Silence is the challenge that remains
Jens Sejer Andersen at the opoening of PLay the Game 2017. Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game
Silence, my ladies and gentlemen, silence, silence..
No, don’t get me wrong: I am not calling on you personally, I am just trying to summarize in one word what has been the biggest challenge for Play the Game to overcome when looking back on the past twenty years from this podium as we open our tenth international conference.
When in May and June 1997, some colleagues and I spent endless hours forsaking the beautiful Danish spring nights inside a small copy room at the offices of the Danish Gymnastics and Sports Associations, struggling with the telefax machine to get invitations through to Africa and the Far East via thin and busy copper cables, we told ourselves two things:
1) We would never do it again
2) It would fortunately not be necessary to do it again, because once the problems we had put on the conference agenda came out in the public domain, they would soon be known by the whole world and be solved once and for all
It turned out it was not the most accurate prediction of the future..
Twenty years ago, we did not fully understand what we had in our hands, and we did not at all foresee what resistance we would face. Perhaps we still don’t.
And what did we have on the agenda then? What did the 109 people from 34 countries who attended, hear at this first international media arrangement ever dealing with the relations between sport, media and society?
They heard a flamboyant British journalist by the name Andrew Jennings who spoke about his journalistic travel against the stream, that had led him to uncover widespread corruption and political abuse in the International Olympic Committee and the international sports federations.
Allegations that at that time had earned Andrew Jennings a reputation as the devil’s incarnation in Olympic circles, and a 5-day suspended jail sentence in Lausanne.
The delegates also heard one of the world’s leading sports physiologists, the late Bengt Saltin, who cautiously asked if there could be a connection between the facts that on one side blood values of Nordic skiers were on a dramatic, inexplicable rise and young cyclists were dying of massive blood clots in the heart, and on the other side the emergence of a new drug called EPO. Was this a sign of widespread use of drugs among endurance athletes?
Other issues where homophobia in sport, the privatisation of broadcasting rights and most especially: the crisis in sports journalism, described by Andrew Jennings as – quote “almost criminally bad standards of reporting; laziness, reluctance to ask questions, reliance on press releases.” Unquote.
After our event, the stories on corruption, doping, homophobia, mismanagement and the need to strengthen local associations were reported by some media in a few countries. And then nothing happened. Again, silence.
When almost one year later we published this book in Danish and English repeating the stories, I think we sold 3 or 4 copies. I still have a few on stock at home if you are interested.
We should perhaps have waited 3 or 4 months publishing the book. Because in the second half of 1998, the sports world exploded with the police action in Tour de France, revealing systemic doping, and with whistle-blowers and journalists reporting on how Salt Lake City got to host Winter Olympics thanks to private favours and outright corruption with tax payers’ money.
The combined crisis led to important reform at the IOC and helped create the World Anti-Doping Agency, and then a new century would start when silence in sport was finally broken.
We thought. But no.
FIFA corruption was reported at every Play the Game conference from the year 2000 and on, by Jennings, Thomas Kistner and Jens Weinreich. Nothing happened. Not even when the Swiss courts in 2008 documented corruption worth 100 million dollars, did it make headlines worldwide.
In 2005, Declan Hill was the first to strike the alarm bells over how match-fixing had destroyed leagues in the Far East, but thanks to the Internet was now a deadly threat to world sport as we knew it. For the next five-six years, the sports movement – with a few honourable exceptions, like UEFA – spent more time denying the problem than finding solutions.
The Italian self-taught doping detective Sandro Donati told his life story, on how he had caused the downfall of high-ranking national leaders because of their active promotion of doping in elite sport, paid with tax-payers money for anti-doping!
Donati then found himself persona non-grata in the sports family, whereas the responsible officials and doping doctors kept their positions in the highest ranks of the IOC - one is today representing the IOC in the prestigious position as observer to the United Nations.
Mario Goijman, a hard-headed volleyball leader, in 2005 revealed the grotesque character of corruption in FIVB, the international volleyball federation, and succeeded in undermining its flamboyant Mexican president, Ruben Acosta. However, Goijman also undermined his own fortunes and psychological well-being, and he now lives in misery.
These and many other courageous individuals documented a series of failures in international sport, and the typical answer from sport was either attacks on the credibility of the individuals or, most often, silence.
So, in the first decade of this century, it seemed that Play the Game would remain a “home for the homeless questions in sport”.
Dear Alderman, dear Director General of Democracy, WADA President, distinguished guests, colleagues and friends
Today, we claim that we are “riding the waves of change”. Because, as you will understand from this journey back in time, many things have changed in recent years, since 2010 to be more exact.
First of all, the many questions that were regarded as taboo just ten years ago, are now all over the international agenda.
Doping, corruption, matchfixing, overspending in mega-events, discrimination of women and minorities, sexual abuse, lack of access to sport for all citizens… all these issues and many more are recognised by almost 200 member states of UNESCO in a revised charter on physical activity and sport, and in the Kazan Action Plan that will be discussed here on Wednesday.
In that sense, silence has been broken. We are very grateful that thanks to earmarked support from the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the Danish Parliament we are able to host more than 30 government representatives from Europe and beyond. We hope that the more than 220 presentations will inspire your future sport policy making.
Because it is the future that is our concern in the next four days.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Dutch government and support from the city council, we have been able to choose Eindhoven as the host city.
Eindhoven will not only feed you materially in the welcome reception later today, but also mentally over the next two evenings, by inviting you out in the city and in the nearby park, so you can experience first-hand how Eindhoven is focusing on innovation in order to ride the waves of change in sport.
