Analysis: How far should governments go controlling the governance of international sports federations? A public hearing held in Aarhus, Denmark, demonstrated that there is no clear consensus on the right balance between autonomy and intervention.
Is ISO certification of sports governance in international sports federations the way to go? Or should we trust sports organisations’ self-assessment of their governance?
These were some of the questions being discussed at a public hearing on sports governance in the City Hall in the Danish city of Aarhus this Monday. The Public Hearing was a co-operation between the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the parliamentary arm of the Council of Europe, and Play the Game and took place just a few hundred meters from the SportAccord Convention, which is gathering most international sports organisations this week.
The public hearing at the City Hall in Aarhus is a result of close to one year’s work in PACE to find solutions to good governance in sports. The Council of Europe’s experience in establishing conventions of sports (notably the European Convention on Spectator Violence, the Anti-Doping Convention and the Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions) is one reason for this initiative.
The preparatory work for this hearing, for instance the report “The need for better international sports governance” signed by the Danish parliamentarian Mogens Jensen and handed out at the hearing, has included various debates on a common standardised control system of good governance in sports.
Sports organisations are often afraid of two things: losing their autonomy and having to finance an extra bureaucracy for good governance. There is a common understanding between sports organisations, governments and inter-governmental organisations to find the right level of governmental interference, but the recommendations from different independent experts taking part in the efforts leading up to this hearing point out that sports organisations should not be afraid to tackle the revision of the notion of sports “autonomy”.
A few panellists in the hearing supported ISO certification as a measure to make international sports organisations comply with good governance standards. ISO certification of sports governance as a measure was put forward in the Jensen report and was warmly supported by Harri Syväsalmi from the Finnish Centre for Integrity of in Sport and also by the Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni.
Battaini-Dragoni informed the participants that the idea of ISO certification was so good that the cultural committee of PACE at the next committee meeting will have a discussion on ways to introduce ISO certification as a sports governance tool. Harri Syväsalmi recommended this kind of certification and informed the audience that the Finnish Centre for Integrity in Sport already used ISO 37001 (Anti-bribery management systems) as a way of measuring governance in their organisation. As Syväsalmi pointed out, ISO is there to help, not to harm.
Sceptical sports organisations
Some kind of outside intervention to sports was generally supported by politicians and other participants in the audience, except for some of those representing different national and international sports organisations.
Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer at the IOC, Paquerette Girard Zappelli, President of ASOIF and SportAccord Convention, Francesco Ricci Bitti, and President of the Danish Olympic Committee and Confederations of Sports, Niels Nygaard, were not very happy about suggestions of ISO-like compliance in sports, which would, in their opinion, threaten the autonomy of sports.
All three representatives of sports pointed out that governments and sports organisations should do a joint effort to achieve good governance in sports, but they also emphasised several times during the hearing that self-assessment, for instance, according to the self-assessment principles adopted by ASOIF in February last year and the new governance compliance system presented at the SportAccord Convention in Aarhus this week, was as good as any other form of outside intervention or independent review.
Ricci Bitti also emphasised the different sizes of different sports organisations and also begged the audience to believe that the troubles of sports were exaggerated. He promised that each and every organisation would introduce all kinds of necessary governance tools when they were ready for it. Niels Nygaard took another approach and warned that government interference would be forced upon sports if it did not act swiftly enough. He also warned against governmental interference in sports.
The sensitive autonomy question
The question of autonomy is the tensest question in every discussion of sports governance. This time too and the hearing became most lively when the different stakeholders discussed the new UK Code of Sports Governance, presented by Chief Operating Officer of UK Sports, Simon Morton.
In the Code, which was introduced in 2016, all sports bodies and organisations receiving public funding through UK Sports and Sport England must adhere to this Code, taking action from April this year. The new code operates with no less than 58 specific mandatory requirements for organisations receiving the most funding while organisations receiving limited funding will only have to meet seven very basic governance requirements. One of the key requirements in the Code is that board members should be appointed in line with the skills required of the board based on a matrix detailing the required skills, experience, independence and knowledge. Many among the audience found this to be not only a violation of sports autonomy but also a potential violation of common democratic principles.
Much of the debate on sports autonomy seems mix the notions independence and autonomy. In the Nordic Model, for instance, most sports organisations are dependent on funding from their national governments, but national governments will in no circumstances interfere with the electoral processes of sports organisations, which they would consider a violation of sports autonomy. For some in the audience, the UK skills requirements was a step too far and was a clear breach of sports autonomy, while participants from especially Anglo-Saxon countries tended to find it more natural that governmental funded organisations are obliged to make sure that people with certain qualifications, like corporate experience, are recruited.
One aspect of autonomy that was not highlighted in the hearing is the role of politicians in leading positions in the sports organisations. In the run up to the FIFA Council elections this fall, the former Russian Sports Minister and now Vice Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko was ruled ineligible according to the new reform plan of FIFA due to his political position. It will be interesting to see how this rule will apply to other countries with close ties between sports and politics, but nevertheless, this might signal a new direction for sports organisations
The need for further discussion
The hearing showed that there is a need for a separate discussion on the limits of sports autonomy. On the one hand, the international sports federations constantly refer to governmental interference in sport, while governments often avoid meddling in the question of sports governance because of unwillingness to be drawn into a field where they are often accused of meddling with the autonomy of sport. Two issues are of concern here: firstly, the limits of national sports law and the extent of control that the national authorities have over the finances provided to sports. On the other hand, the issue of whether governmental officials should be allowed to have positions in sports or whether restrictions should be put on how many sports bodies politicians can be part of.
The idea of autonomous sports bodies does not mean that sports bodies are beyond the law or scrutiny: bribery and racketeering are criminal offenses no matter who carries out the crime. Likewise, ignoring human rights, putting the vulnerable at risk or damaging the environment are punishable under existing laws and sports are in no way exempt from these. Autonomy, as many authors say, has to be earned. These were points made by different contributors at the hearing representing national authorities and NGOs with transparency and accountability as their main field of work.
The last couple of years, sports have discovered and started to admit that in various areas they are dependent on cooperation with governments and intergovernmental organisations on issues such as match-fixing and doping. At the same time, governments and intergovernmental organisations have learned that sport is more than a game and in need of stronger regulations. A very clear example of the latter was Battaini-Dragoni’s final remark at the hearing that sports governance will be one of the most important issues for the CoE in the future. She was also sceptical of the self-assessment provisions presented by ASOIF’s Ricci Bitti and begged the Summer Olympic Federations to present facts of change before she would appreciate the initiative.
Even if sports and the outside world of sports have managed to establish a common understanding of what the problem is, the public hearing in the City Hall in Aarhus and the SportAccord Convention just around the corner serve as a telling illustration of the distance still to go before a common understanding of how to solve the problems of sports governance exists. Just a few hundred meters apart, yet only the invited speakers participating at the SportAccord Convention attended the public hearing and nobody from the hearing stood in the bar at the Convention lobby discussing problems of sports governance with the sports leaders.