Seven sins of omission in sport: Challenges to academic and journalistic research

Jens Sejer Andersen giving his keynote speech at EASM2012. Photo: UCN


By Play the Game
Under the title ‘Seven Sins of Omission in Sport: Challenges to academic and journalistic research’ Jens Sejer Andersen gave his keynote presentation at the 20th EASM conference in Aalborg, Denmark. Here, Andersen called for the journalistic and academic worlds to step up and take a greater responsibility for shedding light on some issues in sport that has gone widely unchallenged.

Keynote address to the 20th EASM conference, 19 September 2012 in Aalborg, Denmark

To begin with I have an admission and a confession. I must admit that the title of my presentation “Seven sins of omission in sport: Challenges to academic and journalistic research” was passed to my colleagues before I have thought through what to say today.

Honestly, the title does have a flavour of moral judgment that it is not appropriate for a co-host of a conference to pass on his guests.

However, now that I have embarked on using a religious language, let me confess my own capital sin for a start:

I am not a believer. I do not believe that sport is doing good by itself, I do not believe it necessarily brings peace to the world, I do not believe it automatically improves mankind, I do not believe it inevitably promotes understanding between cultures, I do not believe it always makes young people behave better – all in all, I do not believe in sport.

What I do believe is that sport is a very powerful tool at our disposal. It draws its strength from some of our most basic instincts and emotions; it mobilises our passion; it focuses our mental and physical energy; it set up frameworks within which we can test ourselves as individuals or as teams; it allows us to meet each other in very direct physical ways; and it surely has the ability to gather the attention of the world on certain occasions.

Whether it serves good purposes or bad purposes, whether it does us harm or perform wonders, that all depends on how we use this forceful tool. Sport is neither good nor bad, it is in our hands.

That leaves all of us who work with sport with a real challenge: We cannot lean back and count on sport to solve the problems for us; we cannot trust that as long as we manage sport, everything will be all right; just like in all other areas of life, we have to do our best.

Doing one’s best in life usually implies that you try to establish what is true and what is false, and you make careful investigations to get as close to truth as possible, and you enter into dialogue with other people trying to establish a common understanding of what is up and what is down. You do not rest only on your beliefs.

The search for truth in the sports field
Inside the sports field and during a match, we have a constant battle about what truth is. Was there a free kick or not? In the vast majority of cases, truth is what the opponents can agree about, and when sport becomes serious, referees are introduced to establish the truth. The search for truth – who is the better player, who is the fastest woman, does the team work as a team or not – may actually be one of the most important qualities we can adhere to sport.

Outside the sports field – among those of us who work as sports officials, planners, managers, observers, researchers, analysts – there are very few rules to regulate our actions and perhaps therefore it often seems that there is very little interest in establishing truth.

On the contrary, sports leadership, sports management, sports journalism, even sports science – is very often driven by myths and in certain cases even by deliberate lies. Quite often, this love for mythology and misleading information goes hand in hand with an impressing ability to make money.

Perhaps truth is not affordable?

When truth now and then emerges in sports politics, accidentally or not, much energy is unfolded to put it back into the closet. Or truth is facing its most deadly enemy: Absolute silence.

Cracks in the silence
International sports organisations have been masters of silence as long as anyone can remember.

But you do not need to have a very sharp hearing sense to notice the cracks in the shields of silence in recent years.

After almost a decade of silence surrounding the biggest corruption scandal in sport so far, the so-called ISL scandal which involved bribes worth over 100 million dollars to a small group of sports leaders, FIFA and the IOC have finally broken their silence and started taking action.

At this conference, we can appreciate the fact that corruption is now addressed by FIFA; and we find it encouraging that so many past and present FIFA-related officials have accepted – and are allowed to - speak in public and engage in open dialogue.

We do not know yet how far the FIFA reforms will go, 90 percent of the ISL bribes are still unaccounted for, and there are clouds of suspicion hanging over the bidding process for the World Cups 2018 and 2022.

Small, but important steps have been taken to build football politics on honesty and truth, and indeed the silence has been broken.

Warning from a top sports leader
Another cracking sound came surprisingly at the end of the EU Sports Forum – not the one starting in Cyprus today, but the last one in Budapest in February last year. At the end of two days of quite routine driven meetings and a marathon final debate with 14 presenters, a little rounded man in the audience
grabbed the microphone.

