Adopted by the IOC Session on behalf of the Olympic Movement in October 2018, the Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities Declaration (the “Athletes’ Declaration”) outlines a common set of aspirational rights and responsibilities for athletes within the Olympic Movement. The Athletes’ Declaration is a living document intended to adapt to the ever-evolving world of sport, ensuring that it remains relevant and up to date. The Athletes’ Declaration is intended to complement existing legal protections for athletes in applicable law or existing negotiated agreements.

Olympic Movement stakeholders are encouraged to promote respect for the Athletes’ Declaration and to develop mechanisms for effective remedies related to the rights and responsibilities it contains. You can find more information on that here.

The IOC, in collaboration with the IOC Athletes’ Commission, recently supported the establishment of the Athletes’ Declaration Steering Committee (the “Steering Committee”), composed of athlete representatives from across the world, whose remit is to detail proposals on how to effectively implement the Athletes’ Declaration. The Steering Committee has identified fair athletes’ agreements between sports organisations and their respective athletes as an important step to further such implementation, as such agreements provide a framework for sports organisations and their members to effectively work together to their mutual benefit.

Generally speaking, athletes’ agreements are contracts that govern the legal relationship between athletes and the organisation they are a part or a member of. Their content and nature vary depending on multiple factors such as, for instance, whether the agreement is with an organisation operating at national or international level, and whether it is with a club, team or other organisation.

In this Q&A, we focus on how the principles of the Athletes’ Declaration can be embedded in “membership agreements”, or agreements with similar designations, between NOCs, IFs and NFs (“Sports Organisations”) and athletes (“Athletes’ Agreements”). Indeed, these agreements deserve particular attention because of their scope, duration and overall impact on an athlete’s rights and responsibilities.

Given the variety in the relationships between Sports Organisations and athletes and the different legal systems applicable in different parts of the world, it is not realistic to have a “one-size-fits-all” model. That said, it is possible to define certain elements that are essential to include in Athletes’ Agreements in order to provide a clear and balanced framework of rights and responsibilities for both parties.

Athletes’ Agreements typically include the provisions listed below:

  1. Context and objectives: Clearly state the context and define the relationship that the Athletes’ Agreement applies to, including its scope (e.g. activities concerned), duration and parties involved.
  2. Rights and obligations of each party: Set out the terms and conditions that apply to each party, which may include different types of commitments and entitlements such as:
  • For both parties: abiding by a mutually agreed-upon Code of Conduct or set of ethical principles, reflecting clean sport and good governance.
  • For the athlete: Committing to competing as a clean athlete and with integrity, and otherwise taking part in the Sports Organisation’s events and activities.
  • For the Sports Organisations, providing financial and/or material support and protection of physical and psychological health.
  1. Grievance mechanism and issue resolution: Present a clear mechanism for each party to express grievances or complaints, should such party feel that its rights under the agreement have not been respected, to identify and address issues early before they escalate.
  2. Final provisions: For clarity and security, an Athletes’ Agreement should define its duration and the circumstances in which a party may terminate the agreement before its term, the law it is governed by, and the courts or arbitration institution competent to settle any dispute between the Parties.
  3. Acceptance: An acceptance section where the athlete (and, for minors, his/her parents/legal guardian(s)) can confirm by a signature, or other acceptable evidence of acceptance, that he/she has read and understood the Athletes’ Agreement and accepts its terms.

Athletes should understand the agreements they are being asked to sign. The language of an agreement should be simple with wording that can easily be understood by the athletes. The content and structure of the agreement should be easily understandable.  In particular, athletes’ rights and responsibilities should be clearly identified.

Concluding an Athletes’ Agreement can have an important impact on athletes’ legal situation, so they must be given sufficient time to read it and, if necessary, to seek legal or other advice, as well as an opportunity to negotiate the agreement. For athletes who are represented by unions, there may be specific agreements or processes to follow.

Athletes (and, for minors, their parents/legal guardian(s)) should know that they can seek clarification before signing an Athletes’ Agreement. If asked questions, Sports Organisations should answer transparently and in a timely manner.

Athletes or their parents/legal guardian(s) should also be able to receive advice and assistance if needed. This could include inviting a support person (of the athletes’ choosing) to a contract discussion, consulting with their Athletes’ Commission, consulting with a union or similar association which is officially recognised in their country, or by the relevant Sports Organisation, or consulting with a lawyer or agent.

In general, athletes’ rights in Athletes’ Agreements are aimed at protecting the athletes’ dignity and well-being, while athletes’ responsibilities are aimed at ensuring the safe and fair running of the sport, and compliance with the applicable rules with appropriate respect for others.

The overall content should be balanced and, even where athletes receive certain advantages, the athletes’ responsibilities must not be overly detrimental or onerous for the athletes, and should not unduly restrict their rights.

To this end, and in addition to respecting locally applicable laws and standards, Athletes’ Agreements should reflect the Sports Organisation’s commitment to respect the Fundamental Principles of Olympism included in the Olympic Charter, the IOC Code of Ethics and the Athletes’ Declaration. To be consistent with such commitments and protect athletes’ human rights, Athletes’ Agreements should include appropriate provisions for athletes not to be subjected to any form of discrimination and to be protected in their physical and mental health, addressing issues as protection from abuse and harassment, the right to privacy, freedom of expression and due process.

Mechanisms to address questions or complaints are important as they afford athletes due process and a means to express their concerns. They also allow issues to be identified and addressed before these escalate.

Trust is really important here. Athletes should feel confident with the mechanism for addressing complaints. Sports Organisations have a responsibility to ensure that support is available and easily accessible.

Mechanisms to receive complaints and offer support and solutions can take many forms, but Sports Organisations should either have their own mechanism in place or have established agreements with other trustworthy channels, such as an independent ombudsperson or an existing state-based mechanism. To fulfil their role and be trusted by athletes, such mechanisms must be accessible, predictable and offer a fair and informed process to those affected. For athletes alleging severe harm (such as sexual abuse or harassment), the mechanism may need to be independent of the Sports Organisation.

In some cases, unions and players’ associations may be officially recognised or legally empowered to negotiate contracts, address certain types of complaints, or have an agreed procedure with the Sports Organisation that can be triggered when issues arise.  If so, these unions or players’ associations may support and assist member athletes to resolve disputes by engaging with the Sports Organisation.

Athletes’ Commissions can also play an important role as they can help bring the perspective of athletes into decision-making processes. Athletes can also reach out to Athletes’ Commissions for advice about an issue.

Sports Organisations may face additional obligations and should implement specific safeguarding precautions for certain vulnerable groups, such as athletes who are legally considered minors under the laws of their respective countries.

With the Athletes’ Agreement, if an athlete is a minor, it will be necessary to ensure that the agreement is reviewed and signed by the minor athlete and his/her parents or legal guardian(s). In many jurisdictions, this may even be a condition for the agreement to be legally binding.

You can find specific information on safeguarding children in sport here

The Steering Committee recommends that Sports Organisations consult with their member athletes and fully involve their Athletes’ Commission (if there is one) in the development of any Athletes’ Agreement template. This will ensure that the agreement takes into consideration the perspective of athletes. It is also advisable to check if collective agreements are already in place with any union officially recognised by the Sports Organisation to represent athletes, as these collective agreements may help provide the framework.