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].)
Imposing strict training regimes on children can lead to physical, emotional and sexual abuse and violence.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. Also, some children as young as six years old train intensively and participate in competitions.
A further complication is that children are not old enough to decide whether they want to become athletes. Therefore, parents and coaches decide for them:
A child under the age of six to seven years cannot consent to compete in elite sport, as it does not understand the concept and consequences of this decision. Even a few years later, young teenagers do not have the same kind of informed consent as adults. Therefore, it is mostly adults (e.g. the child’s parents, coaches) who make the decision as to whether their child participates in competitive sport.
The rest of this article looks further at some of the concerns Donnelly & Petherick identified.
Participating in sports has health benefits, but intensive training may have the opposite effect. Athletic children can have their physical growth delayed due to the strict training they follow.
In addition, some children may be forced, at an early age, to take illegal drugs to boost their performance. While their performance can be improved in the short term, doing so can affect their health in the long run. Research has shown that between two and ten percent of young athletes use illegal drugs. This usually takes place under the influence of the coaches, or under false excuse (coaches giving to unaware athletes).
Moreover, children who follow an intensive training may develop eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. In sports that depend on judges’ evaluation – like gymnastic, diving, figure skating, etc. – about 35% of the athletes have eating disorders. These disorders can damage the bones, stop physical growth, cause injuries and lead to early retirement from sport.
According to Paulo David:
Elite athletes have to follow a special diet so they stay physically fit. In addition to mastering the skills of a challenging sport, they also have to focus on their appearance and beauty. This can be very hard especially that those young athletes are still in a sensitive phase of their development.(Paulo David at p 75.)
Abuse by Coaches
Under article 19 of the CRC, coaches may become the main caregivers since young athletes spend more time with them than with their parents. These athletes rely on the coach’s knowledge to enhance their performance. In this case, coaches become the protectors of the children from all forms of abuse, violence and exploitation. (See: Paulo David; Human Rights in Youth Sport: A Critical Review of Children’s Rights in Competitive Sport, 2005 at p 56 [Paulo David].)
Coaches have great authority over athletic children since they spend a fair amount of time with these athletes. But it may not all be good. We have seen media articles of coaches abusing abuse young athletes physically and sexually. In some cases, athletic children can be victims of abuse on a daily basis:
A River Bluff High School, in South Carolina, football player died after coaches punished his team for poor performance in a scrimmage the day before with a series of sprints and strenuous exercises in 95-degree heat, athletes forced to participate in physically injurious or sexually degrading initiation rituals (e.g. hazing), allowed to return to the playing field too soon after a concussion, sexually assaulted by coaches, psychologically degraded or humiliated by coaches based on gender, sexual orientation, body shape or performance, or required or encouraged to follow nutrition and weight loss regimes that lead to eating disorders and abuse of appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic-androgenic steroids. Simply put, the kinds of abuse we see in youth sports would not be tolerated in the classroom or in the workplace. Yet there are no laws that specifically address such abuse in the context of sports.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention provided the following definition:
Child abuse or maltreatment constitutes all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.
The WHO and the European Commission have insisted on protecting the health of young athletes since abuse can take place in intensive training programmes. In 1997, the WHO affirmed that:
Organization of children’s sports activity by adults does have a potential for abuses to occur if those who set the amount of sports participation and the training regimen are inexperienced and unfortunately, many coaches are not sufficiently aware of children’s complex physical and psychological developmental needs and the stages they go through use adult models.(Paulo David at p 53.)
In July 2020, and in relation to the Tokyo Olympics, Human Rights Watch reported that Japanese young athletes have suffered physical, verbal and sexual abuse during training. According to the report, the abuses include punching, slapping, kicking, hitting, beating with an object, and excessive or insufficient food and water.
No Time for Education and Leisure
Usually, children go to school and participate in leisure activities. But elite sports can hinder these childhood pastimes.
Article 31 of the CRC reads:
States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
The right to rest and leisure is a fundamental right, such as the right to food, adequate health, housing, etc. Unfortunately, that does not happen in competitive children’s sports where children train for hours every day with no time for relaxation or entertainment.
Moreover, articles 28 and 29 of the CRC talk about the right of children to education. Young athletes may not have enough time for a proper education since they train daily for long hours. Parents and coaches believe that school is not necessary if the child becomes an athlete in a rewarding sport. This can result in dropping out of school at an early age. A child may regret this decision in the long-term because not all young athletes make it to the top.
Finally, article 15 of the CRC recognizes the rights of the child to freedom of association. This right is usually violated in competitive sport, specifically in group sports. It is very hard for young athletes to change the club they belong to since the club can ask for remuneration to make up for the money spent on developing the athletes’ skills. That limits the athlete’s freedom to join the club they desire.
Having said all the above, can we compare intensive training programmes to child labour?
Article 32 of the CRC talks about the right of children to be protected from economic exploitation and any work that is likely:
- to be hazardous,
- to interfere with the child’s education, or
- to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.
Participating in sports has health benefits, but intensive training may have the opposite effect.State parties must provide a minimum age for admission to work, as well as appropriate penalties and sanctions to ensure effective enforcement of this article.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to set a minimum age for entering high performance sports. Young athletes train for long hours for years. Like child workers, and to earn a living, they usually exercise for about six to eight hours a day to compete and win:
Social scientists of sport in Canada and Germany have argued for over 20 years that children’s involvement in high-performance sport may be viewed as a form of child labour. Children participate in highly work-like conditions; adults depend on children’s work for their own employment and income; the receipt of income, expenses, and prizes formalizes their working status, but many labour in the expectation of future income.(Donnelly & Petherick at p 311.)
A Taboo Topic
Sadly, children’s rights in competitive sports is still a taboo topic. Because of this, there is little research in this area. As well, States have not implemented the CRC provisions and have failed to protect athletic children.
Pursuing wealth and fame has strongly affected young athletes and their human rights. Every child has a right to practice sport in an entertaining and protected environment, apart from all sorts of violence, abuse and exploitation. Young athletes should train and compete in a safe environment that respects and protects their human rights.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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