Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Embedded in the just-launched "Convergence 2025" - the five-year strategic plan of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights (CSHR) - is a graphic which shows the whole sports ecosystem as if it were a giant arena.

Around the rim of the stadium are some of the biggest players - including Governments, sporting bodies, commercial partners, civil society and human rights bodies, integrity and disputes bodies.

Further down the stands are specific bodies within these sectors, such as the World Anti-Doping Agency, International Federations, media and broadcasting, Organising Committees.

Coaches, volunteers, technical officials and the general public are closer to the centre of things - which is occupied by a single category: athletes.

There is colour coding at work here, too. Governments, and, partially, event organisers and hosts, are in teal, indicating states and governmental bodies that have a duty to promote, respect and fulfil human rights.

Dark green indicates bodies with a responsibility to respect human rights, and then black or red - including all athletes - indicates people whose human rights must be respected and protected.

It is an arresting model to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between every element of our sporting world.

And it is one of the centrepieces of a carefully thought-out approach to better ordering and balancing the workings of world sport - with all its capacity for joy and integration and all its accompanying propensity for discord and corruption.

The CSHR was launched in June 2018 following an extended collaboration that had begun six years earlier between "international and intergovernmental organisations, Governments, sports governing bodies, athletes, unions, sponsors, broadcasters, and civil society groups" under the banner of the Institute for Human Rights and Business.

The CSHR remit was to work towards "a world of sport that fully respects human rights by sharing knowledge, building capacity, and strengthening the accountability of all actors through collective action".

It recently appointed a nine-person governing Board of Directors and became an independent non-profit association, based in Geneva.

A view of sport - all of sport - from within the Convergence 2025 strategic plan recently released by the Centre for Sport and Human Rights ©CSHR
A view of sport - all of sport - from within the Convergence 2025 strategic plan recently released by the Centre for Sport and Human Rights ©CSHR

The Centre is chaired by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and ex-United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It’s chief executive is Mary Harvey, who won winner’s medals as goalkeeper for the United States at the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

And as of April this year its chief innovation and partnerships officer has been David Grevemberg, who stepped down as chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) this year after six-and-a-half years in a role where he spearheaded efforts to integrate human rights principles and standards throughout the organisation.

In short, the CSHR is big, and serious, and about to get very influential.

Harvey, whose straight-talking is often interspersed with warm bursts of laughter during an online interview also involving Grevemberg, stresses: "We are independent, even though we came out of a multi-stakeholder initiative. Our Board is independent - we did a worldwide search for directors.

"Our founding members are the two entities that are the sword and shield of internationally recognised labour standards, namely The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

"So we are talking about the United Nations' human rights treaties, and the ILO standards, which use the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights.

"And we also have support from the Government of Switzerland, which makes sense, as the UN home for human rights is in Geneva, and Switzerland is home to many international sports federations.

"The Centre itself is a mixture of people who come from the business and human rights sectors - and from subject matter expertise areas, be it child rights or gender or what have you, and then you have David and I and some others who come from sport."

The new strategy will be presented and discussed at the Sporting Chance Forum, the CSHR's annual conference which runs this year, fully online, from October 4 to 7.

It describes how the CSHR will seek to address the current challenges in the field of sport and human rights through activities undertaken in cooperation with a diverse global network of individuals and institutions.

Mary Harvey has brought her sporting expertise to bear as chief executive of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights ©Getty Images
Mary Harvey has brought her sporting expertise to bear as chief executive of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights ©Getty Images

"Exercising your duty of care, in the first instance, is the foundation," Grevemberg says. "We can’t promote sustainability or prosperity if we haven’t exercised our duty of care of respecting and protecting people’s inalienable rights.

"So we do that, but it’s a balance proposition because there are also huge opportunities through sport to promote social developments and change, to promote awareness, to align to sustainable development initiatives and leave long-lasting legacies.

"We have the five strategic priorities, with five action groups for each one. It’s very much an evolutionary process, but it culminates in a call for action - together for better."

Among the CSHR's strategic priorities up to 2025 are encouraging innovative thinking on sport and human rights, strengthening systems and practices in sport to align with human rights responsibilities, addressing harmful practices and cultivating collective action.

The strategy document has been two years in the making and encompasses the highest theory with plentiful examples of the human rights challenges it seeks to remedy and redress.

