International Sports Law

By Hunter Whaley & R. Martin Witt

Hunter Whaley is a Lecturer in Law and a Reference Librarian at Columbia Law School. Primarily fielding research questions at the reference desk, Hunter also teaches introductory legal research classes as part of the Law School’s first-year Legal Practice Workshop and LL.M. Legal Research and Writing. Prior to coming to Columbia Law School in 2015, Hunter earned his B.A in 2008, J.D. in 2013, and, finally, his M.L.I.S. in 2014 in Florida

R. Martin Witt is the Head of Public Services and a Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School. He joined Columbia Law as a Reference Librarian in March 2013. Just prior to joining Columbia Law School, he was the Reference Librarian and International/Comparative Specialist, as well as an Adjunct Professor, at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Fla. He earned his B.A. in Urban Studies and Planning from the University at Albany, his J.D. from Albany Law School, and his M.L.I.S. from the University of Denver.

Published April 2018

(Previously updated in July 2008, August 2011, and May/June 2014)

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1. Introduction

1.1. 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 the 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 listed, 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, gender and sports, fair play, gambling on sports, and sports and the EU.

1.2. 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 Sports 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

2. International Governance of Individual Sports

On a worldwide level, individual sports are regulated by the International Sports 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. The 2017 Edition of the Disciplinary Code is available here. 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 2013.

Other international federations include

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

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).

2.1. 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 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.

2.2. Olympic Charter

The founding document of the Olympic Movement is the Olympic Charter, which addresses the legal status of the International Olympic Committee, the role of the International Federations and the National Olympic Committees, and 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].

2.3. 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, sports and environment, and medical.

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 100 members in the IOC.

2.4. International Sports Federations

International Sports 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 their own supervising body. They are illustrated in the table below.



Example Sports

Summer Olympic Sports

ASOIF (Association of Summer Olympic International Federations)

archery, boxing, cycling, gymnastics, swimming, wrestling

Winter Olympic Sports

AIOWF (Association of International Winter Sports Federations)

biathlon, bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, luge, skeleton, snowboard

Recognized Sports*

ARISF (Association of the IOC Recognised International Sports Federations)

Bowling, cricket, flying disc, karate, netball, polo, rugby, surfing, wushu

*Recognized Sports are non-Olympic sports that are recognized by the IOC. According to the list of members, there are currently 37 recognized sports federations in ASIRF, some of which represent multiple sports (e.g., FAI Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, representing, among other sports, Aeromodelling, Ballooning, Gliding, and Parachuting).

2.5. National Olympic Committees

Each country that belongs to the International Olympic Committee has in turn its own National Olympic Committee (NOC). The mission of the NOCs is to develop, promote, and protect the Olympic Movement in their respective countries, in accordance with the Olympic Charter. There are currently 206 NOCs, although at the time of this writing the NOCs for Kuwait, Brazil, and Russia are suspended. You can also find a PDF of the Protocol Order here. The 206 NOCs meet periodically in the form of the Association of National Olympic Committees to discuss their role in the Olympic Movement and are organized into five continental associations:

2.6. 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.

National Governance of Sports
In addition to the international governance of certain sports, individual countries may also have a stake in the game. The importance of sport is so fundamental that, beyond merely passing legislation governing aspects of sports, some countries mention sport in their constitutions. How sports are governed on the national level often indicates whether financing of sport by the government is direct or indirect. In some instances, like in Greece, these national levels of governance can have an impact on the international level as well.

A sample of countries with sports mentioned in the constitution:

Dispute Resolution
While courts have shied away from questioning decisions made during a game, instead deferring to the on-field officials’ calls, the growing business of sports is resulting in an increase of sports related disputes. With the time pressure of scheduled events and financial consequences for missing deadlines, sporting disputes are often settled outside the slow, inflexible, and expensive court system. Instead, parties prefer more expedited mediation or arbitration processes.

Mediation is a popular first step in sport dispute resolution due to many factors including confidentiality, cost, and quick turnaround time. It is not suitable for every type of dispute however, as the CAS Mediation Rules note that disciplinary disputes are excluded from mediation.

There are several mediation organizations parties may reach out to in the event of a dispute:

3. Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)

3.1. Overview

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 Agreement related to the constitution of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (Paris Agreement). The full text of the Paris Agreement (in French and English) is also reprinted beginning on page 881 in the Digest of CAS Awards II 1998-2000 (Mattieu Reeb, ed. 2002).

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.

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.

3.2. 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 Recent Decisions page. The Database of CAS Awards makes available all non-confidential CAS jurisprudence, including ad hoc decisions, since the tribunal’s establishment in 1986.

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.

Decisions relating to soccer have been compiled in CAS and Football: Landmark Cases, published in 2011 as part of the ASSER International Sports Law Series. The cases are organized topically, covering areas such as contractual matters, doping, hooliganism, match fixing, players’ agents, and young players.

4. Anti-Doping

4.1. World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is organized to “to promote and coordinate at the international level the fight against doping in sport in all its forms” (WADA’s Constitutive Instrument, English translation). WADA cooperates in this endeavor with the IOC, the NOCs, the IFs and national anti-doping organizations. In the WADA context, “[d]oping is defined as the occurrence of one or more of the anti-doping rule violations set forth in Article 2.1 through Article 2.10 of the Code.” (2015 World Anti-Doping Code, Art. 1). This broad definition includes both the use and the attempted use by an athlete of a prohibited substance or prohibited method (2015 World Anti-Doping Code, Art. 2.2).

WADA monitors compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code, the worldwide standard for anti-doping regulations. The Code, published in French and English, is interpreted as an independent and autonomous text and if there is a conflict between the French and English versions, the English version will prevail (2015 World Anti-Doping Code, Art. 24). The Prohibited List, published at least once a year or as often as needed, spells out precisely which substances and methods 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. 193 governments have signed the Declaration.

