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The Olympic Games and Human Rights – Part I: Introduction to the Host City Contract – By Tomáš Grell

Editor’s note: Tomáš Grell is currently an LL.M. student in Public International Law at Leiden University. He contributes to the work of the ASSER International Sports Law Centre as a part-time intern.

In its press release of 28 February 2017, the International Olympic Committee ('IOC') communicated that, as part of the implementation of Olympic Agenda 2020 ('Agenda 2020'), it is making specific changes to the 2024 Host City Contract with regard to human rights, anti-corruption and sustainable development. On this occasion, IOC President Thomas Bach stated that ''this latest step is another reflection of the IOC's commitment to embedding the fundamental values of Olympism in all aspects of the Olympic Games''. Although the Host City of the 2024 Summer Olympic Games is scheduled to be announced only in September this year, it is now clear that, be it either Los Angeles or Paris (as Budapest has recently withdrawn its bid), it will have to abide by an additional set of human rights obligations.

This two-part blog will take a closer look at the execution of the Olympic Games from a human rights perspective. The first part will address the most serious human rights abuses that reportedly took place in connection with some of the previous editions of the Olympic Games. It will also outline the key characteristics of the Host City Contract ('HCC') as one of the main legal instruments relating to the execution of the Olympic Games. The second part will shed light on the human rights provisions that have been recently added to the 2024 HCC and it will seek to examine how, if at all, these newly-added human rights obligations could be reflected in practice. For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that the present blog will not focus on the provisions concerning anti-corruption that have been introduced to the 2024 HCC together with the abovementioned human rights provisions.

Examples of Olympic Games-related human rights abuses 

The large majority of Olympic Games-related human rights abuses fall into one of the following categories: (i) violations of labour-related rights; (ii) forced evictions; and (iii) repressions of civil rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly. In addition, the execution of the Olympic Games can entail negative environmental impacts.

Violations of labour-related rights 

International labour standards are primarily laid down in a number of conventions and other instruments adopted by the International Labour Organization ('ILO'). The ILO identifies four cornerstone principles, namely the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, the elimination of all forms of forced labour, the abolition of child labour and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.[1] These principles are also reflected to a certain extent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ('UDHR'),[2] the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ('ICCPR'),[3] the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ('ICESCR')[4] and regional human rights treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights ('ECHR').[5] Other fundamental labour-related rights include, for instance, the right to rest, leisure, fair wages or safe and healthy working conditions.[6]

Thousands of workers coming from both inside and outside of the Host Country are recruited in the run-up to the Olympic Games to ensure that Olympic venues are built on time. Regrettably, these workers are often subjected to multiple violations of their labour-related rights. A report published by Human Rights Watch ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing revealed, inter alia, that internal migrant workers frequently faced delayed payment of their wages and were denied basic services linked to China's household registration system, known as Hukou.[7] Furthermore, the freedom of association of these workers was restricted as they could not join China's only legal trade union body, the state-sponsored All-China Federation of Trade Unions.[8] The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi received a significant influx of migrant workers coming to Russia mostly from Central Asia. Several reports demonstrated that, in addition to unpaid wages or excessive working hours, migrant workers in Sochi were also prevented from moving to another employer as their work permits or personal identity documents were often withheld.

Forced evictions 

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ('CESCR') defines the term 'forced eviction' as ''the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection''.[9] The CESCR further specifies that forced evictions might be permissible if the individuals concerned are provided with an adequate compensation for any affected property or, in cases where forced evictions result in the individuals concerned being rendered homeless, an adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land.[10] Moreover, forced evictions should be carried out in conformity with general principles of reasonableness and proportionality.[11]

Some of the previous editions of the Olympic Games have seen whole communities being removed from their homes to make way for stadiums, accommodation facilities and infrastructure. According to research conducted by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, at least 1.25 million people were displaced prior to the Beijing Games.[12] Thousands of families had been relocated from favelas in Rio de Janeiro before the 2016 Summer Olympic Games were opened. Doubts have been raised whether the affected individuals were provided with an adequate compensation and other guarantees as referred to above.[13]

Repressions of civil rights

Rule 50 (2) of the Olympic Charter stipulates that ''no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas''. Based on this provision, the Host Country may adopt laws and take measures restricting the right to freedom of expression[14] and the right to peaceful assembly.[15] The Chinese government was accused of curtailing the right to freedom of expression of domestic and foreign journalists prior to the Beijing Games. In February 2014, four LGBT-advocates from Russia were detained when they were about to protest against discrimination at the Sochi Games.

