A consultant’s view: “Re-elected unopposed” - limited competition in International Federation presidential elections in 2016

Photo: Michael swan/Flickr

Photo: michael_swan/Flickr

Wider adoption of term limits for elected officials would be an important step forward in tackling democratic failings in International Federations (IF), argues Rowland Jack in this comment piece, noting the limited competition in recent IF presidential elections.

Olympic year means election year for quite a number of International Federations (IFs). As the congress season of 2016 draws to a close, there is only very slight evidence of growing competition in presidential elections. It is one indication that democratic processes are not working as effectively as they could in IFs.

By my count (see table below) there have been 23 candidates in total in elections for 12 IFs in Olympic sports. This compares to 21 contenders for the same set of IFs on the last occasion on which they held elections. The analysis is not completely straightforward as some of the electoral cycles have shifted from the usual sporting standard of four years. In the case of FIFA (and also for the continental football bodies UEFA, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL) this is due to disciplinary action in 2015. Meanwhile, the term of International Skating Union officials elected in 2010 was extended until this year.

The headline numbers mask a degree of complexity as no two elections are exactly alike.

In the case of World Sailing, the incumbent was defeated, which is fairly rare in international sport. In six other federations - the International Canoe Federation, the International Fencing Federation, the International Ice Hockey Federation, the International Union of Modern Pentathlon, the International Triathlon Union and the International Volleyball Federation - the incumbent has not faced a challenger. For volleyball this was particularly significant as the re-appointed president will now serve an 8 year term following a change in the constitution.

Changes in leadership elsewhere were the result of previous presidents stepping down.

At the International Skating Union the long-serving president retired after a final term which had been extended with the approval of the congress from four to six years (disclosure: the author worked for the organisation from 2002 to 2005). The presidents of the International Gymnastics Federation, World Hockey and World Rugby similarly chose to step down, leaving the way clear for new candidates, and competitive votes in the cases of gymnastics and hockey.

The total of seven out of 12 IFs with a single candidate in 2016 compares to six out of 12 in the previous cycle. In four cases, the same individual has been unopposed since at least 2008.

It is not obvious that there is a “right” number of candidates for an IF election. Clearly there will be times when an incumbent president who has served for only a short time merits four more years and is unlikely to be challenged. Conversely, if there are a huge number of contenders it is probably evidence of a dysfunctional, fragmented organisation. Intuitively, around two to five nominees would seem to offer a balance between giving members a choice and ensuring that the electoral process is manageable.

On the subject of choice, the applicants remain overwhelmingly male. The International Triathlon Union has a female president (one of two among the 35 Olympic IFs, summer and winter). There were no other women among the presidential candidates in 2016. Further analysis is beyond the scope of this article but it seems highly probable that a study of ages, nationalities and backgrounds among the aspirants for IF president and executive board positions would show a preponderance of older men from affluent socio-economic backgrounds.

A report by Women on Boards published in September 2016 found that the proportion of women on international sports federation boards was below 20%. A variety of barriers, such as the fact that many of the presidential positions are unpaid, limit the potential range of candidates to a small pool – an issue which is familiar in other types of international organisations beyond sport.

Term limits an emerging trend
According to Play the Game’s Sports Governance Observer research, in October 2015 11 out of 35 IFs had some type of restriction in place on term limits. This year FIFA and the International Cycling Union have introduced a limit of three four-year terms and national athletics federations will decide on 3 December whether to adopt a similar rule for the IAAF.

Assuming that the trend continues, it looks as if the opportunity for IF presidents to stay in power for up to 20 years or more is diminishing. However, ice hockey and modern pentathlon have both re-appointed leaders this year who have been in charge since the mid-1990s.

Some commentators on national politics argue that incumbents coming towards the end of their mandate may be more radical once the inhibiting factor of another election is removed.

According to one analyst, writing about second term American presidents:

“Over time, therefore, presidents change tack until they hit on a more successful formula.  This usually means overcoming one’s personal ideology and embracing new ideas.”

Whether or not this claim has any validity in the case of long-serving heads of IFs in their final term before a planned retirement is unknown. It will be several years before any meaningful conclusion can be drawn about the actions of sports federation presidents towards the end of their mandate.

Number of candidates only one aspect of elections
In principle, competition among candidates to lead an organisation should bring benefits as it keeps elected officials more accountable and responsive to voters.

While the number of candidates is an easily measured indicator of the health of democracy, it is more difficult to assess more qualitative aspects of the electoral process, such as rules for nominating individuals, campaigning regulations and the voting procedures. Unfortunately, there have been several well-documented instances of sports organisation rules which have been designed or modified to benefit incumbents (e.g. the Confederation of African Football) and examples of disputed results (e.g. IAAF elections in 2011), suggesting that the rules and/or supervision are inadequate.

Regulations which stack the odds in favour of a particular contender or group may at least attract censure (although sports bodies are hardly renowned for being responsive to external criticism). In contrast, the fact that procedures are inadequate is more likely to become apparent only at the time of the congress. There will rarely be a moment when reviewing the details of election rules in a constitution is a top priority for an IF, particularly if a number of years have passed since a contested vote. Such vital but unexciting rules deserve more attention.

Who votes?
A separate question relates to the composition of the electorate. In most IFs, the voting membership consists almost entirely of national member federations (some sports have multiple members per country). The dominant system is one member, one vote although there are examples of weighted voting too, such as in World Rugby.

Nobody would dispute that the national member federations are vital beneficiaries and stakeholders of the IF’s work. Nevertheless, it could be argued that other constituencies should also have a say in the elections, including athletes, paying fans or even professional leagues. That is probably a debate for another day.

Overall, there are plenty of challenges to be tackled before a neutral observer could judge that democratic processes in IFs are working as effectively as they should. However, similar inadequacies may well exist in other sectors beyond sport.

There are positive stories to tell from 2016 - several of the IF elections have been highly competitive - but it remains fairly common for presidents to be re-elected repeatedly without opposition. Presidents who know that they are likely to face a contest should be more motivated to direct their IFs to work in the interests of the sport. It also seems only fair that voting members should be granted a choice of leader more than once in a generation.

It is therefore to be hoped that term limits for elected officials in IFs soon become the rule rather than the exception. This change would by no means resolve all of the democratic failings in international sport but it would be an important step forward.

Number of presidential candidates in International Federation elections

Sport (International Federation abbreviation)

Candidates in previous election  

(2012 unless specified)

Candidates in 2016

Canoeing (ICF)



Fencing (FIE)



Football (FIFA)

2 (2015)


Gymnastics (FIG)



Hockey (World Hockey)



Ice Hockey (IIHF)



Modern Pentathlon (UIPM)



Rugby (World Rugby)

2 (2011)


Sailing (World Sailing)



Skating (ISU)

1 (2010)


Triathlon (ITU)


1 *

Volleyball (FIVB)




* Election due to take place on 11 December. Only one candidate was declared ahead of the deadline stipulated by electoral rules

Definition of candidate: included in the election for voting in at least one round

Data sources: IF websites; various news articles

  • Martin Nyamori, Kenya, 16.12.2016 11:13:
    Corruption has spoilled sports and when elected leadears refuse to vacate office after there term,it show how our good game has become a cheat.

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