International Sports Law

By Amy Burchfield

Amy Burchfield is the Access and Faculty Services Librarian at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Library. She previously worked as the International and Foreign Law Reference Librarian at the John Wolff International & Comparative Law Library at the Georgetown University Law Center. Ms. Burchfield earned her JD from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and an MLIS and MA in German translation from Kent State University. She is the author of International Criminal Courts for the Former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone: A Guide to Online and Print Resources.

Published July 2008
[Originally Published February 2006]
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Scope of Guide

At its most noble level, sport is a powerful societal phenomenon that unites communities and fosters international exchange and friendship. At its basest level, the fervor sport induces can trigger violence and the desire to engage in illegal activities in order to gain a competitive edge. And at all levels, sport in today’s global community is about big money and the disputes that naturally follow. This guide is intended to highlight some of the resources researchers can use to explore many aspects of international sports law.

This guide covers the key institutions and organizations that govern international sports. Attention is paid to the structure and key documents of these institutions. Dispute settlement mechanisms for sport are included, with reference to sources of sports decisions. International treaties that relate to sports are highlighted, along with key policy documents. Finally, out of the many themes that arise in relation to international sports law, these themes are briefly covered in this guide: human rights, discrimination, violence, women and sports, and sports and the EU.

List of Key Abbreviations

Sports law is an area that relies heavily on abbreviations, which can be confusing to those starting out in their research. With this in mind, the following is a list of the most important sports-related abbreviations that will be used in this guide. This is not a complete list of all abbreviations.

CAS – Court of Arbitration for Sport

FIFA – Fédération Internationale de Football Association

IF – International Federation

ICAS – International Council of Arbitration for Sport

IOC – International Olympic Committee

NOC – National Olympic Committee

OCOG – Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games

WADA – World Anti-Doping Agency

Governance of Individual Sports

On a worldwide level, individual sports are regulated by the international federation (IF) that governs that sport. For example, soccer (football) is governed at the global level by FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association). FIFA establishes the rules of game play as well as regulations governing players, agents, and referees. FIFA ensures compliance with its Disciplinary Code [pdf]. FIFA’s Dispute Settlement Chamber hears labor disputes and disputes over training compensation and solidarity contribution. Selective decisions of the Dispute Resolution Chamber are available online from 2002 to 2007.

Other international federations include

  • FIG (Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique)
  • IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation)
  • ISU (International Skating Union)
  • UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale)

The governance structure for soccer is further supported by regional sports organizations (such as the UEFA – Union of European Football Associations) and national-level organizations (such as FIA – Football Association of Ireland).

Olympic Games

Along with the FIFA World Cup, the Olympic Games is the world’s most recognized international sporting event. Started in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games were revived in modern times in 1896. This timeline summarizes the Games from 1896 to the present time. This section will explain the organizational structure of the Olympic Games and illustrate the law-related functions of the various entities. For related information, see the International Paralympic Committee.

Olympic Charter

The founding document of the Olympic Movement is the Olympic Charter [pdf], which addresses the legal status of the International Olympic Committee, the role of the International Federations and the National Olympic Committees, the World Anti-Doping Code, as well as the Olympic flag, emblems, motto and flame, among other things. The Olympic Charter also states that all disputes that arise in connection with the Olympic Games shall be submitted exclusively to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) [see section below].

International Olympic Committee (IOC)

Founded on June 23, 1894 by the French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is an international non-governmental organization that is the final authority on the Olympic Movement. The IOC owns the rights to the Olympic symbols, flag, motto and anthem.

The Executive Board of the IOC assumes many of the legislative functions of the organization and is responsible for enacting all regulations necessary for the full implementation of the Olympic Charter. The Executive Board is assisted in its administrative function by several commissions, including ethics, TV rights and new media, and sports and law.

The individual members of the IOC represent the IOC in their respective countries. Unlike congressional or parliamentary members, they do not represent the interests of their individual countries to the IOC. There are currently 115 members in the IOC.

