PtG Article 20.11.2019

Global Athlete: “We are noticed”

To Global Athlete Director General Rob Koehler, sports democracy is ‘a democracy limited for the few’ that needs to change. The former WADA Deputy Director General heads up an international athlete-led movement that was established earlier this year in order to promote athletes’ rights all over the world.

On the eve of WADA’s 5th world conference on doping in sport held in Poland in November 2019, the voice of the new athlete-led movement Global Athlete was strong, and its message was clear.

“WADA has failed to hold accountable those who corrupt sport and has failed to deter those seeking to destroy the global anti-doping structure. Consequently, it has failed to realise or even make significant progress towards its vision of ‘a world where all athletes can compete in a doping-free sporting environment,” Rob Koehler, the Director General of Global Athlete, stated in a call for a ‘wholesale structural change’ at the agency he used to work for.

However, there were no changes to observe at the WADA conference, Koehler said after the event. Even though the WADA Athlete Committee had a new Athletes Anti-Doping Rights Act approved, the athletes still don’t have a single voting representative at the agency’s decision-making Executive Committee.

“The conference in Katowice resulted in very little advancement for athletes. In fact, the rhetoric that came from the IOC president Thomas Bach that athletes now have more involvement in WADA is just that. There has been no meaningful change in WADA’s governance. The IOC can’t just appoint their athletes to WADA and say we have more athlete representation. It is a smoke and mirrors exercise,” Koehler said.

Giving a voice to athletes

In August 2018, Koehler decided to step down from his position as Deputy Director General of WADA and planned to take a year off before deciding what to do next.

But soon after leaving WADA, which is funded and controlled by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a number of national governments, several athletes asked him to help promote athletes’ rights. At the same time the Canadian got an offer from the independent foundation FairSport that changed his plans:

“The people behind FairSport wanted me to help start something new, an international movement that should give voice to athletes all over the world. When I worked for WADA, I was always a strong advocate of athlete rights. So, I said ok but on certain conditions,” Koehler explains to Play the Game in an interview about his visions for Global Athlete.

Koehler told FairSport he wanted to be sure of the need for a new athlete movement with a bottom-up approach that would allow the athletes to determine and dictate what needs to change and the best way of achieving that change. He also insisted that the movement should collaborate with World Players Association and other independent athlete organisations. Moreover, he demanded that the funding of the movement should be independent of its decision making.

Thousands have signed up

“The independence of Global Athlete is essential to me. Many organisations have asked to be our partners, but Global Athlete is only for athletes. We want to avoid any conflicts of interest,” the Canadian argues in line with the slogan of the new movement:  ‘by athletes, for athletes’.

By February 2019, Koehler had consulted athletes around the world. That made him certain of the need for an independent athlete-led movement as an international alternative to existing athlete representation in the IOC, WADA and many national Olympic committees.

At a time when athletes’ power were on the rise in many sports and a large number of athletes were upset by the way the IOC and WADA had handled the Russian state doping case, the former WADA official launched Global Athlete with the help from Olympic track cyclist Callum Skinner.

The new movement was rapidly supported by other famous athletes like Olympic para-powerlifter Ali Jawad, world champion kickboxer Caradh O’Donovan, Olympic cross-country skier Noah Hoffmann, bobsleigh and skeleton athlete Akwasi Frimpong and Olympic basketball player Rachel Sporn.

“It is too early to determine where we will end up. There is going to be advocacy and, moving forward, how much further we go down the road to really standing up for athlete rights and mobilising the athletes to take a stand when their rights are not being upheld, remains to be seen,” Koehler said after the launch.

Today, he says:

 “We have accomplished a lot since February. Thousands of athletes have signed up online as members of Global Athlete. We have helped athletes legally. People are paying attention to us. Our strength is that we are not afraid of saying the truth at a time when many other people in sport are afraid of speaking up.”

Global Athlete survey maps athletes' issues

Global Athlete has raised its voice in a number of cases involving athlete rights, anti-doping, poor leadership and human rights issues.

And three weeks ago, Global Athlete, Fair Sport and Play the Game launched the first ever Global Athlete Survey which will offer athletes the opportunity to have their say on issues in sport ranging from athlete rights to financial compensation and abuse and anti-doping.

But athletes do not speak with one voice and that is a challenge for the new movement that has been used by Global Athlete’s opponents to question who the leaders of the movement are speaking up for.  

Even though the goal of Global Athlete is to ‘create positive change in world sport’ by balancing ‘the power that exists between athletes and sporting leaders’ and securing ‘a more meaningful and representative athlete voice for all decisions in sport’, the initiative was criticised by both the IOC and WADA.

