PtG Comment 31.12.2019

A decade that opened windows of democracy in sport

It was not primarily the athletes that drove the radical change of the sports agenda in the decade we leave. But there are signs that athletes will be at the heart of the agenda of the 2020’ies, writes Play the Game’s international director in a wind-up of ten turbulent years in world sport.

Try to think ten years back (if you are not too young or too old to remember):

If someone had told you, at the doorstep of 2010, that the following decade would

Would you have found such predictions for international sport credible?

Or would you have regarded them as wishful thinking by “negative people who tried to build a career by criticising the good work of sport” – as an official from the very top of international sport in 2009 kindly characterised Play the Game and the speakers we brought along?

Honestly, I don’t think even the most critical, most negative, most conspiracy-loving follower of Play the Game in 2009 could imagine the real scope of the crime and corruption challenges woven into modern sport.

Back then, the solid evidence brought forward by investigative journalists, whistleblowers, researchers, and prosecutors, was already bad enough to conclude that sport had a serious and inherent integrity problem.

Sports officials would most often dismiss their well-founded revelations as exaggeration and fantasies, but the 2010s proved that reality also in sport often surpasses imagination.

It can be hard to draw hope and inspiration from the above-mentioned sports scandals and many others we have experienced in the last decade. After all, they have all come at a high price for those who suffered the consequences. Corruption is not a victimless crime: Ask Mario Goijman, ask Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov, ask Phaedra Almajid, ask Bonita Mersiades, ask Sandro Donati, ask any whistleblower around in sport.

But thanks to these courageous people, thanks to investigative journalists, thanks to honourable public servants, the 2010s brought a remarkable difference: Silence was finally broken. A few examples:

Until 2010, the integrity problems were most often hushed or played down, no matter how hard the evidence. Match-fixing was ignored. Sexual abuse cases were oppressed. The IOC stressed it was not a human rights organisation. Corruption flourished in international federations. FIFA bribes worth 142 million Swiss francs were documented in Swiss courts in 2008, but did not catch many headlines, and sports leaders kept silent.

Matter of public interest

Today, the integrity challenges of sport are highlighted at every major sports conference. Governments have started making policies for better sports ethics. A centre for sport and human rights have been established. Anti-Olympic campaigners have formed a global alliance. Athletes unions, too. An international convention against manipulation of sports competitions has been ratified. Every sports federation in the world, even the most backwards, claims its heartfelt commitment to good governance.

All in all, sports politics have become a matter of public interest. Ten years ago, you would spend ten minutes surfing the internet to get a full overview of the day’s sports political stories. Today, the production is overwhelming, and Google is probably the only entity able to get a full overview.

Many questions can rightly be raised about the quality of the media reporting, the efficiency of government policies, the futility of public interest, and the credibility of the Olympic movement’s interest in reforming itself.

What is undeniable, however, is that windows of opportunity have been opened over the past ten years for groups who, like Play the Game, pursues more democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in sport.

And it should foster optimism to see how these groups are growing in numbers and strength. They grow among grassroot activists, they grow in parliaments. They grow in the media, they grow at universities. They grow in emerging and trendsetting sports activities, and they even grow inside the sports bureaucracy in the Olympic capital of Lausanne, Switzerland.

What is particularly important, is the growing trend among the athletes themselves to organise and let their voices be heard.

Growing appetite for influence

It was not primarily the athletes that drove the radical change of the sports agenda in the past decade. But there are many recent signs that professional athletes have a growing appetite for influencing their own arena and society at large. Sporting icons like NFL player Colin Kaepernick, and football players like Megan Rapinoe and Mesut Özil have spoken up against racism, discrimination and persecution of minorities.

At the bottom of the competitive pyramid, athletes have voted with their feet for more than a generation, seeking health, fun, and good company far well outside the classic sports system.

Athletes of all kinds will likely be at the heart of the sports political agenda of the 2020s, and their working range may stretch well beyond sport itself.

