With Olympics approaching, it’s time to recognize children as a protected class in sport

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(Shutterstock/matimix)

Peter Donnelly
Professor Emeritus of Sociology of Sport, University of Toronto
Marcus Mazzucco

Adjunct Lecturer in Sports Law, University of Toronto


Imagine this scenario: a 15-year-old child is caught consuming cannabis in public and is charged with an offence. If the child is found guilty, the court has discretion to order an absolute discharge to avoid convicting the child, or to convict the child but excuse the payment of a fine under certain conditions. There would be a publication ban to protect the identity of the child.

But what if the child is an athlete caught consuming cannabis for social purposes at a sport competition, in violation of anti-doping rules?

If proven, the athlete would be automatically disqualified from the competition and they would be presumptively banned from sport for two years. There would be no publication ban to protect the child athlete’s identity from media scrutiny.

These scenarios illustrate the lack of protection for child athletes in sport, compared to other aspects of society. Similar examples contrasting children’s treatment in and outside of sport can be found in investigations of maltreatment and age limits for risky activities that are intended to prevent mental and physical harms.

With the Paris Olympics approaching, questions will again be raised about child athletes competing at major international competitions. This presents an opportunity for those in amateur and professional sports to work toward protecting the safety and well-being of child athletes.

Sport governance

Every member state of the United Nations, except the United States, has pledged to uphold the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

These states have laws that recognize children as a protected class by imposing obligations on various institutions — such as health, education, social welfare and justice — to ensure the safety and well-being of children.

Sport organizations are expected to carry out the same legal duty of care for children. But, unlike other institutions, sport organizations are not held legally accountable for their failure to do so — either due to a lack of enforcement of laws of general application or the absence of specific laws regulating sport. Sport organizations are largely self-governing, autonomous and able to operate with minimal state intervention.

(Shutterstock/Suzanne Tucker)

Originally, sport organizations were recognized as non-profit organizations, run by adults for adults, to govern sports and organize competitions for amateur athletes. They were assumed to govern in the best interests of their members and undertake their own disciplinary procedures.

These clubs and organizations were encouraged to develop “as bodies fully independent of the public authorities” during the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. The assumptions still exist, despite enormous changes that have occurred in sport since the Second World War.

Changing state of sport

There are a number of changes that have occurred within sport over the past 70 years or so. The first is that children are now the vast majority of participants in organized sports in most countries.

Second, due to the overt politicization of sport during and since the Cold War, governments in most countries are now, directly or indirectly, involved in the funding and governance of sport. Some of these countries spend large sums of money on achieving international success in sport. Child athletes are caught up in this global sporting arms race.

Lastly, the symbiotic growth of the commercialization of sport and widespread media coverage of sport since the 1960s has produced a sports industrial complex now estimated to be worth over US$500 billion a year.

Despite these massive changes in world sport, the governing bodies of sport organizations (that supposedly serve and are served by the public interest) have steadfastly maintained their autonomy. The changes have not been handled responsibly by many sport organizations.

Sport is failing children

For over 30 years, there has been extensive reporting on scandals, corrupt and illegal practices, human rights violations, failures of governance and athlete maltreatment in sport.

Children have not been protected from the failures of sport organizations. For the most part, the rules and disciplinary procedures of sports are not modified in the best interests of children.

Enshrining and enforcing the status of a “protected class” for children engaged in athletic work would be a major step toward achieving children’s rights in sport.

(Shutterstock/Air Images)

The International Labour Organization’s statement on “decent work in sport” recognizes child athletic workers and provides a road map for making children a protected class in sport. It outlines the need for the following:

    1. Special protection from abuse, injuries and illnesses resulting from sport.
    2. Laws and regulations to protect child athletes from exploitation and ensure access to education.
    3. Policies, programs and training aligned with the best interests of the child and international child protection standards.

However, none of this is possible with the current structure of sport organizations. Governance failures within sports organizations have led to situations where there is far more focus on achieving success and protecting reputations than on governing in a transparent, accountable and democratic manner.

Protecting children in sport

Glimpses of a protected class for children in sport are emerging. There are efforts to have complaints of maltreatment managed by authorities independent from sport organizations, for example, in Canada, the United States, Germany and Australia.

There have also been moves to raise the minimum age limits in open competition categories and to adopt anti-doping rules that treat child athletes less harshly than adult athletes.

While these examples are few in number, narrow in scope, and have their own flaws to contend with, they signal a possible shift toward advancing children’s rights in sport.

The troubles experienced by children in sport do not exist in isolation. They are systemic. And the sooner children are removed from the control of sport organizations and able to receive the same protections as children in other institutions, the more likely sport is to change overall.

There will eventually be a generation of adult athletes who have not been intimidated, exploited or abused by those in authority in sport, and who have been protected from exploitation by adults.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children, pointed out during a Human Rights Council session in 2019:

The principles of autonomy and specificity, which are at the heart of sports institutions, should never be used as an excuse to renege on the human rights responsibilities of these organizations.The Conversation


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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