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Side event: Equality in Sports

16 June 2014

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to take part in this side event to promote equality in sports, and I thank Ambassador Alexandris and the missions that have co-sponsored it.

At its best, sport is an inspiring celebration of human prowess and grace that is inclusive, generous-hearted and fundamentally multicultural. It contributes to physical and mental wellbeing, and promotes cooperation and empowerment.

The right to participate in sport is enshrined in core international human rights treaties, and the UN has also acknowledged the importance of sport as a vehicle for peace and human development.

Yet discrimination is all too common, in and off the sports field. Even in high-level sports that focus exclusively on merit and performance, we continue to witness deeply unpleasant acts of racism during events and matches. In the past month alone, spectators have thrown bananas and shouted racist abuse during three high-level football matches in Italy and Spain, and the owner of a prominent basketball team in the United States has made shockingly racist remarks.

In many States, women and girls are not given the same options to participate in athletic activities as men and boys, and may even require the permission of their husbands to take part. Some sports clubs still do not allow women members. Women athletes face pervasive derogatory and sexist remarks by coaches, players and sports commentators, and it is extremely rare for them to be paid as much as men.

Not all sports venues are accessible to persons with disabilities. Sports organisations routinely refuse their participation, or to make simple adaptations that would allow them to participate. Women with disabilities face double discrimination, and as a result, 93% are not involved in sports at all. When they are permitted to practice sports, people with disabilities are often segregated in separate, disability-specific events that breach the principle of inclusion.

Adults and children perceived to be lesbian or gay are also subject to harassment and exclusion in locker rooms and on the field. Professional athletes feel they must lie about their sexual orientation rather than risk their sporting career, their sponsors – or, in 77 countries, arrest. And transgender and intersex athletes face widespread discrimination and restrictions on their participation in sports.

Accountability for discrimination in sports is often weak. In some cases, discrimination is actually enshrined in clubs' regulations. And although disciplinary action is sometimes taken against racist acts by individuals, the fines that are imposed on sports clubs, federations and organisations rarely provide sufficient incentive for them to truly address the root causes.

Why is this topic so important? On or off the sports field, bigotry and prejudice are an affront to human rights; they should have no place in the 21st century. But the discrimination that takes place in sports activities is also particularly damaging because sporting events play an important role in inspiring our children and teenagers – or in teaching them, through example, that they are unwanted, and that acts that discriminate against them do not really matter.

I welcome the progress that has been made in recent years to promote equality in sports. People are increasingly speaking out and demanding their right to take part without discrimination. Governments, major sports federations, players, and fan associations have begun to take action. Major football federations have increased fines and penalties for racist incidents and taken action to counter discriminatory abuse by fans. The 2012 Olympics helped change attitudes and encourage greater visibility and participation by women and persons with disabilities. And in the past year, we have seen a succession of top lesbian and gay athletes publicly declare their sexual orientation, sending a powerful signal of self-respect to the wider world.

There is an increasing realisation that combatting discrimination requires more than superficial measures that do not change attitudes or address the root causes of inequality. More must be done to integrate human rights and to promote equality and non-discrimination in schools, so that children learn to value and respect human diversity from a young age. Governments must fulfil their obligations to put in place comprehensive legislation and policies that prohibit and combat all forms of discrimination, without exception. Incidents of harassment and discrimination must be systematically investigated and prosecuted, perpetrators held accountable, victims provided with remedies, and measures taken to avoid repetition.

I would like to raise an additional and important issue in this context. Major sporting events now draw enormous numbers of spectators, involving heavy investment in infrastructure and aesthetic improvements to the urban environment. They risk becoming hubs of human rights violations, including misuse of public funds, child labour, forced evictions and demolitions, and the sexual exploitation of human beings, including children, in the context of a surge in tourism. I urge all Governments and sporting authorities to pay far more attention to this concern, and to constantly audit their event-related planning for potential violations of human rights.


Sporting events should celebrate the joy of human potential, not generate pain and abuse. As the Secretary-General of the UN recently said, sports stars are heroes to their fans, but when they take a stand against discrimination they are heroes to the United Nations. I look forward to your discussion of practical ways to ensure equality and end discrimination in sports.

Thank you.