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Contesting the autonomy of sport to realize the right to safe sport: a Canadian case study


The realization of human rights in sports traditionally placed its trust in voluntary adherence by and the protection of national and international sports bodies. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently reported that there is no existing mechanism to assure compliance by the International Olympic Committee and the International [Sport] Federations. While many nation states have established human rights enforcement mechanisms, sports bodies still claim ‘the autonomy of sports.’ Each time the protection of human rights is sought to eliminate a violation, it touches off protracted debate in both governments and sports about how to address it. This paper examines the long campaign to establish an independent, government-mandated mechanism to eradicate gender-based violence (GBV) and other forms of maltreatment in Canadian sports. For almost 30 years, athletes and researchers have urged governments to create such an independent mechanism, while the major sports bodies claim the autonomous ‘right’ to regulate themselves. Until very recently, the government agency, Sport Canada, has acquiesced with their claims to self-regulation. The debate intensified recently in response to a series of high-profile abuse cases, research showing that ‘self-regulation’ has not worked, and a new wave of athlete activism. While Sport Canada has recently made a new “independent” approach mandatory for federally funded sports bodies, the exact structures remain to be determined.

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  1. Bruyninckx 2012, p. 107.

  2. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2020.

  3. IAAF 2019.

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  17. This failure to monitor requirements was evident for other Sport Canada policies at the time, such as gender equity, use of both official languages, disability inclusion and indigenous inclusion. It is not clear whether such a failure was a result of lack of capacity and resources at Sport Canada, or an unwillingness to challenge the autonomy of sport in organizations that saw their prime directive as achieving international success in sport.

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  22. Donnelly and Kerr (2018); the position paper outlines what an independent mechanism should include, and a follow-up report (Kerr et al. 2019) defined the conditions for independence. Early reports suggest that the announced mechanism (see Note 26) follows many of the suggestions made.

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  24. The threat of funding withdrawal is a form of collective punishment, and not an ideal sanction since it punishes both the guilty and the innocent.

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  30. Awaritefe 2021; Francis Awaritefe, who is a Vice-president of FIFPro and holds a law degree, points out that: "Governments, through varying levels of [misconceived] deference, politically and legally to Sports Governing Bodies, a deference to the notion of the ‘specificity’ and ‘autonomy’ of sport, the view that regulation of sport is special, and that the needs of sport should prevail over human rights and the rule of law—have over decades created fertile ground for corruption, abuse, discrimination, and ultimately widespread governance failures in [global] sport.

  31. Chappelet 2016, p. 19.

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Correspondence to Peter Donnelly.

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Donnelly, P., Kerr, G. & Kidd, B. Contesting the autonomy of sport to realize the right to safe sport: a Canadian case study. Int Sports Law J (2022).

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  • Autonomy
  • Athlete abuse
  • Maltreatment
  • Safe sport
  • Athletes’ rights