Rule 50 (2) of the Olympic Charter also prevents athletes from making political statements in any Olympic sites or venues. At the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, the IOC showed no tolerance for the black power salute, a political demonstration conducted by Afro-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos (gold and bronze medallists in the 200-meter sprint) with the view of supporting their compatriots in the struggle against racial segregation. At the Sochi Games, the IOC did not allow Ukrainian athletes to wear black armbands in commemoration of those who died during the conflict in the country. It is arguable that such examples constitute an unlawful interference with the freedom of expression of athletes competing in the Olympic Games.[16]

Negative environmental impacts

Despite not being generally accepted as a human right per se, the right to a safe and healthy environment might be inferred from other human rights, including, for instance, the right to life or the right to food and water.[17] It should also be noted that environmental concerns are closely intertwined with the concept of sustainable development, as exemplified in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development which provides that ''environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it''.[18]

The first Olympic Games that were widely criticized for disregarding environmental considerations were the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville.[19] By contrast, it is widely recognized that the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer were executed in an environmentally-sustainable manner, arguably in response to the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development which was agreed upon only few months after the closing ceremony of the Albertville Games.[20] Insofar as the more recent editions of the Olympic Games are concerned, the Rio Games faced serious difficulties relating to the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, an Olympic venue for sailing events. In a similar vein, preparations of the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang have been marred by allegations of destroying 500-year-old virgin forest to make room for a ski slope.


Introduction to the HCC

The previous section has portrayed some of the most serious human rights abuses associated with the execution of the Olympic Games. These abuses call for an adequate response from the IOC. Before proceeding to analyse whether the human rights provisions recently introduced to the 2024 HCC may constitute an effective remedy, it is essential to take a cursory look at the HCC as one of the main legal instruments linked to the execution of the Olympic Games.

What should be known in the first place

Following the completion of the selection procedure, the HCC is entered into by the IOC on the one hand and the successful Candidate City ('Host City') and the National Olympic Committee of the Host Country ('Host NOC') on the other hand. Within five months after the execution of the HCC, the Host City and the Host NOC shall form the Organising Committee of the Olympic Games ('OCOG'), an entity endowed with legal personality under the laws of the Host Country.[21] The Host City and the Host NOC shall subsequently ensure that, within one month after the OCOG's formation, the OCOG becomes a party to the HCC and adheres to all its terms.[22] Even though the Host Country itself is not a party to the HCC, it plays an important role in fulfilling the obligations contained therein. For instance, the Host Country Authorities are required to take all necessary measures to guarantee the safe and peaceful celebration of the Olympic Games.[23]

As such, the HCC in its current form consists of four separate documents which apply in the following order of precedence: (i) The HCC – Principles; (ii) The HCC – Operational Requirements which provides a detailed description of the main deliverables and other obligations to be performed by the Host City, the Host NOC and the OCOG, including, inter alia, obligations relating to finances, media or the Olympic Torch Relay; (iii) The Games Delivery Plan which outlines the main planning framework, timelines and milestones to be respected by the Host City, the Host NOC and the OCOG; and (iv) The Candidature Commitments which concerns all guarantees and other commitments contained in the Host City's candidature documentation.[24] Since the present blog deals exclusively with the HCC – Principles, all references to the HCC throughout this post should be taken to include the HCC – Principles only.

The HCC is governed by the domestic laws of Switzerland.[25] The parties thereto undertake to submit all their disputes concerning the validity, interpretation or performance of the HCC to the Court of Arbitration for Sport ('CAS'). If, for any reason, the CAS refuses to exercise its jurisdiction in a particular case, the domestic courts in Lausanne shall be competent.[26]

The main purpose of the HCC is to delegate the execution of the Olympic Games from the IOC to other actors, namely the Host City, the Host NOC and the OCOG.[27] As a general rule, these actors shall be jointly and severally liable for all their obligations, guarantees and other commitments under the HCC, whether entered into individually or collectively.[28] The Host City is primarily tasked with delivering the public infrastructure. It may create and grant powers to an Olympic Delivery Authority[29], a public entity that ''combines the functions of a local council, planning authority, transport executive, trading standards office and police service''.[30] The Host NOC is concerned predominantly with sport-related matters, whilst the OCOG is responsible for hiring suppliers and contractors to build Olympic venues, lodging athletes and officials or elaborating reports on a regular basis.[31] This is not to say, however, that the IOC is not involved in the execution of the Olympic Games. Given that the Olympic Games are the exclusive property of the IOC,[32] the IOC provides significant financial and other benefits to its agents, determines the core requirements, exercises supervision and takes measures in case of non-compliance with the HCC.

Core requirements

First and foremost, the Host City, the Host NOC and the OCOG undertake to respect the Olympic Charter and the IOC Code of Ethics. By signing the HCC (or acceding thereto), they also agree to carry out their operations ''in a manner which promotes and enhances the fundamental principles and values of Olympism as well as the development of the Olympic Movement''.[33] Other core requirements laid down in the HCC relate mostly to human rights, anti-corruption, environmental protection and sustainability, security, betting and prevention of manipulation of competitions, intellectual property rights, entry and stay of athletes and Games-related personnel, taxes, media and marketing. The provisions concerning human rights, environmental protection and sustainability will be specifically examined at a later stage.