The second part of the introduction contains 15 broad categories of current human rights issues within sport. They encompass rights for those working on sporting event construction sites, freedom from discrimination for athletes subject to homophobic or racist abuse, equal pay for women, freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

They encompass freedom of expression, such as acts of advocacy, activism or protest. They encompass athletes being involved in sports federation decision-making, athletes being protected by a duty of care with regard to physical injury and mental health issues. Abusive coaching practices and the issues of child rights and gender are also within the remit. Everything, in fact, is within the remit.

Grevemberg, who played the key part in putting together a similar strategy document for the CGF entitled Transformation 2022, points out: "Sport is involved and has been doing a lot of work on human rights. It probably didn’t know which rights it was associated to and in fact it didn’t really ever label it or call it human rights work.

"You see elements in integrity, elements in sustainable development, elements in safeguarding and health and safety. In actuality all of those are encompassed in this notion of what we are calling responsible sport - which is looking at sport through a human rights lens.

"Many human rights issues are already being proactively addressed through sport governance and integrity matters. All the work that’s going on in safeguarding, all the work that’s going on in governance reforms have a direct correlation to human rights."

So what is the benefit and purpose of addressing the whole sports ecosystem in terms of human rights?

Harvey picks up the ball at this point.

Former Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive David Grevemberg has played a key part in forming the CSHR's strategic plan as the organisation's chief innovation and partnerships officer ©Getty Images
Former Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive David Grevemberg has played a key part in forming the CSHR's strategic plan as the organisation's chief innovation and partnerships officer ©Getty Images

"A human rights-based approach is looking at everything through the lens of 'what are possible harms to people?'," she says. "And coming from sport, if you look at the Olympic Charter, if you look at the FIFA bylaws, if you look at what people talk about in terms of what sport provides in terms of human capital development - it can provide all these wonderful things.

"And it is part of the values of sport - ideas of respect and non-discrimination and all these things that I’ve had the privilege to live, as have many others.

"However, that is only possible in the absence in harm. If there’s no harm, everything is possible. But if there is harm, we have to address it. And so in many ways it is helping sport further realise its own contribution to mankind.

"It’s delivering on the promise of sport and ensuring that people are at the centre - be they fans, be they journalists, be they athletes or coaches - of what sport looks to achieve."

Explaining the idea of the arena graphic, Grevemberg adds: "Every institution has its seating bloc and has a seat. So there is the question of how do we enrol them? How do we get them tickets to take that seat?

"And once they are in, we are all responsible collectively for creating the atmosphere in this arena.

"If people are lighting flares or screaming racial abuse - that’s going to affect this atmosphere. It’s going to have a butterfly effect. But if someone starts the wave over here in the sport bodies, and it goes around, that’s a positive. That’s going to set the place alight and charge the athletes and really going to invigorate everything. But if someone on the field of play acts in an unsportsmanlike or unfair way, that diminishes the atmosphere.

"When we talk about how interconnected we are it comes down to this concept of recognising that we are an ecosystem of institutions and more importantly individuals. 

"If I’m enjoying hospitality up here but people are being harmed down here in the field of play that’s an unbalanced, unequal ecosystem. We need to fix that. We are all collectively - individually and institutionally - responsible for that.

"Which takes us to the process. It starts with prevention and awareness. You have to establish the knowledge base…"

Harvey steps in again: "And in plain language that sport can understand. We are not going to be talking a bunch of business and human rights-speak or UN-speak."

Convergence 2025, the CSHR strategic plan, includes a crucial
Convergence 2025, the CSHR strategic plan, includes a crucial "Theory of Change" ©CSHR

The briefest of glances around the sporting world will offer instances of sport having gone bad, of sport being rotten. The strategy document talks of "strengthening accountability through collective action".

But how, with the best will in the world, can an organisation such as the CHSR seek to influence those who will not willingly embrace the idea of human rights?

"There are always those who are not yet engaged," says Harvey. "Historically we’ve talked about the integrity of sport. What does that look like right now? Match-fixing, or bout-fixing. Doping. What about prevention of athlete harassment and abuse? A big part of the integrity of sport is about human rights."

One of the key opportunities for change can occur at moments of crisis for sporting organisations - something clearly happening within amateur boxing at the moment as the International Boxing Association, seeks to re-invent itself and its values.

"Whenever there is crisis, it’s a bit like if you hit rock bottom you are willing to start to take certain steps that maybe previously wouldn’t have been something you’d look at," Harvey says.

"What’s important is that there is willingness and then commitment - to look at making certain changes. In crisis there is an opportunity for renewal and change."

