It’s been years in the making, but for the first time in Olympic Games history, anti-corruption and human rights principles will be incorporated into a host city contract, paving the way for similar contractual language to be inserted into future sporting event contracts.

Chief ethics and compliance officers at multinational companies across all industries will want to stay abreast of this landmark development, given that the new contractual obligations placed on host cities and host countries will inevitably trickle down to not only corporate sponsors of the Olympic Games, but also organizations that enter into construction contracts with the host city and the many vendors and suppliers that provide goods and services for these events.

Helping to lead the crusade is Sylvia Schenk, a former Olympian herself and now a consultant at Herbert Smith FreeHills in Germany, who advises companies on compliance, sports law, sustainability, and human rights. “What’s quite important from my point of view, and why I’m highly motivated to work on this, is because with sports you really can reach a huge audience all over the world,” she says.

If international sporting organizations show that that they don’t welcome bribery and corruption and human-rights abuses, and they take their responsibility seriously to assess the risks in potential host countries, “they send that message all over the world on how important these issues are,” Schenk says.

Literally and figuratively, “it can really be a game changer,” Schenk adds. “That’s why it’s important beyond just sports and beyond the Olympics.”

Schenk says when she first began working on corruption in sports more than a decade ago, the perception of many people at the time was that there either was no corruption in sports, or if there was, nothing could be done about it.

The eruption of the corruption scandal involving the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the international governing body of professional soccer, changed all that. FIFA played a “very important” role, Schenk says, in putting corruption in sports on the international agenda.

For many leading multinational companies, the FIFA scandal was also a harsh wake-up call to the detrimental effect that corruption in sports can have on a company’s reputation. Several major corporate sponsors of the FIFA 2010 World Cup—Adidas, Coca-Cola, Kia, McDonald’s, and Visa, just to name a few—suddenly found their brands under a microscope, and some even found themselves reassessing their sponsorship decisions.

Collaborative efforts to address bribery, corruption, and human rights in sports did not begin in earnest, however, until August 2014. That is when Schenk—in her capacity as chair of the Working Group on Sport for Transparency International Germany—and Daniela Wurbs, general secretary of Football Supporters Europe (FSE), invited several global advocacy groups to Berlin “to discuss whether it would make sense to join forces and advocate the international sport organizations together,” Schenk explains.

Their collaborative efforts eventually morphed into the Sport and Rights Alliance (SRA), whose stated mission is to “ensure that mega-sporting events respect human rights, the environment and anti-corruption requirements at all stages of the process.” Today, partners of the SRA include Transparency International Germany, ITUC, FSE, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, World Players Association, and Swiss child-relief agency Terre des Hommes, and more.

Up until that first meeting in 2014, a few non-governmental organizations had launched efforts of their own, but nothing cohesive was in place. The International Trade Union Corporation (ITUC), for example, has been working on migrant worker rights since FIFA awarded the World Cup 2022 to Qatar, a country with substantial corruption and human rights abuses laid bare by numerous reports and articles in the media, especially regarding construction projects related to the World Cup.

Prior to any awarding decision, sports organizations—including the IOC, FIFA, and UEFA—have the greatest amount of leverage to put a host city’s feet to the fire by contractually obligating them to commit to certain measures. “That is why requirements for anti-corruption and human rights should be part of the bidding process and then be integrated in the host contract to oblige the host city…to assess its risks and mitigate them,” Schenk says.

Without the anti-corruption and human-rights abuse language in the host city contract, the less leverage the sporting organization has, and the more difficult it becomes, to enforce such abuses leading up to the Games. “To have it as an integral part, you need to have it in the bidding criteria, and then in the host contract,” Schenk says.

As part of their collective efforts, the SRA sent a letter to International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach advocating that a human rights and anti-corruption clause be included in the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020. “Too often, major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes,” the letter stated.

“The recommendations in the IOC’s Agenda 2020 are a chance to change that and ensure human rights, the environment, and anti-corruption measures are central to all stages of the Olympic Games—from bidding, through to the development and delivery phase to final reporting,” the letter continued.

Their efforts were repeatedly rejected, however, until January 2017, when the IOC agreed to revise the Host City Contract to include an anti-corruption clause and human rights principles. In agreeing to this landmark measure, the IOC for the first time included an explicit reference to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), which outlines anti-corruption standards and the human rights responsibilities of companies. The Guiding Principles discuss how companies should assess human rights risks, take effective steps to avoid human rights issues, and remedy abuses that occur despite those efforts.

“This is an important step by the IOC for the future,” ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said in a statement. “Implementing the UN Guiding Principles across all major global sporting events will help break the cycle of human rights abuses, and this example from the IOC should be applied to all such events, starting now.”

In the past, the IOC, FIFA, and other sports organizations did not feel responsible for what was happening in the host country or host city, Schenk says. “By adding specific clauses to the host contract, they demonstrate that they accept their responsibility.”

Let the games begin. The first host city to be subject to the anti-corruption and human rights clause likely will be Paris, which is expected to host the 2024 Olympics. “We are already in touch with Transparency France, and they are in touch with the City of Paris,” Schenk says.

Because the IOC publicly awarded the 2028 Olympic Games to Los Angeles prior to awarding the 2024 Olympic Games to Paris, however, Los Angeles became the first host city to agree to the revised contract terms.

Specifically, the relevant language in the contract states that the host city, the Host National Olympic Committee, and the Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games shall, in their activities related to the organization of the Games:

protect and respect human rights and ensure any violation of human rights is remedied in a manner consistent with international agreements, laws and regulations applicable in the Host Country and in a manner consistent with all internationally recognized human rights standards and principles, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, applicable in the Host Country; and

refrain from any act involving fraud or corruption, in a manner consistent with any international agreements, laws and regulations applicable in the Host Country and all internationally recognized anti-corruption standards applicable in the Host Country, including by establishing and maintaining effective reporting and compliance.

While these efforts are a big leap forward, the real test comes with actual implementation and monitoring by both the host city and, consequently, all companies and contractors involved. “It’s an achievement,” Schenk says, “but it’s still just the beginning.”

Paris and Los Angeles will be good test cities, because both host countries have a strong legal framework to fight corruption, she says. The hope is that each will set the standard for future games.