Tokyo Olympics puts spotlight on sport and human rights

A demonstrator protests against Tokyo hosting the Olympic Games. (EPA/ Kimimasa)

The Olympic Games finally kicked off in Tokyo last week after months of heated debate over whether the host country Japan would go ahead with the event in the face of rising Covid-19 cases or postpone for yet another year.

Although much of the criticism surrounding the games has been focused on the decision to hold them in the first place, many rights organisations have also used the opportunity to draw attention to human rights issues in the country, including discrimination against LGBT athletes and a history of violence against children in the sporting world.

The discourse surrounding this year’s Games is part of a growing trend in recent years which has seen mega-sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup bring international scrutiny to the host country’s rights records. And sports’ governing bodies are only just starting to catch up.

Human rights in Japan. Still dubbed the “2020” Olympics despite the year-long delay, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) has outlined that the games will be defined by three aims centred on striving for one's personal best, embracing diversity, and creating a legacy worth passing on to future generations. But human rights groups have warned that the Games already failed to achieve the latter two of its main ambitions before the competition even began.

Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have highlighted Japan’s history of discrimination against members of the LGBT community in the country, which on April voted against a national law that would legally protect LGBT individuals from discrimination despite public support for the move.

A recent study ranked Japan second to last out of all OECD member states for LGBT inclusiveness, and the country does not have a single openly LGBT athlete competing. A Human Rights Watch report released this year also highlighted concerns related to the forced sterilisation of people who wish to undergo gender reassignment procedures. The same report also drew attention to concerns over the long history of physical and sexual abuse within Japan’s sports system, particularly of child athletes.

Criticism starts at the top. Arguably the most high profile sporting event in existence, the Olympics itself has long faced intense criticism for its approach to human rights, not just host countries. The Lausanne-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) in particular is regularly denounced for its lack of accountability, as an autonomous governing body which effectively answers to nobody but itself.

Frequently embroiled in scandals related to bribery and corruption, the main criticism levelled at the body this year centers on what athletes and rights groups alike see as a suppression of athletes’ right to protest.

Earlier this month, the IOC released new guidelines for rule 50 in the Olympic Charter, which states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Although the changes were welcomed by many as they allowed athletes to protest to some extent, the rules have faced far more criticism than praise for the limitations they place on when and where Olympians can “express their views”, which critics argue effectively deprives them of their right to freedom of speech under the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Athletes are prohibited from any form of protest – including taking the knee or raising a fist in support of Black Lives Matter – on the medal stand, during the opening and closing ceremonies, in the Olympic Village and on the field of play during competition. The new guidelines allow competitors to express their views on the “field of play” before the start of competition providing their act is not “disruptive” and doesn’t target “specific individuals, countries, organisations or their dignity”. Despite the threat of sanctions, many athletes have publicly declared their intention to protest regardless, and last week saw the Swedish, US and British women’s football teams all take a knee on the pitch.

However, the fact that the IOC altered its guidelines at all is hailed as progress by some, including the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights, established in 2018 to work with all stakeholders including the IOC to bridge the gap between the world of sport and human rights.

The Centre’s work includes working with host countries of mega-sporting events such as the Olympics on human rights issues. Alison Biscoe, programmes and partnerships manager, explained that the Centre has been working with the Tokyo organisers for a number of years on issues such as sustainability in the supply chain and anti-discrimination training to make the games “as inclusive an experience as possible”.

In recent months their attention has mainly been on ensuring the games are held safely during the pandemic, prioritising the health of athletes and officials as well as workers, volunteers and locals.

Since its launch, the Centre has been involved in many of the most well known cases linked to sport and human rights, including the successful release of Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi from prison in Thailand in 2019. The centre has also been involved in the issues surrounding the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which has attracted international criticism surrounding abuse of workers’ rights, and has been involved in the country’s recent reform of labour laws.

A wider question. Many of the major sport federations have been mired in scandal in the past decade, from the evictions of communities ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil, to LGBT rights in Russia surrounding the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

Most recently, the IOC has faced major backlash over its decision to award the 2021 Winter Olympics to China, where rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang province have sparked outrage internationally, with many countries threatening to boycott the games.

Biscoe said that these high-profile cases, which have attracted widespread criticism from rights groups and governments alike, have forced sporting bodies to start to reconsider the way they function. “Regardless of the issue, all sports bodies to some extent find themselves at a point of reckoning and are questioning whether the 'business as usual’ approach is working,” she said.

The IOC has added human rights provisions into their bidding requirements for all events starting with Paris 2024. The selection of Milan for the 2026 Winter Olympics, Los Angeles for the 2028 Olympics, and, just last week, Brisbane for the 2032 Olympics suggests that, in the future, countries with ‘better’ human rights records are more likely to be awarded the games rather than countries where abuses are well documented such as Russia and China. In 2020, the IOC also published a set of recommendations for how they would integrate human rights into their work, as another example of the body seeming keen to avoid the intense criticism of the past.

Other sporting bodies such as FIFA have begun to bring human rights onto their agenda, although this has not stopped criticism of the body over rights surrounding the upcoming World Cup. “While progress has been slow, there is no question that there is a growing acceptance of human rights norms in sport,” said Biscoe. “The first international federation to adopt a human rights policy was FIFA in 2017. People assume that these issues have been considered for a long time, but talking about human rights in such a strategic way in sport is actually incredibly new.”

However, while the world of sport is undoubtedly making progress in its accountability for human rights, there is still a long way to go. But Biscoe said the fact that the Centre exists to hold sporting federations to account is a major step in the right direction. “As one of the team members that was involved in the establishment of the organisation, I think the fact that it exists at all is quite a significant success,” she said.