PtG Article 25.11.2021

Head of NOC: Sports federations need more demands from society

At a Play the Game webinar, the head of the National Olympic Committee in Portugal called for society to make more demands on sports organisations as a way to improve their governance. And a professor at the European University Institute asked for the EU to intervene in the governance of sport: "It is a public obligation to regulate the sports market."

In general, sports federations are not fit to meet the demands of society, and the solution consists of more public demands and regulations. Those were the overall conclusions of a panel debate at a Play the Game webinar on 23 November 2021 where more than 235 participants from all over the world were introduced to the results of a new study on governance standards in more than 100 sports federations across 15 countries.

The study is based on Play the Game’s National Sports Governance Observer (NSGO) tool that covers 274 yes/no indicators spread over 46 principles within four dimensions of governance: Transparency, democratic processes, internal accountability, and societal responsibility. The average scores of the countries surveyed show great variation but even the countries that did best had average scores below 60 percent (Serbia 59% and the US 53%), and in general sports federations had the lowest scores on societal responsibility.

“Sport governing bodies usually live in denial about a lot of issues related to integrity and good governance. If we want to walk the talk on sport governing issues, it is important that we act on the results of the study, especially in the dimension of societal responsibility,” João Paolo Almeida, the Director General of the National Olympic Committee of Portugal, said.

“The results clearly show that sport officials are not properly aware of the impact of governance and integrity issues and the role that sport can play in society. You can have a good strategical framework but if you don’t have good governance embedded in your culture, it does not work.”

To Almeida, a growing number of governance-related scandals in sport indicate that sports federations need to ask themselves what they can do to speed up, accelerate, and clear barriers of good governance:

“This is the question that I ask myself every single day and the only answer that I have come up with is this: Those who invest in sport; local or public governments, sponsors, and broadcasters, need to demand more. They need to request from the sport governing bodies not only to use the NSGO tool as a kind of check list but to follow up by implementing a road map on how to tackle shortcomings,” the Head of Portugal’s NOC argued.

“If not, in two years from now the findings will be even lower than they are now. Sport governing bodies can no longer live on denial of these issues. That is not acceptable. Governments are looking into this. Change or be changed,” Almeida said with a reference to IOC president Thomas Bach who have also urged Olympic sports federations to improve their standards of governance.

Sports federations are political cartels

To Miguel Maduro, a professor at the European University Institute, the new NSGO results confirm that governance flaws in the world of sport are so common that he sees no possibility of reform coming from within the sports organisations:

“This is not a problem that can be addressed simply through outside pressure from sponsors of sport. I have witnessed that myself at FIFA where I for a short period of time was the chair of the Governance Committee in charge of monitoring and trying to implement governance reforms,” Maduro explained at the Play the Game webinar.

“I realised that the pressure from sponsors only works for a relatively limited period. And increasingly, more sports federations are now looking for financing sources that are less concerned with governance integrity than traditional sponsors in sport.”

Maduro finds it remarkable that even though sport is an area of both social relevance and economic impact, it is not subject to public scrutiny, public oversight, and public regulation:

“The NSGO results are a consequence of that. It is sad to see that not even one sports federation reached a minimum level of acceptability. In fact, the results are probably even worse because the standards in the study are linked to very formal requirements such as publication of the statutes. When it comes to a much deeper governance culture in the sports federations the results are worse than the bad results that we see overall in the study.”

Based on the NSGO results, Maduro suggests that public institutions no longer limit their engagement in sport to writing nice resolutions that encourage sports federations to improve their governance standards:

“It is a public obligation to regulate a substantial area of our market activities. There is a deep conflict of interest on the economic dimension of these sports organisations. They are both promoters of the sport events and regulators of the sport economy. There is no other area of the market that I know of where the economic operators regulate themselves,” Maduro said.

To Maduro, the ongoing discussions on the governance of football and even the recent IOC communication in the case of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s allegations against China’s former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli for sexual abuse is a confirmation of the conflicts of interest that impact the governance of world sport.

“The IOC has a deep conflict of interest being the organiser of the Olympics and collecting money for the event, and at the same time having to regulate and protect the athletes that are supposed to compete in the Olympics. The IOC cannot play that role. We need to require them to have a strict separation of the regulatory functions and the functions as organiser of sports events,” Maduro said.

“Secondly, we need to open up the structures of representation in sports federations. A recent study showed that 70 per cent of sports federation presidents run unopposed. There is no competition, very little renewal, and almost no representation of women. We can only change this by forcing the federations to change. Sports federations are political cartels. They need to be open to a much broader scope of interests. And a third crucial aspect is the need for a genuine independence of the disciplinary, ethical, and judicial bodies that control the applications of the rules. Today, members of disciplinary and judicial bodies in sport are at the disposal of the political leadership they are supposed to review.”

