by James Viray

Migrant workers at World Cup construction site in Qatar. Image from FIFA.COM website (copyright LOC)

Migrant workers at World Cup construction site in Qatar. Image from FIFA.COM website (copyright LOC)

The International Olympic Committee recently announced the first ever Olympism in Action Forum that will bring together athletes, National Olympic Committees, business partners, UN agencies, NGOs, governments, academics, and artists, among others, to address pressing questions including how can sport contribute to more active cities and healthy societies, how can sport advance the conversation on gender equality, and what is the role of sport in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), etc. This is not your grandfather's International Olympic Committee (IOC).  

It's certainly not the IOC that I encountered (or tried to encounter) in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As the Director for the U.S. Department of State's Office for International Labor & Corporate Social Responsibility, I reached out to the IOC to request a meeting to discuss what the IOC was doing to address human rights concerns surrounding the Beijing games. I was travelling to Geneva to attend meetings at the United Nations and offered to make the short trip to IOC headquarters in Lausanne to meet. Multiple e-mail requests went unanswered until I finally received a response that  the IOC would not have anyone available to meet with me during my stay in Switzerland. The IOC's statements to the media on the topic repeated the familiar refrain that the IOC did not get involved in political issues. I had better success in engaging with Olympic corporate sponsors. A handful of US companies sponsoring the Beijing Olympics  accepted an invitation to come to a Department briefing on human rights issues in China.    

Today, it's not only the IOC that has realized they cannot isolate themselves from societal issues. The IOC, FIFA, and Commonwealth Games are all members of the MSE Platform for Human Rights. The IOC also recently made changes to the host city contract, which now includes a specific section designed to strengthen and protect human rights. The obligations now include that human rights are respected in line with international agreements and standards, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. FIFA established a Human Rights Advisory Board in 2017 and published a new Human Rights Policy promising rights protections across its global operations. FIFA has also set important new human rights bid requirements for the 2026 World Cup, and included human rights responsibilities

This new paradigm for sports bodies also provides event sponsors with opportunities to leverage their platforms to make a positive social impact. Where sponsors previously may have avoided addressing societal issues around an event for fear of upsetting the relationship with the organizers, now it's about being aligned with organizers' newfound commitment. And being aligned with sponsors' own social responsibility commitments. For example, as reports continue about the exploitation of migrant workers in the construction of Qatar's 2022 World Cup facilities, FIFA sponsor Visa has an opportunity to both improve the plight of migrant workers and build on its own commitment to expand access to payments in developing countries. Visa could work through FIFIA to introduce its Visa Direct platform to World Cup construction companies and workers to ensure workers are paid on time and to facilitate workers' remittance payments back home to their families. The 2022 Beijing Olympics will likely take place amidst some evolution of the human rights concerns, including Internet censorship and privacy concerns, that surrounded its predecessor games in 2008. Olympic sponsors Intel and Samsung, whose products help hundreds of millions of people around the world to access the Internet, will be well-placed and should be thinking about how they might collaborate with the IOC to engage the host government to promote respect for human rights. This approach also has its business benefits by providing sponsors with a larger window for activation activities. When negative media attention is focused on a societal issue leading up to a sporting event, common practice for sponsors is to postpone activation activities until the event begins in hopes that the focus will switch to the sports and they can avoid any negative association between their brand and the issue.  Addressing the social issue through proactive initiatives and productive messaging allows sponsors to create a positive context in which they can conduct activation activities at an earlier stage.   

The IOC (and other international sports bodies) has come a long way in accepting their opportunity to make a social impact since those unanswered e-mails I sent from the Department of State. And they’ve created an opportunity for sponsors to do the same. Navigating the complexities of freedom of speech, worker rights, gender equality, indigenous peoples rights, or other societal issues may be challenging for some sponsors, but Athletivate is here to help.