PtG Article 10.06.2022

New book presents urgent call to listen to athletes in modern pentathlon

38 athletes from modern pentathlon have been interviewed for a new book ‘Athletes Pressing Charges’ that detail the governance problems athletes are facing as the International Modern Pentathlon Union is trying to eliminate horse-riding as part of the sport.

The emergence of independent athletes’ movements has disrupted sports’ governance structures in semi-professional (Olympic) sports in recent years and challenged the traditional hierarchies with the global sport system.

The World Players Association became an important pioneer organisation when it was founded in 2014 to provide athletes with a voice in sports governance. In 2018, athletes and athletes’ advocates from around the world established Global Athlete, an institution that understands itself as a collective to tackle the power balance between athletes and administrators.

The same development can be witnessed in individual sports. The Athletics Association attempts to unify athletes’ voices in the sport of track-and-field, and in July 2021, the International Swimmers’ Alliance was formed with the same goal. The impetus for such change in thinking comes from the athletes’ community itself as many athletes consider themselves disempowered vis-à-vis governing bodies of sport.

The book ‘Athletes Pressing Charges’ presents and analyses one of the new athletes’ movements that has emerged from within the sport of modern pentathlon in response to a  decision by the sport’s international governing body, the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM), to cease the horse-riding event after the 2024 Olympic Games.

The UIPM leadership justifies the radical step with a need to modernise the sport to secure its place on the Olympic programme. The decision caused wide-ranging protests within the modern pentathlon community. A total of 667 athletes signed a petition handed to the UIPM, elite athletes approached the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, and an independent athletes’ organisation in the form of Pentathlon United was established.

A study based on 38 interviews with athletes and officials

The study’s point of departure is the existing power imbalance between sport organisations and athletes. It is based on 38 interviews with current and former elite athletes as well as individuals closely involved within the sport. The study participants come from a wide range of countries and spoke confidentially to produce knowledge, contextualise interview data, and evaluate the statements of peers.

In the study, the athletes’ voices are centralised to provide the marginalised athlete community with a possibility to present their views and contrast them with the UIPM’s viewpoints as they have been presented in the public domain. UIPM’s viewpoints are included in the study through public statements, communication with the athletes, and internal documents.

In the interviews, the activists put forward progressive and liberal understandings of sports governance. The focal point of their arguments is the rights of the individual athletes participating in modern pentathlon and the threat posed by the UIPM leadership to those rights.

Their calls for an end to the athletes’ marginalisation are aligned with a strong belief in the positive effects of stakeholder participation. They argue that the UIPM is caught up in problematic organisational cultures and controlled by its current leadership which leads to decision-making out of self-interest.

More specifically, the study, based on the interviewees’ statements raises a number of issues such as exclusion from decision-making processes, violation of good governance principles, lack of transparency, and conflicts of interest.

Athletes were ignored and silenced by the UIPM

In the interviews, the activists accuse the UIPM leadership of ignoring and willingly silencing the voices of the athletes. No consultation of athletes in the initial decision-making process to suggest modern pentathlon without riding for the 2028 Olympic Games took place.

More severely, at various times in the process, members of the UIPM Executive Board and representatives of national federations undertook active attempts to stop athletes from speaking out, for example through restricting speaking time, spying on their communication, and seemingly instructing representatives to abstain from consulting the athletes’ community.

Thus, the study finds that the democracy system with the UIPM is severely flawed and hinders stakeholder engagement to take effect, thereby supporting the activists’ strong call for a direct involvement of athletes in decision-making processes within the federation.

The presidency of UIPM is uncontestable in practice

Adopting Play the Game’s Sports Governance Observer as a framework, the study finds that according to the athletes, the UIPM appears to violate the good governance principles of democracy, accountability, and transparency.

Within the principle of democracy, the criticism focuses on the length of the terms individual leaders can serve, and unwillingness to facilitate open debates.

The UIPM is indeed one of a few international federations that has no term limits in place for the presidency, and the athletes argue that the lack of restrictions allowed current UIPM President Klaus Schormann to establish a regime which is uncontestable in practice. Moreover, the delegates of the UIPM’s General Assembly report that they are pressured into decision-making, and speaking times for those outspoken against the leadership are severely restricted.

Dependencies and power structures have been created that do not allow for a real challenge to his presidency. Moreover, the delegates of the UIPM’s General Assembly report that they are pressured into decision-making and speaking times for those outspoken against the leadership are severely restricted.

With regards to accountability, the activists claim that the UIPM leadership established clientelist relationships with many member federations and attempted to expand the number of members to make it difficult for the international modern pentathlon community to challenge the leadership.

The interviewees claim that UIPM’s one-country-one-vote system, a system criticised for its potential to be abused, has been exploited for clientelist purpose. It is argued that some member federations only exist on paper and others are not engaged in the sport at all.

Spot tests conducted within the framework of the study show that individual UIPM member federations are indeed not recognised by their National Olympic Committees, have fees paid for by the UIPM itself, or do not engage in full modern pentathlon competitions at all – but some have full voting rights.

UIPM has failed to inform athletes about its real intentions

Furthermore, the activists claim that there are severe conflicts of interest within the UIPM leadership due to strong links to the sport of obstacle course racing that is considered as a replacement for horse-riding.

The study finds that while the UIPM had every right to expand its activities and create links to other sports, it failed to inform about its real intentions. Evidence points to the fact that discussions on replacing riding with obstacle racing go as far back as 2016. Therefore, the UIPM is accused of a violation of its responsibility to be accountable to the entire modern pentathlon community.

The study also explores claims of lack of transparency within the UIPM. Due to their strong belief in participatory democratic principles, the athletes demand transparency from the UIPM leadership in the form of publication of minutes and rationales behind decision-making to allow for stakeholder engagement.

They argue that the contradicting communication on the drop of horse-riding, especially with regards to the role of the IOC, has left the athlete community guessing about the real intentions behind the decision. This further reduced the trust of the athletes and the activist movement in the UIPM leadership.

Athletes demonstrate great capacity for decision-making

The book further finds that the level of engagement of elite athletes in the protests and their interest in the politics at play in the sport of pentathlon is significant.

Commentators often correctly excuse athletes for not having the time and capacity to become involved in decision-making processes within their sports. The elite athletes in modern pentathlon are very engaged in political debates, even though they effectively continue to be ignored by the UIPM leadership. Thus, their expertise and interest in governance issues provided here refutes often made claims that athletes lack the necessary knowledge to get involved with sporting political processes.

Whether the activists can provide significant alternatives to the current governance of the sport depends on its ability to marshal their protests into feasible reform suggestions and to demonstrate to potential allies that they are indeed progressive and deeply committed to the future of the sport.

If the athletes can present realistic suggestions for reform, the international sporting community appears to be in a very difficult position to ignore the activists’ calls. The movement itself speaks directly to the ongoing trend in the Olympic Movement to rhetorically subordinate all strategies to the principle of “putting athletes first.” Consequently, it appears necessary for the IOC to pay attention to the issues raised by the athletes in modern pentathlon. 

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