Olympism - a protected belief?Add To My Clippings Alt Text

By Tom Heys

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.


Comment (3)

John Allman from United Kingdom 07 Feb 11:26pm

"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." No chance. I have long argued that Mba was wrongly argued. Miss Mba couldn't keep up her weekly church-going. I said that the shift pattern of her employer infringed every employee's Article 8 right to a day off every week to do "something*, not necessarily Sunday and not necessarily church-going, as well as thwarting Mba's desire to attend her church on Sundays. I publicly criticised Mba's (Christian activist) legal team, saying that they should have advanced an argument that worked as well for a golf-player as for a church-goer. Since Mba lost her case by using the same argument here proposed (Article 9 rather than Article 8), but with her church-going replacing her sport, I don't see how Olympism is going to get privileges that Christianity was refused as you envisage. It is gratifying to find that I am ahead of the curve once again. I have been Olympophobic since my youth. When can we expect the first schoolteachers to be sacked for Olympophobia, or the first public speakers?

Sam from Ashburn, VA, USA 07 Feb 10:32pm

It's been a couple of years and the Winter Games in Sochi have begun. Has the level of foot traffic on the trails been maintained or has it dropped off?

Frank Cranmer from United Kingdom 07 Feb 09:55am

I suspect that the answer is, “quite possibly”. In Maistry v BBC [2011] ET 1313142/2010; the claimant alleged unfair dismissal and discrimination on grounds of his philosophical belief ‘that public service broadcasting has the higher purpose of promoting cultural interchange and social cohesion’. Employment Judge Hughes held that the claimant held a ‘philosophical belief’ for the purposes of discrimination law and so his complaints could proceed to a full hearing. In reaching that conclusion, the tribunal applied the tests as laid out in Grainger There was no dispute as to whether the belief was ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’. The belief was more than mere opinion, given that the purpose of public broadcasting and the concept of the public space had attracted commentary by broadcasters, philosophers and academics (para 17). The beliefs concerned a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and neither the Regulations nor the case-indicated that a ‘mission statement’ could not amount to a philosophical belief if its aims were the result of an underlying philosophical belief (para 18) and the asserted belief was cogent, serious, coherent and important (para 19). Employment Judge Hughes did, however, point out that though the scope of ‘philosophical belief’ is wide, meeting the Nicholson test merely establishes that there is a protected characteristic: ‘the real battleground is whether there has been less favourable treatment and, if so, whether it was on grounds of the belief relied on’ (para 20).

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October 2016