Children’s rights are still widely ignored in sport

Photo: Ryan Scott/Flickr

Photo: Ryan Scott/Flickr


By Mathias Teglbjærg
While the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, children’s rights still need to be addressed, experts say.

The growing revenues and the search for fame and fortune in sport have in many aspects had a negative impact on young athletes and their human rights. Issues like abuse, neglect, violence and exploitation of children are far from rare in sport.

Paulo David of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that 10 per cent of all children active in sport have their human rights violated and a further 20 percent of children in sport are for various reasons vulnerable and potential victims of human rights violations. 

These statistics and concerns are in conflict with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which states that “childhood is entitled to special care and assistance”.

The ratification of the CRC took place in New York on 20  November 1989, and the following year, the Convention went into force. Today, all countries, with the exception of the USA, Somalia and South Sudan have ratified and/or acceded the CRC and are thus obligated to respect and ensure the rights of every child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind.

Despite the fact that sport produces billion dollar revenues each year worldwide, the word ‘sport’ is not mentioned in any of the 54 articles of the CRC.

Nonetheless the Convention still carries importance, since many of the articles apply directly to sport such as article 31, which declares that “States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts”.

Little impact on sport
However, according to Paulo David, the autonomy of sport has largely ensured that compliance of human rights only happens if sports authorities and organisations fully respect international human rights standards in sport. And according to Celia Brackenridge, OBE, Professor Emerita at Brunel University, UK, the Convention in itself has not done anything, although it has created awareness.

Brackenridge explains that it was not until recently that the IOC and UNICEF started having joint conversations on the protection of children in sport in areas such as sexual abuse and doping. The two major organisations already began an official partnership  in 1993, but critics suggest that this professed cooperation did not bring about any significant changes the first many years.

Paulo David draws a parallel to the discussions on sustainability and environment in sport pointing to the fact that throughout most of the twentieth century, national and organising Olympic committees did not grant the environment much effort.

“In the 1980s and 90s, when green profiled political parties emerged in many countries and when environmental issues became less marginalised in society and more mainstream, the IOC over time opted to change their policy.”

He hopes that children’s rights and human rights in general will experience a similar development, but so far, he argues that only a few countries have made actual progress, and in reality most countries run a slow and inadequate development. 

Future challenges
It is no easy task to ensure compliance of children’s rights in sport. One of the growing challenges in sport is the many actors who seem to be motivated solely by financial aims, which often  precede children’s rights. Trafficking of children in sport such as Pakistani boys sold to Arab countries to be jockeys in camel races or young African or South American footballers approached by real or fake agents are known examples of how profit-oriented kingpins exploit children in sport.

Another challenge is the lack of normative clarity. A UNICEF review from 2010 maintains that “no standardized scales exist for measuring violence against children in sport”, which only makes it more difficult for sports organisations to agree on the direction to follow. As a solution, Celia Brackenridge suggests the use of health economics, which have formerly been used to measure the health effects of domestic violence vis-à-vis a society’s overall costs of domestic violence. 

A third challenge is the volume of research on children’s rights in sport, an area, which to this day remains largely under-researched.

“One topic - sexual abuse of children and young athletes – does get some attention, but analysts and researchers very rarely examine other areas such as excessive, early training, systematic insufficient rest, physical and psychological violence, use of doping, access to education or enforced food diets,” UN’s Paulo David explains.

Further, a medical research perspective dominates human rights in sport altogether, where the use of performance enhancing drugs or health threats are the main centre of focus.

The fourth challenge is the difficulty in giving children a voice, an important task in sport. Brackenridge explains that when exploring children’s role in sport, investigators often find it problematic to obtain genuine and true answers from children due to a fear of physical or psychological consequences from parents or trainers. Therefore, it is of high importance to make sure that the anonymity of children is never violated when conducting surveys.

Fifth, there is the issue of safeguarding. Some of the child protection systems set up are, mainly in western countries, criticised for being overprotective . Particularly in the UK this has been the case with initiatives such as the broader ‘Children and Young People (Scotland) Act’ and, in sport, the ‘Children First’ and ‘Child Protection in Sport Unit’.

One critical voice is Frank Furedi, who advocates less control. He states that the “transformation of child protection into an ideology has the perverse consequence of undermining the security of the very people it seeks to protect” and that “it is through experiences gained from engaging with the world that children gain the resources to manage risks and develop strategies for dealing with threats to their personhood”.

To this, Brackenridge replies, “if protection of children is done properly, it should be like a referee in a football match whom you should not notice – he or she is just there. The same should go for children’s rights”.

Last but not least, the fact that the implementation of children’s rights in sports is often motivated by political spin remains an important challenge.

Brackenridge calls this practise “an ethical fig leaf”. According to her, it is always popular to proclaim that children in sport need protection. However, to carry it out demands more than fancy political spin. Unfortunately, it happens regularly that politics and financial aspects influence leaders in sport to a degree that clouds their judgement. This of course leads back to the first mentioned challenge: Financial ambitions often do, but never should precede children’s fundamental rights.

10 principles behind child-protection
To fight the above-mentioned challenges Paulo David has listed ten principles, which he recommends a child-centred sport system should contain:

1. Equity, non-discrimination, fairness

2. Best interests of the child – children first

3. Evolving capacities of the child

4. Rights-holders; exercise of rights

5. Consultation; the child’s opinion, informed participation

6. Appropriate direction and guidance

7. Mutual respect, support and responsibility

8. Highest attainable standard of health

9. Transparency, accountability, monitoring

10. Excellence

These ten points encompass what he suggests should be minimum standards and along with the Convention on the Rights of the Child they could work as a recurring reminder to make sure that protection and the implementation of children’s rights in sport are encouraged throughout the globe.

“So far these 10 principles for a child-centred sport system have not yet globally been turned into action. Nevertheless, there are some western countries where  the principle of informed participation has certainly advanced, but internationally and more generally speaking there is still little recognition of these principles,”  David says, expressing  hope that the IOC, under the  leadership of Thomas Bach, will focus more on human rights.

“The IOC is currently attempting to include respect for human rights in its contractual agreement with future host countries of the Olympic Games. This will be a significant leap forward,” David continues.

For Celia Brackenridge the securing of better of conditions for children in sport starts with giving children a voice.

“Children are often treated as athletes first and children second – it should be vice versa.”


Mathias Teglbjærg is a Danish historian who took part in a 2014 summer school on “Sport and International Human Rights Law”, organised by The International Institute of Human Rights”. His trip was supported by the Council of Europe and Play the Game.


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