Ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing next month and FIFA’s World Cup in Qatar later this year, the international spotlight is on rights abuses surrounding mega-sporting events. That makes 2022 a good year for sports federations worldwide to make some New Year’s resolutions around human rights and stick to them.
Their first resolution should be to ensure millions of child athletes worldwide have the right to play sport in an environment free of harassment, violence, and abuse. Human Rights Watch has documented the dangers children face when sports federations do not take steps to ensure child protection in sport, in countries including Haiti, Afghanistan, Japan, and Mali.
In June, the Mali Basketball Federation covered up girl athletes’ complaints of sexual abuse against their head coach. While the coach was eventually arrested for pedophilia, he has since been released, endangering the courageous survivors who spoke out to report abuses.
In Japan, Human Rights Watch documented the effects that corporal punishment in sport can have on child athletes, including lifelong physical and mental health impacts such as anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
A second resolution for sports federations is to hold abusers accountable, including when those abusers are federation leaders. Human Rights Watch has documented presidents of two national football federations sexually abusing teenagers on women’s national teams.
Sport federations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee have a responsibility to ensure child athlete survivors see justice. This means providing reporting mechanisms and remedies, such as trauma support and legal assistance. Athletes who step forward to report abuse should be provided with safety and protection, without fear of reprisals to their careers, livelihoods, or families.
Recent reports that Gabon’s former under-17 national football coach was allegedly sexually abusing hundreds of boys are shocking. But news this month that the coach faces charges and up to 30 years in prison is a promising step toward ensuring justice, though there is still far to go.
In 2022, sports federations worldwide should learn from their past and current failures to protect child athletes, some of whom could grow up to become Olympic or professional athletes themselves, and resolve to prevent such abuse from happening again.