For Pierre de Coubertin and those who helped him establish
the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the Games were to
be not simply an athletic event, but the focal point of
a broadly-based social movement which, through the activity
of sport and culture, was to enhance human development and
generally make the world a better place.
In the intervening years, the modern Olympic Movement has
not only raised the standard of sporting excellence far
beyond anything Coubertin dreamed about and taken sport
to every corner of the globe, but intervened on some of
the most difficult social issues of its time. The Olympic
Movement is justly proud of its moral leadership against
racism and apartheid, against sexism and gender discrimination
and against doping and other forms of unethical competition.
During the 1990s, the IOC accepted responsibility for sustaining
the natural environment in which the Olympic Games are staged.
Today the Olympic Movement is faced with an ethical challenge
that affects the social environment in which training, competition
and revenue generation occur. At issue are the business
practices of the world's largest sportswear companies. The
expansion of international trade in sportswear goods under
the auspices of such corporate giants as Nike, Adidas, Puma,
Fila and Roots Canada has drawn millions of people, mostly
women, into the global economy.
As a former Olympic athlete, I can attest to the intense
pride athletes feel when they don our national colours to
represent Canada on the world stage. But how difficult it
is to take pride in a uniform made under sweatshop conditions,
wondering whether our garments of pride were sewn by a woman
working at the end of a 14-hour shift in a badly-ventilated
warehouse for pennies.
A new report, Play Fair at the Olympics, released by Oxfam
Canada, the Canadian Labour Congress and the Maquila Solidarity
Network asks fundamental questions about the global sportswear
industry -- questions that go to the heart of debates on
poverty, workers' rights, trade and globalisation. The sportswear
business model is based on ruthless pressure on prices,
a demand for fast and flexible delivery of goods, and a
constant shift in manufacturing location in search of cheaper
wages and more lax enforcement of labour regulations.
Many sportswear companies have attempted to address these
concerns by establishing purchasing codes of conduct. However,
the Play Fair report found that these ethical commitments
were all too often contradicted by aggressive purchasing
practices, and the lack of independent monitoring and enforcement.
As one factory owner explained, "Higher labour standards
in Cambodia do not tie a buyer to a factory. Only a good
price can do that."
Employment in the sportswear industry is often precarious
in nature, involving unreasonably long working hours, low
wages (usually paid by piece-rate), dangerous working conditions,
temporary or seasonal work, and no sick leave, maternity
leave or benefits. Yet the Olympic Movement has long been
silent about these issues.
The Olympic Movement seeks to create a way of life based
on "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
It is time to extend this aspiration to the workers who
produce the uniforms and equipment on which it depends and
it advertises. As the primary holder of the rights to the
use of the Olympic logo, the International Olympic Movement
can and should enforce changes by building into sportswear
licensing and sponsorship contracts commitments to respect
internationally-recognized labour standards. The International
Olympic Committee should be using its influence to ensure
that workers in the sportswear industry are employed under
fair, dignified and safe conditions.
A growing number of North American universities have accepted
such obligations, and demonstrated their feasibility. In
2000, U of T became one of the first Canadian universities
to develop a code of conduct for trademark licensees to
ensure that manufacturers and suppliers of trademarked merchandise
meet minimum employment standards regarding wages and benefits,
working hours and overtime compensation. The code also has
specific prohibitions on child labour, forced labour and
harassment and requires licensees and their contractors
to recognize and respect the right of employees to freedom
of association and collective bargaining.
On Sunday, the Canadian Olympic Committee will be holding
its annual general meeting in Montreal. Delegates will be
celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Olympic movement
in Canada. This weekend my colleagues could demonstrate
leadership on this issue by calling upon the IOC to protect
the right of workers who produce Olympic clothing and equipment.
The leaders of the Canadian Olympic Movement, including
the newly formed Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee, can
show the world that it will again place sport at the service
of human development and justice.
Just as you will not see the Olympic Movement signing sponsorship
deals with tobacco firms, similarly, no deals should be
made with companies who are ready to ignore and abuse the
rights of workers. After all, if the values of the Olympic
movement stopped at the stadium wall, it would be only a
shadow of Pierre de Coubertin's dream.
Bruce Kidd, an Olympian at the 1964 Summer Games in
Tokyo, is now an honorary member of the Canadian Olympic
Committee and Professor in the Faculty of Physical Education
and Health at the University of Toronto.