The social media, the apps, the gadgets have fundamentally changed everyday sport, especially in the digital generation. Any government, any event owner, any sports official who wishes to connect with the youth needs to be updated on the opportunities opened by new technology. For some organisations, it may be too late to react, but hopefully not for you.
Change is coming at us, whether we invite it or not.
One of Play the Game’s own contributions to inspiring change is the Sports Governance Observer tool which we used to years ago to identify quite troubling standards of governance in the 35 international Olympic federations.
In cooperation with academic researchers and sports organisations from nine European countries and Brazil, and with Erasmus+ support for the EU part of the project, we have now expanded the focus to cover national sports federations – under the obvious title National Sports Governance Observer.
We have found encouragement in the fact that national federations in Europe on average are in a better shape than their international counterparts, although there is still a very generous room for improvement. You can hear the researchers present their results this evening.
It has been equally encouraging that the national federations seem to be quite interested in improving their governance than is the case at the international level. Most of the national sports bodies have been cooperative, curious and willing to learn.
This welcoming attitude was rare when we contacted the international federations. They seem to resist change until they are put under so much public pressure that they have to give in.
Ladies and gentlemen,
There are groups of people in the sports environment who seem willing to resist change at any cost, especially if the cost is paid by others.
For many years we have argued that even if the international Olympic network had similarities with the mafia, it was at least a mafia without the killings.
This interpretation is at great risk after disturbing incidents in the past few weeks. In a court room in Brooklyn, were the FIFA case has now started, a former Peruvian football president Manuel Burga allegedly made a “slicing motion across his throat” in a signal to one of the witnesses. Not once, but twice.
This was taken very seriously by the judge in a case where security measures are already tight, and Burga has been placed under sharpened house arrest with no access to phone and computer.
There has been less response to a recent statement by Leonid Tyagachev, the Honorary President of Russia’s Olympic Committee.
In a radio interview in Moscow, Tyagachev, proposed to execute Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Russian head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory who has fled to the USA and spilled the beans over systemic cheating in the past.
“Rodchenkov just needs to be shot for untruths, like Stalin would have done,” Tyagachev said.
Tyagachev is not a raving madman from the periphery of the Russian society. He is a former KGB officer, a skiing teacher and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he was instrumental in securing the 2014 Winter Olympics for Sochi.
His words are to be taken seriously, especially in country where two former high-ranking anti-doping officers died surprisingly in February 2016: the former chair and executive director RUSADA, Vyacheslav Sinev and Nikita Kamaev.
Even the new RUSADA director, Yuri Ganus, has been so courageous to hint that these two potential witnesses did not die of natural causes:
Quote: "It's clear that two people could not just die like this ... I do not have any facts, and as a lawyer I can say that until the opposite is proven, I cannot say anything. I understand that there was a situation, and the entire anti-doping organisation was disqualified, and in this regard, this is an extraordinary fact.” Unquote.
In such an atmosphere an open, fact-based debate on doping becomes difficult, to say the least. It adds a perspective to what Play the Game has experienced in our own little corner of the sports debate, when both the Russian sports minister and leading RUSADA officials first committed to taking part today, and then backed out.
We sincerely regret that we cannot welcome the Russian authorities, because we have no doubt of their genuine interest in attending, and their presence would have added value and important angles to the debate. But we also understand that in the present political climate, there may be waves so powerful that you do not risk to ride them.
What is really worrying and inexcusable, is that the outspoken death threat has spurred for no response whatsoever from the international sports movement. The IOC, guardians of human dignity and of a harmonious society, has reacted as in so many cases before: With silence.
Not a word from the IOC President, not a word from the administration, not a word from the newly elected President of the ethics committee, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
Don’t they care? Do they secretly support such a tone? Or are they just as afraid of their personal security as any Russian whistle-blowers?
We can only guess. But it is one of the worrying signs that the political tensions in and around sport have reached a new and damaging level.
Let us not be intimidated. Let us all continue to do our best to find the truth and share it, let us engage in dialogue and debate across borders, sports disciplines and professions, also and especially when debate is difficult.
One person among us today, who does not shy away from a difficulty, has for years been at the centre of a very heated debate on Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup 2022. Let me use this occasion to thank Secretary General Hassan Al Thawadi from the Supreme Committee on Delivery and Legacy for showing the courage to enter into an open exchange later today on all the issues that Qatar is facing.
Your presence shows a commitment to international understanding that many sports leaders could learn from.
For in spite of the many changes we have seen since 1997, the key challenge remains unchanged. We have to keep breaking the silence, wherever and whenever it blocks us from understanding reality and from finding solutions for a better life in sport and physical activity.
Over the next three and a half days, this task is in your hands. We are overwhelmed to see how many have wished to take part in this conference, and I would like to once again to express our gratitude to the many public institutions and sports organisations who have given the financial support that enables us to be here.
But our thanks first of all go to you, the almost 450 participants, who will now embark on a critical, but also respectful exchange of facts, experiences and opinions.
Play the Game is an old English proverb meaning “play by the rules”, play fair. We are all looking for little pieces that can help us complete our picture of the world. That little piece may very well be in the hands of whom you believe to be your opponent, so please enjoy and appreciate disagreement.
Then there is a good chance we will not only ride the waves of change, but also together make the waves of change. Let us throw ourselves into the ocean of sport - let us Play the Game.