International Federations (IFs)

International Federations (IFs) are non-governmental organizations that are responsible for the administration of one or more sports at the world level. IFs are recognized by the IOC and cooperate with it in ensuring that their activities comply with the Olympic Charter.

The IFs are organized into three categories which are in turn each organized under its own supervising body. These are illustrated in the table below.

Category Body Example Sports
Summer Olympic Sports ASOIF (Association of Summer Olympic International Federations) archery, badminton, cycling, gymnastics, triathlon, wrestling
Winter Olympic Sports AIOWF (Association of International Winter Sports Federations) biathlon, bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, luge, skating, skiing
Recognized Sports* ARISF (Association of the IOC Recognized International Sports Federations) boules, chess, golf, karate, netball, polo, rugby, surfing, wushu

* Recognized Sports are non-Olympic sports that are recognized by the IOC. According to the list of ARISF members, there are currently 29 recognized sports.

National Olympic Committees (NOCs)

Each country that belongs to the International Olympic Committee has in turn its own National Olympic Committee (NOC). There are currently 202 NOCs, which are illustrated on this map. The 202 NOCs meet periodically in the form of the Association of National Olympic Committees to discuss their role in the Olympic Movement. The NOCs are organized into five regional associations:

  • ANOCA (Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa)
  • PASO (Pan American Sports Organization)
  • OCA (Olympic Council of Asia)
  • EOC (European Olympic Committees)
  • ONOC (Oceana National Olympic Committees)

Organising Committees of the Olympic Games (OCOGs)

The IOC entrusts the organization of the Olympic Games to the NOC of the host country. The local NOC forms an OCOG to accomplish the task of organizing the Olympic Games for a given year.

OCOGs must comply with three sources of authority: the Olympic Charter, the contract entered into between the IOC, the NOC of the host country, and the host city, and the instructions from the IOC Executive Board.

The four OCOGs in current operation are Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010, London 2012, and Sochi 2014.

Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)


With the substantial economic impact of international sports comes the increased likelihood of dispute. In 1983, the IOC established the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) as a court with specialized knowledge in the field of sports. CAS is also known by its French name, Tribunal Arbitral du Sport (TAS).

In 1994, CAS underwent substantial changes in its structure and procedures. From 1983 until 1994, CAS was monitored and solely funded by the IOC. In 1994, the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (ICAS) was formed to administer and fund CAS. This change secured the independent status of CAS. The creation of ICAS and the changes in the structure of CAS were finalized in a document called the Paris Agreement (Agreement Related to the Constitution of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport).[1]

The Code of Sports-related Arbitration spells out the two divisions of CAS: the Ordinary Arbitration Division and the Appeals Arbitration Division. The Ordinary Division functions as a court of sole instance. The Appeals Division hears cases brought to it on appeal from the various IFs and other sports organizations. CAS also has the power to issue advisory opinions. In rare instances, CAS decisions can be appealed to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.

In addition to ordinary and appeals divisions, CAS forms special ad hoc divisions to hear urgent cases that arise during the Olympic Games. The turn-around time for arbitration decisions made by the ad hoc division is as short as 24 hours. There will likely be an ad hoc division of CAS established for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

Parties generally agree to refer their disputes to CAS in their individual arbitration agreements. All Olympic IFs except one, and many of the NOCs have included a CAS arbitration clause in their agreements.

Arbitral Awards

CAS hears cases on a variety of subjects, including doping, issues of nationality, advertising sponsorship, judging matters and other subjects of a commercial or disciplinary nature. Web and print access to published CAS awards is explained below.

The most recent arbitral awards rendered by CAS are published on the CAS Case law page. The CAS indicates that a database of all non-confidential CAS cases since 1986 will be made available in the future.

Selected older awards are published in print in Recueil des sentences du TAS: Digest of CAS Awards (three volumes, from 1986 to 2003). Not all awards are published in these volumes. Awards are selected for publication on the basis of their impact on CAS case law and on sports law in general. All awards are published in both English and French, the two official languages of CAS.

In addition, CAS published a separate volume, CAS Awards – Sydney 2000 to document the fifteen cases CAS heard in relation to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. The majority of these cases are also published in the 1998-2000 edition of Recueil des sentences du TAS: Digest of CAS Awards.