He said that corruption was all over in international sport. It was everywhere in the international federations, influencing elections, doping tests, mega-events, everything.

He called for public awareness, because without the help of the public no solutions could be found. He urged politicians and especially the EU Commissioner to intervene.

If nothing happened, the future would be difficult. New groups of sport leaders were emerging from countries where money seemed to grow on trees, and they could buy all the influence they wished.

This tight, elderly man was no outsider and no extremist critic of sport. He has served an international sports federation as its secretary general and president since 1975, and he is an honorary member of the IOC.

It was Tamás Ajan, president of the International Weightlifting Federation.
Redefining the way we think about sport If Tamás Ajan is right, we have to look far beyond FIFA to understand the challenge we are facing.

We may have to realise that corruption is not just a matter of a number of isolated incidents where individuals get illicit money or goods or favours from other individuals.

Corruption literally means “breakdown” – with the underlying assumption that there is a set of values and norms that binds a system together.

So corruption does not only appear as individual failure and to vulnerable organisations, but as a threat to the core of sport: The values that attract us to sport and justifies that we spend our time on it.

I think we need to redefine the whole way we think about sport and consider the consequences this will have for the way sport is organised and financed. Sport may well have grown into one of the most successful global entertainment industries – and I have no intention of spoiling that party – but fundamental qualities have gone lost on the way.

In this reconsideration of sport, we need more than anything else to build on evidence, data and truth. This is where this assembly, as sports managers, academic researchers and journalists, have a crucial responsibility.

I think we can do much better than today. For instance, in the International Sports Press Survey we carried out last year and which you can hear about in a symposium tomorrow, we can note that just like seven years ago, issues related to sport and society count for less than five percent of newspapers articles.

I would assume that for academic researchers, the figures are more flattering, but having attended quite a few scientific conferences I will sustain – without any scientific evidence at hand – that academic research can do much more to address vital issues for contemporary sport.

The disciplines of sports sciences are still young, in particular in the socio-cultural domain. Researchers may be excused that a lot of issues go largely unnoticed by science. But couldn’t we agree that sports academia has now reached such a degree of maturity that we can start making demands on it?

Seven areas of interest
In that spirit, I would like to point to seven areas of interest that today are largely steered by mythology and beliefs, and if we do not help sport getting the facts, the data and the evidence, we can regard it as sins of omission.

  1. The first area regards what mythology refers to as “The Olympic family”, the international federations. If corruption is everywhere in the federations, as Tamás Aján says, let’s do research that helps sport towards less family conspiracy and more transparent governance. Currently, Play the Game and six European universities as well as the European Journalism Centre, are carrying out an Action for Good Governance in Sport. We have noted in our research that academics so far have produced very little material about the actual state of affairs in federations as well as about the more theoretical aspects. To give you an example: First time I heard about the International Volleyball Federation FIVB at an academic conference, it was a paper complimenting the skills of the Mexican President Ruben Acosta who developed his sport into a golden business. It would have been convenient if that speaker has also mentioned that Acosta was busy taking 10 percent of the contracts as personal commissions. Perhaps we could say that the presenter committed a sin of omission.

    In our symposium Friday about sports governance, we will share our findings so far and invite you to inspire us and get inspired.

  2. An even more threatening form of corruption has also finally appeared on the radar of sports leaders: Match fixing. Play the Game raised this issue for the first time some 7-8 years ago, and in 2010 the IOC decided it was serious. So far, Declan Hill is not only academic to deal consistently and seriously with this issue. If this organised crime represents a market of several hundred billion dollars, shouldn’t academic researchers invest their 10 cents? We need information about the business side, the gambling market, the fixing operations, the extension of fixing in various sport... you name it, and we need it.

  3. Another big business is the event industry. From the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup to the Nordic Underwater Rugby Championships, this industry is promising economic growth at all levels: Tourism, trade, construction, employment – does that reflect reality? How come then that one of Europe’s most cherished economists, the Italian prime minister Mario Monti, in February rejected to support Rome’s bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics because Italy couldn’t afford the risk? Who has the truth: The event boosters or super-Mario? Taxpayers all over the world will one day erect statues for those academics who can describe more exactly the societal impact of events.

