Athlete activism: An omen for sport in the 2020's?
Opening address at the 11th international Play the Game conference, 13 October 2019 in Colorado Springs, USA, by Jens Sejer Andersen, international director of Play the Game.
Chancellor, distinguished guests, colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen.
As we are nearing the end of a decade, we will soon start looking back on what the past ten years brought to our common lives, in sport and beyond.
Maybe it is an even better moment to look forward. Although you may argue rationally that our construction of time is human made and can hardly influence the course of history, it has often happened that events at the end of a century, or at the end of a decade, foreshadow what the next decade will bring, for better or for worse.
The French revolution in 1789, the Russian revolution in 1917, the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Chinese and Cuban revolutions in ‘49 and ‘59, the youth revolts at the end of the sixties, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent fall of communist empires…
For sport, the foundation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894 ushered a century of uninterrupted global growth in elite sport, a growth that goes on today, apparently unaffected by the financial ups and downs of the surrounding society.
But the economic and political growth came at the cost of ethics and integrity. At the end of the 20th century, the combined corruption and doping scandals in Olympic sport led to the creation of WADA in 1999. And, without comparison of course, to the timid start of the Play the Game conferences in 1997.
The creation of WADA as a joint venture for Olympic sport and world governments proved – to paraphrase Winston Churchill – not to be the beginning of the end nor maybe even the end of the beginning of a greater awareness of the integrity challenges to sport.
Challenges that we have certainly not overcome yet, and that is why we are gathered here today.
What do we see from our common position in 2019, in the altitude of Colorado Springs in the bright October weather, what meets the eye when we look back, and when we try to look forward?
Most likely, we all see different things, so I will speak for Play the Game only.
Looking back, we see a decade that brought fundamental change to sport. In the years up to 2010, Play the Game – and the whistleblowers, investigative journalists, critical researchers and other independent minds that gathered at our conferences, like yourselves – were largely dismissed by the sports movement and ignored by governments.
In one of my rare meetings with a top executive of the IOC, he told me frankly that we and our speakers were “negative people who tried to build a career by criticizing the good work of sport”.
But evidence was building up, and in my view the public breakthrough came on 17 October 2010, when the Sunday Times published videos, documents and articles showing that FIFA top leaders were ready to take bribes when choosing host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. This came on top of evidence against FIFA built up over 15 years by especially the reporters Andrew Jennings, Thomas Kistner and Jens Weinreich, and by Swiss prosecutors.
When the IRS and FBI investigators then followed the journalistic leads, they proved how the FIFA business had reached a level of crime that nobody had dreamt about.
We are extremely grateful that the two key protagonists in the prosecution of FIFA, Steven Berryman and Evan Norris, have given priority to being among us these days.
And let me privately admit, behind these closed doors, that I had passing moments of pride when they both told me that they found material from our website, typically produced by ‘negative’ people, very important for their understanding of how crime can infiltrate international sport.
It was also at the beginning of this decade that the sports movement slowly started to admit that match-fixing might be more than a journalistic fantasy in the head of Declan Hill and a few others, and a Europol investigation in 2013 exposing hundreds of fixed matches through global networks, removed the last doubt that this was a thriving business for organised crime.
In 2014, a threesome of systemic doping, bribery of sports officials and blackmailing of athletes, carried out by a state-driven sports system in close cooperation with an international federation, was revealed, and several of the main actors and whistleblowers in the Russian-international doping case will discuss its consequences at this conference.
Curiously enough, a few days ago, it was confirmed that it is not only states than can run organised programs for cheating. A private company with huge influence on young people’s mind-set worldwide has closed its athletics development programme after devastating revelations of drug transgressions. The words ‘Just do it’ will never mean the same.
Human rights abuse and exploitation of tax payers’ money in connection to major sports events have been raised by popular movements all throughout the decade and all across the world, in Brazil, Qatar, Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan…
Sports organisations have been forced to promise that they will comply with international labour rights and other international standards – in contrast to earlier times where the standard answer was that sports governing bodies could not get involved in politics.
Last, but not least, courageous women and men in the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Norway, Colombia, Afghanistan, Uganda and many other countries have come forward and reported that they were sexually assaulted by their trainers and managers, who typically received better protection from their sport than the athletes did.
Most horrific, as you will know, in the U.S. gymnastics case, with its horrendous abuse of more than 350 children and young athletes, who were betrayed and traumatised in a high-performance culture bound by blind ambition, conspiracy and silence.
To sum it up: Just one decade ago, all the challenges I have mentioned were taboo. Sport would not recognise them and would not discuss them. Doping was on the agenda, alright, but mostly as an expression of a weak individual character.
Today, these topics are all over the place, at almost every important sports meeting at the national and international level. They are discussed by the Olympic family, by governments, by athletes, by NGO’s, by the media….
Only because honest and sometimes fearless individuals started ringing the bells of truth.
The big question is, however, what the next ten years will bring.
Will we meet in 2029 and be able to look back on a decade that brought us higher ethical awareness, powerful international alliances and convincing solutions?
Or will the ringing of the bells drown in the confusing noise that dominates our communication these years?