“It’s disappointing that this group seems to believe that none of us care about athletes and that none of us do a good job for athletes if we are a part of the Olympic Movement,” the IOC Athletes’ Commission noted in a statement, and a WADA spokesperson said that the agency cannot offer athletes a greater representation on its Executive Committee until athletes clarify how their representatives are elected.

WADA also argued that the agency continues to strengthen the ways in which the athlete voice is heard within its governance structure, while pointing to governance reforms approved in November 2018 that include one seat at a minimum for athlete representation on all Standing Committees which is to be implemented in 2020.

IOC and WADA are paying attention

To Koehler, the reactions from the IOC and WADA didn’t come as a surprise. But he also sees the reactions as positive signs for Global Athlete:

“They are paying attention. We are noticed. I am not naive, and I understand their power and how they work. But this is a hell of a chance and I have a hard time understanding why they can’t see that a better balance of power is necessary.”

To the former WADA Deputy Director General, the athletes represent a huge potential for growth in sport at a time when the traditional structure of sport are under pressure:    

“Sport democracy is a democracy limited for the few. Our goal is not only to give voice to the athletes but to make them a part of the solution. No matter what the IOC and other sports organisations say, sport is in decline and the whole landscape is changing. We believe that making the athletes an equal partner in decision making will help sport grow.”

The goal of making athletes an equal partner in sport’s decision making is not new. The athletes are a majority in sport and being a majority ruled by a minority has often been the subject of discussions on how to modernize sports democracy, even in the IOC and WADA.

“WADA was once an athlete-led anti-doping agency that got stronger and stronger. But instead of seeing it as a victory it was seen as a threat. The IOC tried to take control and athlete voices were cast aside,” Koehler points out, and he knows that it is not an easy task to challenge two of the most powerful players in the history of world sport.

“Yes, it’s a big task. But we are starting with small steps.”

National governments and sponsors also have responsibilities

Global Athlete keeps an arm’s length to the national Olympic committees and other Olympic stakeholders, but the movement is collaborating with the World Players Association and independent athlete groups in the US, Canada, UK and Germany. Koehler hopes to expand the movement to other countries where independent athlete groups are fighting for respect and the right to have a say.

“We want to protect all athletes. And we never criticize the athletes. Global Athlete is first of all about bringing athletes together. Even doped athletes from Russia or other countries are welcome to join us. We want to engage and understand the athletes. It’s about listening and learning,” Koehler explains.

But most athletes have a short career of maybe five or ten years before they move on with their lives in many different directions. And that makes it difficult to keep strong athletes’ voices alive over a longer period.

“Most Olympic athletes only compete at the Olympic Games once. This is why the Olympic system is such a perfect system to not mobilise athletes to stand up. The IOC is in control,” Koehler says while also noting that some athletes show a strong interest in helping change sport at the end of their career when they have learned how the sport system works.

The IOC, international federations and national Olympic committees are not the only ones running the Olympic Games. According to Koehler, national governments are the ones that are putting the most money into the Games. And the fact that a lot of the taxpayers’ money is used on Olympic events gives him and Global Athlete a hope of change.

“The governments have a responsibility to the athletes. But our goal is not to align with national governments - it is to secure athlete rights by making the governments more aware of the athletes,” Koehler says and points to the importance of public awareness.

“Most people don’t know that athletes aren’t making any money when they compete at the Olympic Games.”

That those who deliver world class sport at Olympic Games are not paid for their work is also the reason why Koehler believes that the Olympic sponsors must be required to implement a set of criteria that can help support the athletes.

“Otherwise, the sponsors are a part of the problem. We have tried to discuss this issue with some sponsors. It is very difficult because the marketing department and the brand recognition department are businesses inside the business. There is no willingness so far. We need support from the top leaders.”

Level playing field

But according to Koehler, many sponsors would love to see Rule 40 in the Olympic charter abolished in all countries. The rule prevents Olympic athletes from advertising for their private sponsors during the Olympic Games in order to protect the IOC’s sponsors. And even though the IOC recently softened the rule, only athletes in a few countries have so far been allowed to a limited promotion of their private sponsors at the Games.

To Koehler, Rule 40 does not make any sense at a time when athletes are the most popular brands in sport:

“Sponsors are much more interested in sponsoring athletes than organisations. And it works perfectly at the PGA Championship, in tennis and elsewhere but at the Olympics there is still such a resistance.”

But according to the Canadian, Global Athlete’s resistance to the Olympic rule is also here to stay together with athletes’ resistance to any other rule that prevents them from having a level playing field in sport. Because, as Koehler notes on the movement’s website:

“Athletes are the ones competing on the field, in the pool or on the track every day. They should be given a real say on the future of sport.”

Whether the athletes of the world ever will have a real say in sports governance, remains to be seen. But for ten months, the athletes have been supported by a hard working global backing group. And according to Koehler, the group is growing.