By way of an example Harvey instances the radical recent reformation within football's world governing body, FIFA, which in April 2016 commissioned John Ruggie of Harvard University, who wrote the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, to produce its own Human Rights document entitled "For the Game, For the World".

Continues Harvey: "So that’s the knowledge part, right?

"And then the leadership part is to say 'We are going to take what’s been revealed to us, the knowledge part, and we’re going to do something with it.'

"'We are now going to take a leadership position, from the top down, and say we are now going to take steps now and implement it.'"

Ruggie died on September 16 this year.

"John was the father of UN guiding principles for human rights," Harvey adds. "We have lost an absolutely massive person in the field.

"Through him, FIFA made a statutory commitment to respect human rights. And it was on the back of a reform that was preceded by existential crisis.

"And for all the anecdotal wisdom that we have around FIFA, they have done this. The whole point around holding each other accountable is that that then sets in motion a chain reaction.

"FIFA does this, sponsors of FIFA, who are companies who sign up to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, are now seeing this as an opportunity to engage with FIFA on a human rights basis.

"So you start to get more and more actors involved. You have civil society saying 'FIFA has made a commitment to human rights.' They now can how say 'OK, so given that, how are you going to handle these things?'

"So you have civil society now coming in. And then you have local Organising Committees saying, 'Well, FIFA has now made bidding requirements of x, y and z in terms of human rights and labour standards, so now as the local Organising Committee we have to do x, y and z.’

"So you now have all these different actors because a decision was taken and there was a chain reaction from that.

"At this point we have an opportunity where others can hold each other accountable for commitments they have made. And if they haven’t made those commitments - 'Why haven’t you made those commitments!'

"So we hope it’s a positive, not a naming-and-shaming type of commitment. It’s more, 'We’ve done this. And we’re still here. The place didn’t burn down…'"

Again, the laughter.

One of the many, specific goals set out in the strategic plan involves continuing to secure operating funds for the project, "building the funding pipeline into 2023 and beyond, while developing projects that have revenue generating potential."

Asked about funding, Harvey replies that there are four main sources - Governments, sports bodies, corporate entities and sponsors, and foundations that have been set up.

"That was before the strategic plan was laid down," Harvey said. "And now we have articulated our path and we are going to be looking at other opportunities to raise money as well."

Another prompt to virtue that can operate effectively, Harvey adds, occurs in the corporate sphere.

"We are seeing with the large sponsors of the Olympic Games and of the World Cup and FIFA overall and others that they are not only engaged in their own obligations under UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, conducting due diligence on what they are doing and ascertaining if they are associated with harm.

"Increasingly they are involved in talking about purpose. Ten years ago, sports marketing activations at a World Cup or an Olympic Games were different to those today.

"Today more and more brands are connecting their corporate purpose to how they are presenting themselves through their sports marketing campaign. It’s the rise of consumer activism.

"So you see Deloitte sponsoring USOPC [United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee], for example, and the US Soccer Federation. They are interested in activating around the US women’s national team and the empowerment and inclusion of girls and women. For them that makes a lot of sense.

"If you talk to the people at the marketing agencies, they will say: 'Ten years ago, one in 10 were talking about purpose. Now nine out of 10, if not all of them, are talking about purpose in terms of their activation.'

"So if you take that dynamic, and their own commitment to human rights, which they make as businesses, and then you look at who they are sponsoring and what they are involved in, and then there is crisis, there is opportunity."

Deloitte's sponsorship of the US women's soccer team follows a new pattern of more dynamic commercial support ©Getty Images
Deloitte's sponsorship of the US women's soccer team follows a new pattern of more dynamic commercial support ©Getty Images

Grevemberg adds: "There is this real notion now that you can’t just advertise, preach or present that you support something. You actually have to demonstrate that you are doing something - and that is whether it is public, private or third sector.

"And sport has this wonderful way of amalgamating all of that through events and activities.

"Yes, by the way we can also showcase the good company and the good people we are, and the good campaign we are involved with, and how that cascades down to our consumer base. It’s a more sincere, more relevant connection."

Grevemberg references the address given to the International Olympic Committee in Kuala Lumpur in 2015 by British advertising and public relations magnate Sir Martin Sorrell.

"He talked about how consumers were moving away from products and presentations of advertising that was focused on exclusivity and privilege to advertising that is now focused on sincerity and style.

"So I think that human rights in not only a value proposition but it is a sincerity proposition as well in terms of walking your talk, practicing what you preach and demonstrating your commitment to those you claim to represent and serve."