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Olympism - a protected belief?

21 August 2012

It has now been a while since the stunning Olympic cauldron was extinguished and TeamGB’s most successful ever games drew to a close. But there are signs the Olympic spirit may have permeated the nation, leaving a lasting impression.

Aspiring Ben Ainslies have booked up sailing courses, London’s once quiet running routes are packed with wannabe Mo Farahs, and potential Ed McKeevers can be seen kayaking down the Thames. Truly, the nation is living the games.

It’s too soon to know whether this is a temporary fad or the start of a permanent change in attitudes to sport.  If the latter, would the law protect employees with a new-found belief in sports and Olympism?

The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from discrimination because of religion or belief.  We’ve already seen cases holding that beliefs in spiritualism, anthropogenic climate change and even public service broadcasting are covered.  Could a belief in Olympism have similar status?

In Grainger v Nicholson, the Employment Appeal Tribunal described the qualities which a belief must possess in order to be protected.  It must:

  • be genuinely held;
  • be a belief, not just an opinion;
  • relate to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • have a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • be worthy of respect in a democratic society; and
  • have similar status or cogency to a religious belief.

Arguably, Olympism is a belief that satisfies all of these criteria.

The practice of sport, a central tenet of Olympism, is stated to be “human right”.  But Olympism is about much more than simply playing sport: it amounts to a philosophy of life.  The four-yearly tournament represents a celebration and promotion of that philosophy, not merely an end in itself.

Moreover, Olympism sets out a complete way of living based on effort, setting a good example and fair play.  Its values of equality, non-discrimination and encouragement of peace through sport are clearly serious and important, relating to weighty aspects of human life.  The 95-page Olympics Charter sets out the fundamental values of the Olympics movement and codifies its rules and organisation.  It provides not just a constitution but a cogent and cohesive ethos.

Finally, few could argue that the philosophy and aims of the Olympics movement should not be not worthy of respect in a democratic society.  After all, Olympism has its origins with the ancient Greeks – the creators of modern democracy.

A belief must be genuinely held and impact upon someone’s day-to-day life.  For an employee to have protection from discrimination, they must “live” their lives in accordance with the values of Olympism in a way which is far more comprehensive than simply being very keen on sport.

Workplace practices, culture and policies might restrict an employee’s ability to do this and one could readily think of potential situations in which someone with a strong belief in Olympism could face discrimination.

For example, long shift patterns could make it impossible for someone to have the opportunity to practise sport in their own time, so preventing them practising their belief.  Refusing an employee time off during either the summer or winter Olympics might also be discrimination, perhaps comparable to requiring a Christian to work on Christmas Day.

At present, those with a strong belief in Olympism are probably quite few and far between.  But if London 2012 really does inspire a generation, creating the enduring legacy that is hoped for, accommodating Olympist beliefs could become a live issue for employers.


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