One of the most important challenges of the next decade will be to develop the forms in which athletes can best express their individual and collective visions, negotiate their disagreements, and influence the decisions that decide the future course of sport.

The old forms of sports politics, the global pyramid of associations and federations, must undergo dramatic reforms just to keep their relevance, and they must, in any case, accept to live side by side with new ways of making politics. Just as the era of silence is over, so have the days of monopoly come to an end in the world of sport, play and physical activity.

Happy New Decade, Happy New Year!

Related articles

Football girl with rainbow armband
PtG Opinion 26.03.2024
Practical suggestions on how sports federations can be fair to transgender athletes
Whitney Bragnolo at Play the Game conference
PtG Article 23.02.2024
Sports federations urged to do more to safeguard athletes
Panel on anti-doping
PtG Article 16.02.2024
CEO of USADA: "There is a lot we could do to ease the burden on the athletes"
Khalida Popal
PtG Article 05.02.2024
Pay gaps, representation, or even being allowed to play - the struggle for women in football is far from over
Athlete with AI
PtG Article 04.01.2024
Perspectives on democrAItisation of sports governance: Can artificial intelligence empower athletes?
Zeinab Rezaie from Afghanistan
PtG Article 07.11.2023
The IOC has turned a blind eye to Taliban violations of the Olympic Charter for more than two years
Panel debate at SAPIS conference
PtG Article 04.10.2023
Conference showcased many examples of how athletes organise to protect and further their own interests
Runners hugging
PtG Article 20.09.2023
New SAPIS report highlights that many athletes still lack influence and points to ways forward for better athlete representation
Spanish women futsal players
PtG Article 28.08.2023
Pioneers share success stories about athlete influence at SAPIS conference
Tennis player
PtG Article 13.07.2023
Book 28 September and contribute to strengthening athlete power in sport
PtG Article 19.06.2023
SAPIS project launches good practice guide to strengthen athletes’ power in sport
PtG Comment 27.03.2023
Coe and Bach: United in history, divided by history
Canadas ungdomslandshold i ishockey
PtG Article 29.08.2022
Sexual abuse in sport: Canada could be a world leader in developing solutions
Mikhail Zaleuski at Play the Game 2022
PtG Article 22.07.2022
Solidarity in sport: Athletes should speak up for democracy and against climate change
Friba Rezayee holder oplæg
PtG Article 30.06.2022
Afghanistan’s first female Olympian: IOC is funding the Taliban-controlled NOC in Kabul
minister for culture
PtG Comment 30.06.2022
Sportswashing is a deep contradiction of the core values of sport
Panel at conference
PtG Article 29.06.2022
Reports of abuse of athletes continue to emerge across the globe
Peter Donnelly
PtG Article 28.06.2022
Peter Donnelly: Children’s elite training meets the definition of child labour
PtG Comment 27.06.2022
Sport must choose between democracy and autocracy
PtG Article 27.06.2022
Play the Game 2022 opens with a call to remove Belarussian sports officials
Photo: GettyImages/Matt Roberts.
PtG Article 10.06.2022
New book presents urgent call to listen to athletes in modern pentathlon
Hassan Moustafa
PtG Article 24.01.2022
New research: Alternative voting systems may lead to better governance in sport
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya
PtG Article 30.11.2021
A vote of no confidence in the Court of Arbitration for Sport
PtG Article 28.09.2021
First output ready from project to strengthen athlete power in sport
Danish national football team
PtG Analysis 22.04.2021
Athletes knock the legs from under global sports governance
The Olympian basketball player Yelena Leuchanka
PtG Article 24.11.2020
Athlete activism is getting a female face
Photo by IOC/Ian Jones
PtG Opinion 09.11.2020
To stand up for Olympic values it may be necessary to kneel as well
Protests in Belarus
PtG Article 23.10.2020
Belarusian athletes take lead in battle for democracy
Nikki Dryden
PtG Opinion 21.08.2020
Athletes should not be gagged in exchange for Olympic dream
Colin Kaepernick
PtG Analysis 11.08.2020
Athletes’ gestures are protected by international human rights law