Where can we today take omens of what the future will bring?
We can look to the governments and their international organisations, who increasingly shape policies aiming at better governance, more transparency, and stronger integrity in sport.
But even so, we know that all policies depend on the determination to carry them out, and not all governments are ready to offer sport a safe pair of hands.
We have seen how criminal investigators have sent shock waves through international sport by arresting and charging sports leaders who thought they lived above the law. A remarkable number of former top people in the Olympic and sports movement are now under criminal investigation, or already in jail – in France, in Norway, in Austria, in Brazil and of course in the U.S.
But even if legal action can produce wonderful results, we cannot expect it to solve every problem in sport. Bear in mind that the public investigators often work in very small teams, are under-resourced and with many other tasks on their desks.
They are up against a global sports industry with endless means to hire the best public relations companies and the best lawyers money can buy. And in contrast to the prosecutors, the criminal elements in sport have no bureaucratic or legal obstacles that will constantly hinder their international cooperation.
And what about the sports organisations themselves? Haven’t they all, over the past 4-5 years, sworn allegiance to good governance, sustainability, human rights, gender equality, and all good causes in the world?
Indeed, they have, and I am sure that there are thousands of decent people working in these organisations, who wish to fulfil these promises and remove the clouds of suspicion that meet them every single day outside their workplace.
Play the Game has, through our Sports Governance Observer surveys, noted that improvements do in fact happen. But they come at a speed where it will take generations before the governance standards and the actual behaviour of international sports leaders will convince the public than an era of corruption and self-serving management is over.
Ladies and gentlemen,
If we look for events at the end of this decade that bode well for the future, I think they are right before our eyes.
In the past three years, individual athletes and teams have started raising their voices as never before. They have been reacting when they felt let down by sports authorities in the wake of doping and sexual abuse scandals. They have been organising for better working conditions and equal pay. And they have reacted to social injustice, hoping that their personal fame and credibility would help inspire change in society.
Athlete engagement comes in various shapes and forms, but it is undeniable and hopefully irrevocable. It may have the potential to transform the world of sport.
Athletes who speak up will face challenges, and they should. Athletes are not one and the same, there is more than one athlete voice. Athletes have different interests, sometimes conflicting interests, they have different views of the world and different opinions. Like the rest of us. Who, by the way, are also athletes, even if quite unachieved.
All athletes who speak up must accept to be challenged. But they do not deserve to be discredited by their own organisations who largely build their legitimacy on a perceived democracy embracing millions of individual athlete voters.
Instead of reacting with suspicion and resistance, the Olympic family should welcome their athlete members to engage and organise exactly as they find best.
Governments, too, should take advantage of athlete activism, especially democratically elected governments. I don’t think we can confirm that all governments at any time welcome athletes speaking up. Not even in this country, which should be great enough to embrace different opinions.
Allow me to share a piece of news with you. Play the Game will, in cooperation with four European universities and three athlete organisations, receive a 250,000 euro grant over the next three years to develop models for ‘Strengthening Athlete Power in Sport’.
We have initiated this project because we favour athlete participation in decision-making, but also realise it is complex. It is a domain rich in dilemmas and questions that you will also find under scrutiny at this conference, for instance:
- Who has the right to speak for athletes?
- Who has the right to represent athletes?
- How can athletes best be involved in decision-making?
- Who will speak for the millions of athletes in grassroot sport?
- Which responsibilities will come with strengthened rights?
We do not pretend to have the answers, but we will seek broad consultancy – and hopefully get advice from many of you in this room – in order to develop new avenues for athlete power.
In the next three and a half days, Play the Game embarks on its American dream. We were from the outset worried about whether people would come all the way to Colorado Springs to help us live this dream, far from our traditional European stronghold. We are thankful to each of you who have chosen to come here, and we are thankful to the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, the many local partners and the Danish sports organisations, whose generous support made it possible to hold our first conference in the USA.
We wished to come here to honour the inspiration that American authorities and athletes have rendered many times at peak moments of crisis in international sport throughout Play the Game’s existence. In crucial moments, Americans acted when Europeans discussed.
When the Salt Lake City scandal threatened to make the Olympic movement fall apart, U.S. Congress put helped reformers in the IOC push through reforms. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has taken action against the country’s own superheroes several times, think about Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong, and most lately against a powerful sportswear company – actions with resound also in the international domain. I have previously praised the efforts by the IRS and the FBI in bringing prominent FIFA leaders to justice.
To be honest, our American dream is not that different from the dream we always had. American sport has many characteristics of its own, but recent years have shown that the challenges are similar, no matter where in the world we look.
One thing we can promise for the 2020’ies is that Play the Game will continue to raise the essential questions for world sport, no matter how sensitive they are. We will continue to create alliances for research that can help us describe the nature of the challenges. We will remain a forum where every relevant stakeholder is warmly welcomed to engage in open and respectful dialogue, so we can learn from each other in our quest for sustainable solutions.
Let us make it a common dream that we continue to confront the challenges of sport together. We will surely have disagreements over the next few days, but without disagreements, we will never advance. So let us all listen carefully to our opponents, keep the eye on ball – and Play the Game.