Selected decisions from other Olympics are published in Recueil des sentences du TAS: Digest of CAS Awards. Four of the six cases from the 1996 Atlanta games and two of the five cases from the 1998 Nagano games are reproduced in the 1986-1998 volume of Recueil. All six arbitral awards rendered by CAS in relation to the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake are reproduced in the 2001-2003 volume of Recueil des sentences du TAS: Digest of CAS Awards.

Web access to all non-confidential CAS decisions since 1986 is forthcoming on the CAS jurisprudence archive page.


World Anti-Doping Agency

Doping is the use of prohibited substances to enhance performance in sports. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is organized “to promote and coordinate at the international level the fight against doping in sport in all its forms.” [See WADA’s Constitutive Instrument WADA cooperates in this endeavor with the IOC, the NOCs, the IFs and national anti-doping organizations.

WADA monitors compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code [pdf], the worldwide standard for anti-doping regulations. Over eighty countries as well as several international sports-governing bodies have adopted the Code. The annually updated Prohibited List spells out precisely which substances are banned from use by athletes in sporting events. Enforcement under the Code is accomplished through sanctions.

The Copenhagen Declaration on Anti-Doping in Sport is a non-binding political document through which governments signal their intention to formally recognize and implement the World Anti-Doping Code. WADA and doping are often the subject of posts on the Sport Law Blog.

National Anti-Doping Agencies

This selective list of national anti-doping agencies highlights those agencies with a strong Web presence. WADA provides a comprehensive list of the current 91 national anti-doping organizations.

Anti-Doping Treaties and Declarations

This regional anti-doping treaty was concluded by the Council of Europe and has been ratified by 46 countries.

The final draft of this UNESCO treaty is scheduled to be adopted prior to the start of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.

There have been several declarations on anti-doping in sport that have come out of international conventions and other meetings, including:

Human Rights & Anti-Discrimination Provisions in International Treaties & Declarations

Many international treaties and declarations address human-rights related sports issues and discrimination in sports. National laws, such as the United State’s Title IX, further define this area. The following list of sports-related provisions in international treaties and declarations is representative of international norms in this area.

  • The Olympic Charter – The Fundamental Principles of Olympism in the Olympic Charter [pdf] state that sport is a human right and prohibit discrimination of any kind.
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – No specific mention of sport is made in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). However, this foundational human rights treaty confirms the right of everyone to receive an education (Article 13) and the right of everyone to take part in cultural life (Article 15).
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – Sport is specifically mentioned in two provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Recalling the language of the ICESCR, the one instance relates to education, and the second relates to cultural life. Article 10 states that women shall have the same opportunities to participate actively in sports and physical education. Article 13 states that women shall have the right to participate in recreational activities, sports and all aspects of cultural life.
  • Children’s right to rest and leisure and to engage in play and recreational activities is recognized in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
  • UNESCO International Charter of Physical Education and Sport – The UNESCO International Charter of Physical Education and Sport [pdf] states a general prohibition against discrimination by recalling the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its preface. Article 1 of the Charter specifically mentions every human being’s fundamental right of access to physical education and sport.
  • European Sport for All Charter – This Charter – 1992 version [pdf] and 2001 revision [pdf] – prohibits discrimination in access to sports facilities or sports activities on the grounds of sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, and birth or other status. Article 4(1).
  • International Convention against Apartheid in Sports – Article 10 of the International Convention against Apartheid in Sports exhorts its adherents to uphold the “Olympic principles of non-discrimination” – the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, religion or political affiliation embodied in the Olympic Charter.
  • The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous peoples have the “right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as manifestations of their . . . sports and traditional games . . . .” (Article 31)
  • The new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities extensively addresses access to and participation in sporting activities. Article 30(5) requires state parties to take measures to ensure: (a) the encouragement and participation in mainstream sporting activities; (b) disability-specific sporting activities; (c) access to sporting venues; (d) children’s equal access with other children to sporting activities; and (e) access to services from those involved in sporting activities.

