Wimbledon ban on Russian players raises equality law questions

Out-Law Analysis | 27 May 2022 | 1:49 pm | 1 min. read

The recent move to ban Russian and Belarussian players from participating in this year’s Wimbledon Championships brings into focus the role of the Equality Act 2010 ('the Act') in sport.

The legal points it raises could be of wider relevance to sports which make use of special rules under the Act.

Tennis players are not employees and so do not benefit from protections which apply during employment. The sanctions regime further raises the net for a potential challenge, and the organisers of Wimbledon refer to guidance set out by the UK Government specifically in relation to sporting bodies and events.

Special rules have long existed in sport, providing for examples of potentially justifiable discrimination.

Age discrimination

An element of age discrimination, such as putting competitors within respective age groups, is allowed under the Act where necessary for the safety of competitors and for fair competition or to comply with national or international competition rules.

Special rules have long existed in sport, providing for examples of potentially justifiable discrimination

Section 195 of the Act allows organisers to allow age banded competitions if doing so is needed to ensure fair competition and the safety of the competitors, compliance with the rules of a national or international competition or to facilitate an increase in participation within that activity.

Sex discrimination

Many sports are classed as “gender-affected activities”, with men’s and women’s competitions kept separate. This is allowed under the Act where the physical strength, stamina and physique of players are significant factors in determining success or failure. Where the “average person” of one sex is at a disadvantage compared to the average person of the other sex, single-sex sporting events are permitted and do not contravene the Act.

Race or nationality discrimination

The Act allows participants in competitive sporting events or activities to be selected on the grounds of their nationality, place of birth or based on the length of time they have been resident in a place or area. This is how the England national teams can be limited to only English players.

How the Act applies to employers

Whilst there are exemptions and defences available in the context of a sporting competition, they do not usually carry across to employers outside of a sporting context.

Employers could be exposed to discrimination claims if they treat employees differently based on nationality, but must also keep a watchful eye on the development of the sanctions regime.

Additional input by Rubymarie Rice and Francis Keepfer Pinsent Masons.

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