LGBTQI+ people, people of colour, boys and girls, persons with visible and invisible disabilities, and others with intersecting and overlapping identities. Too often, those celebrated in sport have been let down. Discrimination, harm or abuse in sport, whether on the basis of race, gender, or any other factor, affects individuals and reverberates through entire groups and communities. From athletes and volunteers, to workers, fans and the communities that bring sport and its events to life, and to the journalists who tell their stories, examples from across sport point to how people have been denied the recognition and rewards due to them, and excluded from decisions that affect them. To renew sport’s social license, panelists called on institutions throughout the sport ecosystem to shed out-dated structures and strengthen accountability in cases of abusive and harmful behaviour. The work requires more inclusive and participatory processes, practices and structures.

Sharing authority, ensuring accountability

A common thread throughout SCF23 was a call on sport institutions to cede some power to the people that bring sport to life to better enable sport to fully realise its potential for good. To reference a message cited at the conference - in the words of Thomas Bach, President of the IOC, it is a question of “change or be changed”.

Too often, the rhetoric and reality of a level playing field in sport do not match. From John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman, to Caster Semenya, Jenny Hermoso and Azeem Rafiq, athletes who have dared to voice their truths, to speak of discrimination, abuse, and the pressures to conform to prevailing heritage, gender and behavioural norms, or defend themselves and their bodily autonomy, have often paid a price. In such cases, athletes may risk their funding and sponsorship, or being vilified, dehumanised or driven out of sports they have loved since childhood. Whistleblowers in cases of sexual abuse and bullying risk being retraumatised by the very investigations and legal processes meant to afford them remedy. Many only come to know justice through the solidarity of players associations or by sacrificing athletic careers and fighting for what is right when they have nothing more to lose. The plight of affected persons must be taken seriously, and all should stand with the people who have been harmed. It was evident throughout SCF23 that more and more stakeholders across the ecosystem are looking for change.

Athletes are workers, and when athletes speak out they are also human rights defenders who require collective support and solidarity. They are free and equal in dignity and rights, but their dignity comes first. This is true too for all people affected by sport. Fans - like those who lost their lives or who faced a near miss in the soccer stadium crushes of 2022 - also need protection and to be treated with respect, as do sports reporters who operate in high-risk environments and themselves risk discrimination, harassment and arbitrary arrests. Workers - many of whom on stadium construction sites and in sport’s supply chains have endured unsafe working conditions and been exploited - should also expect better. All deserve protection and to enjoy the right to organise and bargain collectively, have their voices heard, benefit from gender pay equity, equitable conditions of work and maternity rights, and as boys and girls be protected from abuse or trafficking through athletic training schemes. Everyone in and around sport expects decent work and to feel physically and psychologically safe, free from violence, bullying and harassment.

Fostering leadership and culture change

Many SCF23 speakers stressed that sport today is not adequately prioritizing human rights and diversity, with power too often continuing to protect those already in authority. A new generation of leaders is seeking changes in sport culture to penetrate glass ceilings and more actively involve historically marginalized groups who have long been excluded from decision-making. Participants acknowledged that sport is still off the pace when it comes to succession planning, advances in technology, and purpose-led marketing and partnerships. Issues such as pay inequity, lack of free expression, systemic discrimination, sexual abuse and harms to athlete mental and physical health are taking too long to solve. Entire generations of athletes, particularly girls, are suffering or not taking up sport as a result of these systemic challenges. Within the bastions of sport in Europe, North America and beyond, senior management of global organisations rarely represents the diversity of its membership or is tokenistic at best, with men, often older white men, continuing to hold power at the expense of black, brown and indigenous people, young people, religious minorities, women or other marginalised groups. Attendees heard that those in leadership positions too often appear resistant to change, or simply afraid or uncertain of where to begin.