Additional Themes & Web Resources

Women & Sports

The key international treaty relating to women and sports is CEDAW, discussed above in the section on human rights and anti-discrimination provisions in sports treaties.

One of the long-standing organizations in this area is the International Working Group on Women and Sport (IWG), founded in 1994 with the objective of promoting and facilitating the development of girls and women in sports and physical activity worldwide. Four policy statements Brighton, Windhoek, Montreal, and Kumamoto have been drafted in connection with previous World Conferences on Women and Sport. The next conference will be held in Sydney, Australia in 2010. Other organizations include Women Sport International [advocacy group] and nationally-focused organizations such as Women’s Sports Foundation [US-focused]. While groups like these may not directly issue documents of primary law, they can be helpful background sources in identifying the key issues in the area of women and sports.

EU Sports & the Constitution

The Sport Unit of the European Union’s Directorate General for Education and Culture cooperates with the European Commission and other institutions on sports-related issues. One issue of legal significance is the incorporation of sport into the proposed EU Constitutional Treaty. The EU Constitutional Treaty [consolidated draft version in pdf] refers to sport in terms of “contribut[ing] to the promotion of European sporting issues, given the social and educational function of sport….Union action shall be aimed at developing the European dimension in sport, by promoting fairness in competitions and cooperation between sporting bodies and by protecting the physical and moral integrity of sportsmen and sportswomen, especially young sportsmen and sportswomen.”

EU Sports & Violence

Soccer-related spectator violence, or football hooliganism as it is often called, has elicited a response from EU policy makers and legislators at several levels. After the 1995 Heysel Stadium disaster [LFC Online article], the Council of Europe drafted the European Convention on Spectator Violence and Misbehavior at Sports Events and in particular at Football Matches, which aims to prevent and control “violence and misbehavior by spectators at football matches.” EU proposals, legislation, recommendations, and other documents related to preventing violence at sporting events are available on the EU Justice and Home Affairs page on football hooliganism.

Think Tanks, Associations & Research Sites

Sports Bibliographies, Databases and Periodicals

The Peace Palace Library maintains an extensive multilingual Bibliography on Sports Law that tracks sports treatises, journal articles, organizations and individual documents. The SportDiscus database covers a broad range of sport-related topics, but indexes many of the key sports journals dedicated to sports and the law. See the database’s current periodicals list [pdf] for examples.

Sports law periodicals are a rich source of secondary literature on the subject. Some of the leading periodicals include:

  • DePaul Journal of Sports Law and Contemporary Problems
  • Diritto internazionale dello sport
  • Entertainment and Sports Lawyer
  • Florida Entertainment, Art & Sport Law Journal
  • International Sports Law Journal
  • International Sports Law Review
  • Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport
  • Marquette Sports Law Review
  • Revue juridique et économique du sport
  • Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law
  • Sports Law Administration and Practice
  • Sports Law Bulletin
  • The Sports Lawyers’ Journal
  • SpuRt: Zeitschrift für Sport
  • Texas Review of Entertainment and Sports Law
  • University of Miami Entertainment and Sports Law Review
  • Villanova Sports & Entertainment Law Journal
  • Virginia Sports and Entertainment Law Journal
  • World Sports Law Report
  • Zeitschrift für Sport und Recht


Ian S. Blackshaw, Mediating Sports Disputes: National and International Perspectives (2002)

Roger Blanpain, The Legal Status of Sportsmen and Sportswomen under International, European and Belgian National and Regional Law (2003)

Neville Cox and Alex Schuster, Sport and the Law (2004)

Gabrielle Kaufmann-Kohler, Arbitration at the Olympics (2001)

James A.R. Nafziger, International Sports Law (2nd ed., 2004)

Robert C.R. Siekmann and Janwillem Soek, Arbitral and Disciplinary Rules of International Sports Organisations (2001)

Robert C.R. Siekmann and Janwillem Soek, Doping Rules of International Sports Organisations (1999)

[1] The Paris Agreement is also reprinted in Digest of CAS Awards II 1998-2000 (Mattieu Reeb, ed. 2002).