  4. And talking about events: How do they influence the sports culture of a country? The recent London Olympics were a magnificent elite sports party, without any doubt, but did it increase British sports participation by 2 million athletes as Lord Coe promised the IOC when bidding for
    the games in 2005? No, not at all.

    Where were the journalists and academics who should hold the organisers accountable to this promise, when instead the government took money from grass-root sport and transferred it to the Olympic organisers? And where are the critical voices now, where Lord Coe says that now the government must invest massively in competitive sport in the public schools. Not only is it quite provocative to act as if this promise was never made before, it seems completely out of sync with reality to say that introducing Olympic sport in schools will motivate the large part of the youth to become physically active. All evidence at hand indicates that this strategy will fail, and once again, money set aside for grass-root sport will be wasted.

  5. This leads me to the fifth sin of omission: our lack of knowledge in what works if we want to mobilise people for sport. Is it at all relevant to invest in organised sport as a tool for public health when we see that for many years the growth in people’s exercise take place outside traditional
    sport? Sport has long ago lost its leisure time monopoly, but who cares for the fitness and yoga and jogging practitioners? We need more data, more facts and more objectivity in our sports policies, and the sports movement needs inspiration to create new varieties of old sports if it should not end up as pure entertainment activity that mainly exists on TV, computer games and museums.

  6. In general, the individual athlete, be it a clumsy amateur or an excellent top performer, is often treated as a means for sport rather than as the end for sport. We could need academic creativity in shaping new ways of local association life, new ways of representing stakeholder interests, new ways of communication inside sport.

    We could also ask how the interests of the amateur athlete are taken care of by federations and governments at the local, national and global level. I think it is fair to say that with a few exceptions, most countries and federations focus on elite sport and shining medals and do not really set resources aside for the grass-root athlete. And even in top sport, the rights of the athletes are constantly threatened by doping regimes or anti-doping regimes, by trafficking or inhuman working conditions, and by a general arrogance on part of those who controls the competitions. The
    athletes are under much stricter control than their leaders.

  7. The seventh field is the geopolitical battle over sport. In spite of the difficulties traditional sport experience at the grass-root level, top sport is still unrivalled when it comes to attracting global tv audiences, and the most popular sports are courted intensely by the biggest multinational
    companies and the most powerful nations in the world.

    The battle to host mega-events is waged by the top political leaders from the biggest nations, together they invest billions of dollars, and a country like China builds stadia around Africa and Latin America as part of its diplomatic campaigns.

    Our next speaker James M. Dorsey is one of the few university and media experts who consistently and on a daily basis analyse sport from a geopolitical and socio-political perspective. His expertise is the Middle East, and don’t we miss people who keep us updated on the Far East, Russia, Latin America or even provides a global overview.

    Also the international federations are, just like the events they arrange, gradually taken over by leaders outside the Western Hemisphere. This may be part of an inevitable – and perhaps desirable – globalisation process – but it also puts the transparency of sport at risk.

    Without academic analysis, without empirical data, without public debate, we risk weakening the democratic qualities of sport while it slides slowly, but securely into the hands of authoritarian regimes.

These were seven areas where I think we are at risk of committing sins of omission if we continue to let mythology and manipulation dominate the public debate. You may very well be able to add others to the list, or you may object that many of them are interwoven and can hardly be counted separately.

I would not last long if I tried to go against you.

You may also think that there is very little you can do as an individual manager or researcher against these overwhelming financial, political, cultural and emotional powers.

But that would be a big mistake. On the contrary, your daily effort to bring about facts, data, evidence as objectively as possible, is the strongest arm against the corruption of our organisations and our mindsets that sport is offering us.

Truth as a protection of values
I started this speech by saying that I am not a believer. That is only partly true.
Having followed the sports debate for 25 years, I can still become surprised to see the impact that comes with truthful information, and how it influences sports politics and management. Sometimes willingly, sometimes after fierce and enduring resistance. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later.

So I do believe that the best service we can render if we really want sport to play a positive role in our daily lives, our communities and our world, is to do our best to establish the truth.

I also believe that if we all invest our energy in feeding evidence and facts into the seven areas I have mentioned, we will influence sport much more than we can imagine today.

Truth is of course not a simple thing. It often takes a lot of work to get close to it, you may not be able to hold it, it is subject to doubt and to debate, it can be hard to describe, and often you have to take a fight over it.

But wouldn’t such a fight over the truth, at the end of the day, be a good sport?

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