Leadership for the twenty-first century requires responsibility, capability and motivation. A new type and generation of leaders is knocking at the door. Leading sports body representatives acknowledged that with power comes responsibility, admitted where things had gone wrong, and discussed practical actions being taken to ensure mistakes are not repeated. Leaders may have to unlearn prejudices, acknowledge when they don’t have the answers themselves, and - as sports bodies are increasingly doing - ask for help from human rights experts, and work hand in hand with affected people like supporters groups, local communities, trade unions, and survivors of abuse. This provides the opportunity for fresh solutions and new narratives.

SCF23 heard calls for sport to embrace a blend of the “hardware” of robust governance structures and “software” of culture change. This goes beyond policies. Sport can learn from the Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) agenda, by converting strong leadership into sustainable organisational practices fit for the future. On the “social” or human rights side, this means following the roadmap set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and compatible instruments like the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Rooted in international human rights principles, these standards assign human rights responsibilities to economic actors - from universities to sports bodies, and sponsors and broadcast corporations - independent of government, and are increasingly being mainstreamed across business, integrated into management standards and hardened into law, such as the forthcoming - and potentially far-reaching - EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CS3D). This goes beyond law and external pressure, with businesses already on the journey recognising the cost of not addressing adverse impacts on people in a comprehensive way. As one delegate put it, if you are not looking at risks to people, you are not addressing risk in a holistic way. A key takeaway was that prevention is always the best form of remedy and reputation management.

The SCF23 noted how leading sports bodies, including the IOC, FIFA and UEFA have made strong commitments and integrated human rights norms into their event hosting requirements and beyond. The journey starts with those at the top taking responsibility and forging new models of leadership and commitment, cemented through people-centric organisational and cultural change and robust due diligence. There are no gatekeepers to doing this work and no reasons not to get started. Human rights due diligence demands among other things, upskilling and resourcing, and looking ahead to understand the potential impacts on people of activities across sport, in supply chains and at tournaments, talking to people who have been harmed and doing something so harms are prevented, mitigated or put right, including by using contractual and other leverage with partners. There is a role for sports journalists, experts and those with lived experience, in investigations and reporting on performance, with remedy and reparative processes that put people first. It was reiterated that it is impossible to be 100% risk free or guarantee that survivors won’t be retraumatised by investigations, but human rights due diligence can be practical and operational. To break down difficult-sounding tasks requires identifying who is best placed to support, including experts and those with lived-experience of the issues. If abuse thrives on secrecy, deception and isolation, the antidote is communication, transparency, clarity and collaboration.

Rebuilding trust starts with listening. Speakers made clear those with grievances are not the problem but can become partners in finding better solutions, noting that inherited structures and abusive behaviours had gone unchallenged. Through the safe and direct involvement and insight of those with lived experience of harm, sports bodies can build renewed legitimacy. From risk assessments, to understanding which risks are salient and need to be prioritised, through to trauma-informed investigations and remedy processes, sports institutions and leaders need to hear directly from the voices of those who have endured historical injustices and faced gender inequities, being ever mindful of how different aspects of a person’s identity intersect, overlap, and implicate specific risks, needs, and experiences for them. Delegates were reminded - if you are in the room, you need to look around and see who’s missing, ask experts for advice, seek out non-obvious voices, in particular those of victims and survivors, and enlist athletes and others who may be willing messengers. The work is not always easy, often involving getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Creating space for dialogue and shared learning

The work ahead to strengthen respect for human rights in sport requires sincerity, ongoing education, consciousness raising and opportunities for constructive dialogue with mentors. Privately, many sports leaders admit to a basic lack of training on leadership development, talent scouting and aspects of the human element of organisational change, through to how to conduct investigations with victims and survivors. Help is at hand. Frameworks and tools already exist, from key human rights norms to a new UN Human Rights Council Resolution that looks to forge a world of sport free from racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, to sector-led initiatives like the IOC’s Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex variations. Practical tools designed for sport such as CSHR’s forthcoming Roadmap to Remedy toolkit will also provide guidance in specific challenging areas. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was among those to acknowledge CSHR’s role as a distinct institutional home for international efforts to bring awareness, education and action to the intersection between sport and rights. From CSHR, its Advisory Council and Engaged Organisations, to friends across the ecosystem, including from academia, civil society, the private sector partners, government and intergovernmental institutions, many are ready to collaborate further.