4.2. National Anti-Doping Agencies

WADA provides a comprehensive list of the currently over 125 national organizations that are signatories to the anti-doping Code. Some of the more active organizations include:

4.3. Anti-Doping Treaties and Declarations

This regional anti-doping treaty was concluded by the Council of Europe and has been ratified by 51 countries.

This UNESCO treaty entered into force on February 1, 2007. There are currently 176 state parties to the Convention.

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

5. 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 States’ 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 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, Physical Activity and Sport 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.
  • The American Convention on Human Rights addresses sport in the context of freedom of association (Article 16), stating that “[e]veryone has the right to associate freely for ideological, religious, economic, labor, social, cultural, sports, or other purposes.”
  • Article 4(1) of The European Sports Charter (Revised 2001) 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 in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • International Convention against Apartheid in Sports – Article 10 of the International Convention against Apartheid in Sports [pdf] 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 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.

6. Additional Themes & Web Resources

6.1. Women and 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. In addition to CEDAW, UNESCO recognizes the gender inequality in sport and is working toward increasing female participation in sport programs.

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. IWG hosts a conference every four years with the Helsinki 2014 conference generating the Women in Sport Progress Report 1994-2014. Other organizations include WomenSport International and nationally-focused organizations such as Women’s Sports Foundation. 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.

Gender Identity and Sports
Gender Identity in sports remains a complex issue. Male-to-female transgender athletes may be seen as having an advantage in female events or a disadvantage in male events, while female-to-male transgender athletes may be unable to overcome the strict anti-doping rules. In 2015, in the IOC Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism, the IOC relaxed rules regarding eligibility in male and female competitions to promote fair play and human rights.

6.2. EU Sports and Lisbon Treaty

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 Lisbon Treaty. Article 165 of the treaty refers to sport in terms of “contribut[ing] to the promotion of European sporting issues, while taking account of the specific nature of sport … Union action shall be aimed at … developing the European dimension in sport, by promoting fairness and openness in competitions and cooperation between bodies responsible for sports, and by protecting the physical and moral integrity of sportsmen and sportswomen, especially the youngest sportsmen and sportswomen.”

6.3. EU Sports and 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. In 1985, 39 people in Belgium lost their lives in the Heysel Stadium disaster, in part due to conflict between fans of Liverpool and Juventus. Following the tragedy, 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.”

The Council of the European Union also adopted several resolutions on football hooliganism in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Fair Play: Encompassing many of the issues above (violence, non-discrimination, doping) the ideal of fairness in sport, playing by the rules and building trust and community spirit, is easily transferred to aspects outside of the game. Qualities such as good faith, impartiality, and uniformity make up the legal sense of fair play. These basic ideas are set out in the European Sports Charter (Revised 2001).

Gambling: Betting on sports is a complicated issue. On one hand, gambling provides an economic opportunity for organizations. On the other hand, issues like match fixing and gambling addiction necessitate systems of regulation. Indeed, many studies have been undertaken to understand corruption in sport. For example, the Report on Corruption in International Cricket April 2001 recommends 24 ways to deal with corrupt cricket activity. Such reports have led to organizations creating anti-corruption policies, working groups, and international systems of enforcement, such as the FIFA established Early Warning System, which is now also used by the Olympic Games. When researching sports betting and gambling, one needs to take into consideration the sport and local regulations.

United Kingdom
Gambling and sports betting is strictly regulated. In 1999, the Grambling Review Body was created to determine the effectiveness of gambling laws and suggest revisions. It did so as part of its Gambling Review Report. Thereafter, as part of the Gambling Act 2005, the Gambling Commission was created to advise local and national government and ensure compliance of licensed gambling operators. More recently, the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014 began to tackle the issue of licensing of remote gambling by requiring operators selling into the British market, domestic or foreign, to hold a Gambling Commission license.

The main legislation regulating gambling in Germany is the Interstate Treaty on Gambling 2012. The Hessian Ministry of the Interior and Sports is responsible for issuing sports betting licenses. In Germany, sports betting is allowed, and regulated, on both the national and länder (state) levels. In general, gambling licenses are granted by the states to operators within the state. Often, these licenses will go to the state government, creating state monopolies on gambling and sports betting. However, organizing and advertising gambling without a license is punishable on the national level by the German Criminal Code.

New Zealand
Gambling in New Zealand is strictly regulated. Most gambling is regulated under the Gambling Act of 2003 (which specifies prize classes, licensing, advertising and minimum standards for legal gambling) and the Racing Act of 2003 (which gives the New Zealand Racing Board the ability to make rules, deemed regulations, that Parliament can inspect to ensure fairness).

For more gambling and betting legislation see:

6.4. Think Tanks, Associations & Research Sites

7. 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, and indexes many of the key sports journals dedicated to sports and the law. Thomson Reuters Practical Law™ provides a guide and comparison tool to gaming laws and regulations in many countries. See the database’s full text subject title list for examples.

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

  • African Sports Law and Business Journal
  • Causa Sport
  • DePaul Journal of Sports Law and Contemporary Problems
  • Diritto internazionale dello sport
  • e-Lex Sportiva Journal
  • Entertainment and Sports Lawyer
  • Florida Entertainment, Art & Sport Law Journal
  • International Sports Law Journal
  • International Sports Law Review Pandektis
  • 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

8. References

  • Commission of the European Communities, White Paper on Sport (2007)
  • 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 (2d ed., 2004)
  • James A.R. Nafziger and Stephen F. Ross, Handbook on International Sports Law (2011)
  • 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)