IOC's supervision of the execution of the Olympic Games

In order to monitor the progress of, and provide guidance to, the OCOG, with respect to the planning, organisation, staging and financing of the Olympic Games, the IOC creates a Coordination Commission with members representing the IOC, the International Federations, the National Olympic Committees, OCOGs from the past, the IOC Athletes' Commission and the International Paralympic Committee, as well as experts designated or approved by the IOC.[34] As part of their mandate, members of the Coordination Commission conduct site inspections and meet with representatives of the OCOG and the Host Country on a regular basis.[35]

Measures in case of non-compliance with the HCC

The most serious measure contemplated by the HCC in the event of non-compliance therewith is its termination by the IOC and subsequent withdrawal of the Olympic Games from the Host City, the Host NOC and the OCOG. Termination of the HCC might be prompted by a failure on the part of the Host City, the Host NOC and/or the OCOG to perform ''any material obligation pursuant to the HCC or under any applicable law''.[36] That being said, the HCC sets out a two-step procedure for its termination and subsequent withdrawal of the Olympic Games. First, the IOC notifies the Host City, the Host NOC and/or the OCOG and calls upon the relevant party to remedy its failure within 60 days of receiving the notification. This time limit is shortened to 30 days if the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is less than 120 days away.[37] Second, if the relevant party does not respond to its failure in a timely and accurate manner, the HCC shall be terminated and the Olympic Games withdrawn with immediate effect.[38] Apart from termination of the HCC and subsequent withdrawal of the Olympic Games, the IOC may decide, for example, to withhold any grant to be made to the OCOG in accordance with the HCC.[39]



Against the background of the reform proposals embodied in Agenda 2020, the initial failure of the 2024 HCC to incorporate human rights obligations, other than those relating to non-discrimination, was presented as an astonishing omission. Although the IOC has recently surrendered to public pressure and it has finally added human rights obligations to the 2024 HCC, its role does not end here. The second part of this blog will examine whether the insertion of human rights obligations to the 2024 HCC is to be regarded as a turning point in history of the Olympic Games or risks being an empty promise.

[1]    ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work; Article 2.

[2]    UDHR; Article 23.

[3]    ICCPR; Articles 8, 22, 26.

[4]    ICESCR; Articles 2, 8.

[5]    ECHR; Articles 4, 11, 14.

[6]    ICESCR; Article 7.

[7]    Human Rights Watch, 'One Year of My Blood: Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in Beijing', March 2008, at 22, 39.

[8]    Ibid., at 42.

[9]    CESCR General Comment No. 7; para. 3.

[10]   Ibid., paras. 13, 16.

[11]   Ibid., para. 14.

[12]   Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, 'Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights', June 2007, at 154.

[13]   R. Gauthier, The International Olympic Committee, Law and Accountability, Routledge, 2017, at 90.

[14]   ICCPR; Article 19 (2), (3).

[15]   Ibid., Article 21.

[16]   F. Faut, 'The Prohibition of Political Statements by Athletes and its Consistency with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights: Speech is Silver, Silence is Gold?', (2014) 14 (3) ISLJ 253.

[17]   A. Boyle, 'Human Rights and Environment: Where Next?', (2012) 23 (3) EJIL 613, at 617.

[18]   Rio Declaration on Environment and Development; Principle 4.

[19]   S. Samuel, W. Stubbs, 'Green Olympics, Green Legacies? An Exploration of the Environmental Legacies of the Olympic Games', (2012) 48 (4) International Review for the Sociology of Sport 485, at 487.

[20]   Ibid.

[21]   2024 Host City Contract – Principles; Article 3.1.

[22]   Ibid., Article 3.3.

[23]   Ibid., Article 17.1.

[24]   Ibid., Article 1.1.

[25]   Ibid., Article 51.1.

[26]   Ibid., Article 51.2.

[27]   Ibid., Article 2.

[28]   Ibid., Article 4.1.

[29]   In practice, an Olympic Delivery Authority might operate under different names.

[30]   M. James, G. Osborn, 'London 2012 and the Impact of the UK's Olympic and Paralympic Legislation: Protecting Commerce or Preserving Culture', (2011) 74 (3) Modern Law Review 410, at 419-420.

[31]   Gauthier (supra note 13) at 65-66.

[32]   Olympic Charter; Rule 7.2.

[33]   2024 Host City Contract – Principles; Article 13.1.

[34]   Ibid., Article 27.1. See also Olympic Charter; Rule 37.

[35]   A. Geeraert, R. Gauthier, 'Out-of-control Olympics: Why the IOC is Unable to Ensure an Environmentally Sustainable Olympic Games', (2017) 19 Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 10.

[36]   2024 Host City Contract – Principles; Article 38.2. (d).

[37]   Ibid., Article 38.3. (a).

[38]   Ibid., Article 38.3. (b).

[39]   Ibid., Article 36.2. (b).

Comments (1) -

  • Thomas Kruessmann

    6/10/2017 6:59:29 PM | Reply

    Dear Tomas! A nice piece of work, and I look forward to reading your second part. I have recently prepared a similar contribution to the Global Anticorruption Blog, run by Matthew Stephenson of Harvard Law School. It is not published yet. I was thinking we might merge the two pieces and do an article on the IOC Host City for 2024. Would that be interesting? Best, Thomas Kruessmann