Amplification of people’s stories is vital for social advancement, but who tells the story is as important as the story itself. Young journalists, including women and those of marginalised racial, religious and diverse identities, themselves often have to battle to tell stories relating to sport from the point of view of the communities they represent. While many broadcasters are welcoming more diverse perspectives and facilitating a broader range of sports coverage, there is still work to do. The abuse of Jenny Hermoso after the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 final rightly captured global headlines and was condemned, yet racialised women from Argentina to Zambia with analogous situations did not receive similar attention. Questions need to be asked, for example, why is there so much vitriol on the question of transgender rights in sport, or against Muslim women players in France who wear the hijab when other demonstrations of faith are accepted? Is it at least in part because audiences so rarely hear from those with lived experience or reporters from these groups?

The road to truth starts with a conversation. Sport is a space for new narratives, and building towards FIFA World Cup 2026 in Canada, Mexico and USA, representatives from host cities, FIFA and coalitions of civil society, unions and athlete voices discussed how to walk the talk on human rights due diligence and bring sport and human rights to life at the host city level. For them, stakeholder engagement is the floor not the ceiling. It involves incorporating expertise from public bodies, event organisers, human and labour rights experts and activists, and prioritising local knowledge and perspectives. Insight from a diverse mix of affected people is proving to be essential, and recalling that a person with one set of lived experiences cannot be expected to speak for all. In parallel, strong minimum standards are imperative, from questions of discrimination - to ensure equal treatment of diverse and intersectional communities, through to guarantees on the right to organise - so international norms prevail for global events even where inconsistencies arise at the national or local level.

Regular communication, ongoing dialogue, adaptability and transparency,  can help ensure affected individuals are treated as players not spectators. Participants heard how host cities, civil society groups, trade unions, national and local human rights commissions, child rights advocates and many more, have been instrumental in shaping the forthcoming FIFA World Cup 2026 Host City Human Rights Framework. This will steer cities as they develop their locally tailored human rights actions plans and provide  specifics on inclusion, safeguarding, worker rights and access to remedy, pinpointing these and other salient human rights risk areas for prioritisation, including the rights of unsheltered populations, responsible policing and protection for human rights defenders and journalists. By facilitating agency and ceding some level of power and control to be more inclusive, this experience shows how it is possible  to overcome initial scepticism, rebuild trust, prevent harms arising or recurring, and be ready to put things right if needed. As sports bodies and their commercial partners who have already taken these steps can affirm, the work is powerful and can help organisations understand the realities people face across their activities, plug gaps and ultimately make better decisions. A key message to all participants was that once the truth of the past is acknowledged, alongside ongoing efforts to listen and rebuild trust, then collectively a better future for sport is within reach.

Just as human rights and democracy do not maintain themselves but have to be defended vigilantly from authoritarianism, populism and impunity, the power of sport is only as good as the people who wield it. Each of us has a role to play. SCF23 delegates were urged to identify their respective roles in the sport ecosystem, take personal and institutional responsibility, go on journeys of self-education and fight for a future of sport that is welcoming and respectful of all involved. The progressive realisation of human rights throughout sport is a shared responsibility that requires collaboration between all actors, a sentiment that inspired the SCF23 hashtag: #TeamHumanRights. Through cooperation, dialogue and collective action between governments, sports organisations, corporations, civil society and trade unions, athletes, fan groups,  journalists, foundations and others we can reclaim, as recalled in a special video produced for the event, Nelson Mandela’s uniting vision of the transformative power of sport.

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