Does Elite Sport Respect Young Athletes' Human Rights?

Date01 July 2021
AuthorTuttle, Myrna El Fakhry

We all enjoy watching national and international sports events. But most of us have no idea about an athlete's journey to make it to these events.

To become elite athletes and reach the top of their sport, children may leave their families and begin training extensively at a very early age. Most of the time, these children live in residential training centres which can be far from their home. Even when they still live with their parents, these young athletes normally do not have enough time, between training and school, to spend with their families.

Children Involved in Sport

Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines "child" as every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.

The CRC does not tackle the issue of children involved in sport but many of its articles protect children's rights. For example, article 3 states that the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. Article 19 protects children from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of persons responsible for the child. Also, according to article 24, "State Parties recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health...".

Unfortunately, these norms may not apply in the cases of high performance sport. Imposing strict training regimes on children can lead to physical, emotional and sexual abuse and violence. Donnelly & Petherick talked about the problems children face when they join these training programmes:

They are not permitted to be children; they are denied important social contacts and experiences; they are victims of disrupted family life; they are exposed to excessive psychological and physiological stress, they may experience impaired intellectual development; they may become so involved with sport that they become detached from the larger society; they face a type of abandonment on completion of their athletic careers. (See: Peter Donnelly & Leanne Petherick; Workers' Playtime? Child Labour at the Extremes of the Sporting Spectrum at p 312 [Donnelly & Petherick].) Competitive sport requires harsh training and discipline that children must be committed to. In some sports (e.g. tennis, gymnastics, figure skating, ice hockey, etc.), children as young as four years old train frequently...

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