PtG Article 05.11.2013

Democracies hold the power in international sport - but there is little democracy in sports

A wish to promote democratic values in sport has ostensibly been a main driving force behind a new Global Sports Political Power Index from the National Olympic Committee and Sports Confederation of Denmark.

The index shows that democratic nations dominate international sports organisations but a session at Play the Game questioned whether that democracy rubs off on sports organisations.

The index was released at Play the Game by Poul Broberg who is director of sports policy at the Danish NOC. The index maps the nationalities of members of the boards of 31 international Olympic federations, 45 international non-Olympic federations, 25 European Olympic federations, 15 non-Olympic federations, and the members of the IOC, the IOC executive board, the European Olympic Committees and Association of National Olympic Committees.Read more about the Global Sports Political Power Index"In Europe, it turns out that it is the old European countries who have the most influence: United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France and Spain, and from a purely national point of view, Denmark is more than satisfied to be number 12 in terms of international influence," Broberg said.He also pointed out that globally, the US is by far the most influential nation. But again Europe is well placed on the list with countries such as United Kingdom, Italy, France and Russia taking up the places from two through five."The first autocratic country on the list is China at number 10, which means that countries with democratically advanced cultures have the biggest influence on sports politics," Broberg said.He also explained that the NOC of Denmark has undertaken this analysis in part to better equip themselves to enter international discussions on democracy in sport and find likeminded countries with whom to build alliances and diminish the influence of less democratically inclined countries.Difficult to meet even low governance standardsThe question is, however, whether you can make a direct link between a critical mass of individual national representatives from democratic countries in a sports organisation to improved governance in said organisation."Members are not representatives of their democracies, but of themselves and of their organisations. I think it is a little bit dangerous to link between leaders from democratic countries to better governance, and Michael Mrkonjic's research seems to support the notion that sport officials are not representatives of democracy," said Gritt Hartmann, an investigative reporter from Germany in a comment to Broberg.Michael Mrkonjic from the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration presented data from his research on 16 European sports federations with headquarters in either Switzerland or Luxembourg. The aim of the research was to determine the degree to which the European sports federations lived up to what Mrkonjic called "a parsimonious and minimalist approach to governance" - or the absolut minimum that should be required from an international sports federation.Mrkonjic carefully phrased his conclusions as showing "a complex picture of governance processes and structures in European sports federations." But the reality was that even analysing on a limited number of indicators, the sports federations generally failed to meet them.Only four out of 16 federations publish an externally audited financial report, and only two systematically publish an annual activity report. A third organisation, the European Tennis Federations sells it annual activity report.Only two of the 16 federations have an athletes commission, and only few organisations have an ethics code for members and staff with guidelines for receiving and giving gifts. Only two organisations have environmental and social responsibility policies and programmes in place.On a final aspect of governance, term limits for members of the executive boards, the picture was more complex. "We saw substantial differences between the years (from two to four), the terms (from two to four) and the term limits (unspecified, none, fixed and flexible)," Mrkonjic explained.Athletes are enslavedThe democratic shortfall when athletes are not represented on the boards of sports organisation was addressed by a third speaker, Peter Donnelly, who is director of Centre for Sports Policy Studies at Toronto University in Canada.He pointed out that some of the consequences of bad governance in sports organisations are problems with athlete health and safety; problems with labour relations, team selection and other aspects of due process for athletes; and problems of athlete maltreatment and child protection in sport."Athletes are not able to determine the form and circumstances of their participation, and professional athletes in particular have become a commodity. They are bought, sold, traded, drafted. They might be very well paid slaves, but they are still enslaved," Donnelly said.Donnelly explained how a top athlete in Canada did not enjoy the right to free speech and expression, the right to privacy, the right to keep health information private, the right to determine how her image is used, the right to make a living, as well the right to clarity of contractual obligations because as an athlete she is not protected by employee rights.Donnelly called for help in finding ways to help athletes achieve solidarity. "Competitiveness is used to break up solidarity. We should attempt some really creative thinking to achieve that solidarity. It is not a privilege to play if other people are making money from your activities. It is crucial for athletes to be involved in determining the form and circumstances of their own participation," Donnelly said.