Mary Harvey is used to blazing the trail in sports.
Despite growing up without major soccer tournaments to aspire to play in, the goalkeeper helped the US win the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 and the first women’s Olympic soccer title five years later.
“As a women’s national team, we didn’t set out to have wide-scale impact, but we did,” Harvey said in an interview. “That’s what I wanted my life to be about: The ability to impact others in a positive way.”
Today, that desire has made her one of the biggest campaigners for human rights through sports.
After starting her career as a consultant, Harvey led development work at FIFA from 2003 to 2008, helping formulate a human rights strategy for the successful 2026 World Cup bid by the US, Canada and Mexico.
Now, Harvey is to take that strategy global by heading a new sports human rights watchdog.
“The language of human rights it not certainly the language of sport,” Harvey said. “So I went through that personally and learned it [for the World Cup bid].”
Harvey is preparing to move to Switzerland from the US to serve as chief executive of the Center for Sport and Human Rights, hoping governing bodies adopt some of FIFA’s newfound commitment to making compliance on labor and discrimination issues central to whether a country can host a major event.
The game changer was Qatar winning the vote to host the 2022 World Cup and the subsequent focus on labor conditions for migrant workers, which led to the nation being compelled to provide greater protections.
FIFA made bidders for the 2026 edition own up to their human rights risks and present a means of tackling them.
FIFA serves on the center’s advisory board among 41 organizations across the sporting world.
“In the future if people are bidding and they’re less than aggressive with what they want to do on the human right side, with maybe a smart box-ticking exercise,” Harvey said. “There should be accountability for that.”
It is about leveraging the power of a country chasing a sports event to encourage change, she said.
“This isn’t a panacea for nation-building,” Harvey said. “We can exert influence.”
Harvey hopes the center could be an outlet for athletes, officials and workers around sport to report wrongdoing and have their safety protected.
“Human rights defenders are targets,” Harvey said.
However, the center still requires investment, she added.
“We can’t operate with any sort of fear of what we say or do and how that affects funding,” Harvey said. “We have to be able to operate independently and provide a free service.”
The center was launched in June and is chaired by former Irish president Mary Robinson, who has also served as UN high commissioner for human rights.
Using the center’s status, Robinson is to seek greater protections for local communities affected by sports events — such as traders forced to close their stalls near World Cup venues, as she complained to FIFA about during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and 2014 edition in Brazil.
“I hope they won’t exclude those who you know could actually improve their living by being able to trade around the stadiums,” Robinson said.
There are also concerns about how free labor could be relied on to operate events.
“Volunteers can play a role, but not if it displaces the potential for people having jobs where the entities can well afford to give people the opportunity to have gainful employment rather than work as volunteers,” Robinson said.
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