The Challenge for Europe in the Governance of Sport

The seminar 'The Challenge for Europe in the Governance of Sport' was attended by more than 100 researchers, journalists, governance experts and sports leaders.

On 8 April 2013, Play the Game hosted a one-day seminar in Brussels titled 'the Challenge for Europe in the Governance of Sport'. The seminar marked the conclusion of the AGGIS project, and provided a platform to reveal the final findings of the project and launch the 'Sports Governance Observer'. A number of other EU funded governance projects also revealed their findings and more than 100 experts participated. This is Jens Sejer Andersen's opening speech from the seminar.

Dear colleagues, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

On your way to this seminar, some of you may have wondered why it is entitled 'The Challenge for Europe in the Governance of Sport'. Aren’t the main challenges to the governance of sport global by nature? Can we identify an exclusively European challenge?

Let me start by answering: Yes, the challenge is global and No, there is no exclusively European challenge. There is however a special role for Europe to play in the current sports political situation, and I will elaborate on that role in a few minutes.

The turnout today confirms a trend we have seen in the past couple of years; a dramatic increase in the public interest in issue of governance in sport, particularly after the revelations of corruption at the helmet of world football made by the Sunday Times and the BBC Panorama in the autumn of 2010.

FIFA is a predominant topic in the discussion of sports governance
It is fair to say that the situation in FIFA is still the one that draws most attention. And with good reason: by any measure, commercially and politically, football and the scandals attached to it are the most voluminous in sport. 

The so-called ISL affair, in which FIFA plays a lead role, is still regarded as the biggest corruption system in sport, where high ranking sports officials are known to have taken personal commissions worth around 100 million euros in the 1990’ies.

FIFA has launched a reform process which is expected to materialize in late May in Mauritius, and although progress is likely to happen, it is an open question whether some statute changes and institutional improvements will be enough to reassure the world public that everything is in order in the house of football.

If we measure football by normal standards of society, it is for instance still a mystery how the same person who according to the Swiss courts overlooked and accepted the ISL bribery scheme as FIFA’s secretary general and president, can also be entrusted the task of reforming the same corrupt system. 

Almost half of FIFA’s Executive Board is under suspicion of different forms of embezzlement, but they are still in charge of the reform process that will define their own destiny with regard to sanctions or other consequences. That is a rare privilege in most societies.

Governance is about real people, real victims
So yes, football is a relevant and predominant topic when we discuss governance in sport. However, football is not alone. Since Play the Game started to focus on sports governance at our conferences almost sixteen years ago, we have heard investigative journalists, academics and whistle-blowers testify to flagrant abuse of trust and positions in many other sporting contexts.

Allow me to summarize a few of them, not in order to offend any particular persons, but in order to emphasize that governance is not about abstract principles, but about real people, real money, and real consequences for real victims.

One of the richest world federations, the International Volleyball Federation, was for 24 years led by the Mexican Ruben Acosta who according to secret FIVB papers got away with at least 33 million US-dollars in personal commissions in the last decade of his reign.  

Since 2008, the FIVB has been governed by Ruben Acosta’s former yes-men, including the European confederation president. Not only have they created an alliance to ensure most of them profitable political posts and executive positions in Lausanne, but they also flatly deny any form of responsibility of and dialogue about the destiny of their former colleague, the Argentine Mario Goijman. 

Ten years ago, Goijman made the mistake to raise questions about Ruben Acosta’s standards of governance at a time where the FIVB owed Mario Goijman and the Argentine federation around 800,000 UD-dollars for the World Championships 2002. Mario Goijman became instrumental in revealing the power abuse and corruption of his president, but he paid a high price for blowing the whistle. The debt was never paid back, and Goijman, formerly a wealthy businessman, lost his fortune, his home, his health and today lives in a small rented house in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, psychologically and financially broken.

Another ball sport, team handball and the International Handball Federation IHF, has for more than a decade been ruled by the Egyptian president Hassan Moustafa. Moustafa has a solid track record of running handball in a very personal fashion: he has travelled for 300,000€ without presenting receipts, he has been employed as a private consultant for companies that at the same time achieved the IHF television rights, he has demanded personal insight into unannounced doping control schemes of his organization, he turned off the microphone for his rival at the 2009 election, he has replaced independently thinking staff members and handball officials etcetera, etcetera.

There are numerous other cases of mismanagement in sport. What they all have in common, whether they deal with personal enrichment, power distortion, political abuse, doping-related questions, match fixing, discrimination or any other misdeed, is that they reveal a widespread lack of good governance standards in sports organisations.