Lessons to be learned

Sarah Lewis, a former Secretary General of the international skiing federation FIS, highlighted some of the lessons she had learnt from participating in Play the Game’s previous studies of good governance in sport:

“There were many elements that the federation had fulfilled but had not published yet. I am sure there are many sports federations who have undertaken the surveys that will say: Yes, we are doing that, but we need to make sure that we share our information. This was an important lesson to me. Another important lesson is that we found that the survey served as a checklist: These are the elements expected and required within good governance. What do we accomplish? What are we accomplishing but not publishing? What don’t we accomplish and why?”

Lewis also noted that external oversight of governance in sports federations for years has been the norm in areas like antidoping and whistleblowing:

“But external oversight cost money. This is one of the reasons why some federations have internal oversight of their affairs. Another reason is a lack of understanding of what needs to be done. A vast majority of the sports federations haven’t got anything to hide. They are just following what has always been done when it wasn’t really the norm of governments and other higher authorities to be involved in sports governance,” Lewis said.

“But having a certain independence is important to the credibility in the public at large. The public needs to understand that the organisation is being run properly with sound values and good ethics and morals. That is not the case everywhere, but this is not necessarily because the federations are doing everything wrong. It’s because a lot of the time they don’t know what to do and how to accomplish good governance.”

Failing public interventions in sport

After having argued that all stakeholders in sport should demand more from the sports federations, Almeida noted that there are also many failing public interventions in sport. As an example, he mentioned the Larry Nassar case in the US where the FBI has been accused of mishandling the multiple cases of sexual abuse in gymnastic that ultimately sent Nassar to prison for many years:

“The intervention of public institutions in sport is crucial but has to walk hand in hand with pressure from watch dog organisations, the public opinion, and the broadcasters. Currently, I cannot see any public institution with enough power to confront these quasi-state-nation organisations that the international sports federations represent. Sport is different from any other business,” Almeida said and pointed out the importance of having a civil society that plays a meaningful role by putting pressure on both the decision-making sport governing bodies and the political institutions.

Almeida’s comments caused Maduro to further explain his proposal of more public intervention in sport:

“To avoid any misunderstanding: It is hard for national governments to regulate a private form of governance that is transnational in nature. That is why I and others argue that only the EU is in a position where it can do it effectively. I do not see any political will at the international level to set up a world body to regulate sports governance. Secondly, I am not arguing for governments to start to regulate all sports issues. But I believe that the EU could set up either an agency or a licensing system to supervise and review how sports organisations comply with a set of god governance principles.”

Cultural and social differences

The panel debate followed a presentation of key findings from the new NSGO study by Sandy Adam, a PhD candidate at the Leipzig University who has reviewed 12 of the national results. Three national results have been reviewed by freelance policy advisor Christina Friis Johansen.

Present at the webinar were also national researchers from four of the 15 countries in the new study. Catalina Melendro Blanco from Universidad Externado de Colombia presented the results from Colombia. Gardar Óli Àgustsson and Jón Reynir Reynisson from Molde University presented the results from Iceland, Renata Putri from Ganesport Institute in Jakarta presented the results from Indonesia, and Olha Borysova from the National University of Physical Education and Sport presented the results from Ukraine.

In a chat forum at the webinar some participants raised questions about the methodology used in the NSGO study, the independence of the researchers, and the impact of different cultural and social backgrounds in the 15 countries:

“The NSGO follows a standardised procedure where five sports should be included in the benchmarking in order to make comparisons. These are some of the most important sports: football, handball, swimming, tennis, and athletics. We also looked at two to three sports that are either very traditional or are of a national importance to the countries,” Sandy Adam explained.

“I think the comments on the cultural and social background of the different countries are valuable comments that might provide an avenue for future research. The objective of the standardised methodology is to make comparisons and to start a debate of what could be improved in the sports federations in terms of the specific context of the federation in the country. But we cannot study all aspects in one survey.”

On the question of the independence of the researchers, Adam said:

“It’s a fair question. We have included people from research institutions, in most cases from universities with which Play the Game has had an association for a long time, and whom we trust are taking the standardised methodology on board and score and evaluate the federations to the best and most objective standard.”

Learn more about the National Sports Governance Observer

Read the article 'New research: National sports federations still need better governance'

Download the report: 'National Sports Governance Observer 2'

See the recording of the webinar on Youtube

Download the report

Grass. Photo: GettyImages/Jurgita Vaicikeviciene/EyeEm
PtG November 2021
National Sports Governance Observer 2: Benchmarking governance in national sports organisations