Corruption stands in the way of sport’s full potential
That is a great pity, not only for sport, but also for society at large. Because if we want sport’s full potential to unfold as an educational tool, as a bearer of cultural and social values, as an inspiration with regard to the norms and ideals that rule our lives, then we of course have to make sure that the individuals and organisations that we entrust these treasures, understand and represent the values that they have in their hands.

This is why Play the Game has been so active in raising those often controversial and annoying issues over many years. It is not, as some may believe, that we feel any malicious satisfaction by pointing out the wrongdoings of hardworking sports leaders, nor are we driven by an urge to become the most unpopular figures in sport’s global village. We are deeply concerned that sport will lose its qualities as a movement that facilitates insight, skills, friendship, fun, self-esteem, empathy and engagement to individuals, teams and communities, ending up instead as a toy for the global economic and financial elites, reducing the athletes to instruments for profit and power, and dehumanizing a sector that has huge potential for strengthening civil societies and building democracies.

The search for solutions and the AGGIS project
Over the years, as the case stories and documentation of the challenges facing sport piled up on our desks and filled our hard-disks, the need to look for solutions became more and more pressing. Therefore we were very encouraged when the EU commission issued a tender for grants in the field of “the organization of sport”, and we became equally grateful that our application for a grant was accepted.

It has been a privilege to be able to work with some of the best experts in the field of sports governance from all over Europe. 

Right from the start, the ambitions of the group grew far beyond what we had written down, and therefore we can soon present the Sports Governance Observer, a measuring tool that was not on our original agenda. I would like to thank our partners for their unwavering commitment and determination to deliver an end result that could inspire to further steps towards better governance in sport.

The challenge for Europe in the governance of sport
But then: Why should these steps be taken in Europe? And will anybody outside Europe care about the direction?

These are fundamental questions we can perhaps address in the course of today. Allow me to suggest an approach:

The traditional Western strongholds of sport are arguably losing influence in today’s world. In line with the globalization process of so many other sectors of society, the power of sport is becoming diversified as nations with growing economies – like China, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Qatar and many others – reach out to get their share of the profits and prestige that the sports industry offer.

For understandable reasons, these countries demand a greater share of influence and mandates in the international sports organisations. And they will, slowly, but securely replace many of the European or Western sports leaders.

I do not think it is a European mission to try to curb this development. That would be a neo-colonialist approach, and more importantly, it would be doomed to fail.

Instead we, as European stakeholders in sport, should do more to consider the assets we have and insist that the values we cherish will guide the continued globalization process.

As you will soon see from our data, Europe still has the upper hand in sports leadership. Europe is the host country for most international organisations, and it has a disproportionate share of top sports officials. Also, in many professional sports, European clubs are so dominant on the global TV market that other continents have no chance to build up a similar industry.

In terms of political institutions, both the European Union and the Council of Europe has had and will continue to have opportunities to mark the sports political agenda.

Last, but not least, the sport that the whole world is fighting to conquer, is by any cultural or historical measure a European invention. The idea of fair play, the rules that protect unpredictability, the advancement through merit – it is all European fabric.

So instead of deploring that other continents attack our privileges, we should be proud that they want a share of at least some of our values.

Likewise we can assume that the values we pursue through good governance are of equal interest to the rest of the world. 

It would indeed be a great mistake to believe that corruption and mismanagement is culturally linked to the new nations on the sports stage. European sports leaders do not have a spotless track record with regard to governance, may I for instance remind you that the biggest corruption system in sport was also European fabric.

Let’s side with likeminded people
It is our great chance that Europe has no monopoly of values like transparency, democracy, accountability and solidarity. These are universally recognized ideals outside sport and inside sport, and they are shared by hundreds of thousands of athletes, trainers, managers and sports officials all over the world.

So if we Europeans really believe in what we say, the best we can do is to set an example and walk the talk. Let’s use the assets, the strength and the convictions we take pride in, let’s side with likeminded people wherever we find them, and let’s use our different roles – as athletes, fans, journalists, researchers, consultants, politicians, civil servants or sports officials – to put sport and its organisations at the service of the norms and ideals they say to represent.

This is the challenge for Europe in the governance of sport. It will not be overcome without willingness to engage in open debate and exchange of experiences and ideas, so let’s do so without further delay. 

We look much forward to your contributions. Welcome.


Read more about the 'Action for Good Governance in International Sports Organisations (AGGIS)' project and the governance seminar 'The Challenge for Europe in the Governance of Sport' on www.aggis.eu

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