Corrupt federations will face increased pressure

The concluding panel debate at the seminar "The Challenge for Europe in the Governance of Sport" featured a wide range of experts. Photo: Play the Game


By Søren Bang
There is an increasing demand from the outside world for sports’ international organisations to take an active role in fighting corruption and undemocratic forms of leadership in their own ranks. This became evident at Play the Game’s seminar on sports management in Brussels on 8 April. The question is how quickly and efficiently sport is able to respond.

There is hope that the extent of economic hocus-pocus and undemocratic leadership will be lessened in international sport over the coming years, and that the operetta-like examples of deeply corrupt sports leaders managing the international federations as their personal property will be seen less and less often. According to Play the Game’s international director, Jens Sejer Andersen, the interest in Play the Game’s seminar on 'The Challenge for Europe in the Governance of Sport' signalled that times may be changing at the top level of international sport. The list of participants, which included more than 100 representatives from organisations with links to the international sports federations, was in itself a good sign, he argued:

“The turnout today confirms a trend we have seen in the past couple of years; a dramatic increase in public interest in the issue of governance in sport, particularly after the revelations of corruption at the helm of world football,” Andersen said at the opening of the seminar at Hotel Silken Berlaymont, only a stone's throw from the EU Commission’s similarly named Berlaymont building. 

“However, football is not alone. Since Play the Game started to focus on sports governance at our conferences almost sixteen years ago, we have heard investigative journalists, academics and whistle-blowers testify to flagrant abuse of trust and positions in many other sporting contexts,” Andersen said, mentioning notable examples from the international federations for volleyball and handball.  

EU funding behind projects
It was no coincidence that the seminar took place within walking-distance from the EU Commission. The meeting marked the conclusion of Play the Game’s project ‘Action for Good Governance in International Sports Organisations (AGGIS)’, which, along with a number of other projects on good governance in sport, has received funding from the EU for a period of 16 months. 

The result of the AGGIS project has been a new measuring tool, the ‘Sports Governance Observer’,  which can be used to rate sports organisations based on areas such as transparency, democratic procedures, internal control mechanisms and solidarity. However, as seminar presentations from four other EU-funded projects revealed, a change is under way in the debate on sports management across a broad front from local grassroots organisations to the top of the international federations.

The European Olympic Committees under the EOC, England’s Sport and Recreation Alliance, the international grassroots organisation ISCA and the football supporters' organisation Supporters Direct are all about to complete projects with ambitions to foster better sports management – from grassroots sport in clubs to worldwide federations such as FIFA. This goal is shared by an expert group set up by the EU Council of Ministers, which later this year will incorporate the recommendations by the EU-funded projects in the expert group’s report. 

More support from sports
Each of the projects will provide recommendations and tools for more transparent and democratic governance in sports organisations. Such initiatives have been seen before on a smaller scale – e.g. the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has formed its own so-called 'universal' principles of good governance, which in practice have been difficult to translate into action at all levels of the Olympic movement.

Perhaps most important is that there seems to be increasing responsiveness among leading sports organisations towards the outside world’s expectation that the organisations keep their own house in order. 

“Obviously, sport has been challenged both on and off the field. There is globally a lack of confidence that players and athletes are not cheating, are not fixing, are not doped – off the field we are increasingly confronted with behaviour and conduct that is unethical,” Ingrid Beutler, head of SportAccord’s Integrity Unit said.

She called for closer cooperation between experts and the federations.

“We are very grateful for the work that has been done. All the examples that have been given this morning mean that we don’t have to go and develop toolkits and frameworks. (…) but we need the experts not just to criticise us but also to assist us to move forward,” Beutler said, mentioning the AGGIS project’s ‘Sports Governance Observer’ as a useful tool in that respect.

Optimism in the IOC
The secretary of the IOC's Ethics Committee, Pâquerette Girard-Zappelli, backed the EU-funded projects on the one hand, and on the other called for a more positive view on the progress that has happened in sports.

"Personally, I am rather optimistic. The situation of today has nothing to do with the situation 15 years ago. At least, I do not think that we would have had such a meeting as we have today.,” Girard-Zappelli said.” 

“What is important is the real willingness of the international sports organisations, including FIFA, to improve their level of good governance and to influence their national federations. This is new. This is very positive. What is important is that international sports organisations now understand that good governance is not something nice-to-have but a must-have. They have no other choice. (…) So these initiatives we have heard about this morning are just on time.” 

She emphasised that today the IOC practices a zero-tolerance policy towards IOC members who do not meet the organisation's standards, and gave the example of the former president of the international volleyball federation, Rubèn Acosta, who was forced out of the IOC for taking a commission of the federation’s income from television and sponsorship deals.

But the particular case of Ruben Acosta shows, according to Jens Sejer Andersen, that major sports organisations such as the IOC can still become more aggressive in their fight against corruption.

“It is true that Acosta was pressured out of the IOC, but the good report the IOC had made on Acosta was shelved because he was not regarded under the organisation’s jurisdiction anymore, so Acosta could go plundering the international volleyball federation for four more years. That is why we need some of these quite strong organisations like the IOC and SportAccord to use the tools they have in their toolbox a bit more to pressure,” he said

Fear for the autonomy of sport
The ingrained fear of losing their political autonomy can be one of the reasons why some sports organisations are reluctant to exhibit their own problems and go into partnership with the international community to resolve them.

This fear of interference can be found in the major sports organisations, but also in smaller sports and for good reasons, Mikkel Larsen from Sport and Recreation Alliance in England argued. He warned against letting politicians regulate the whole sports sector based on what is good for a large and resourceful sport like football.

“In this case we can end up having a regulation that is totally overkill for a lot of the small sports, because legislation is not as flexible as a self-regulated sector will be,” he said. 

But as the Danish MEP and vice president of the European Parliament's Committee on Culture and Education, Morten Løkkegaard, said, the desire to preserve the independence of sports organisations is the best argument to clean up in their own ranks.

“We need political pressure on the sports organisations in order to make them do something themselves. Otherwise we will end up in a situation where politicians all around the world will be tempted to do legislation – and I think we should try to avoid this. These problems are best solved by the organisations but they have to wake up now,” he said. 

Patience and sustained pressure
The question is how quickly and efficiently sport will respond to the wake-up calls. Judging from the presentations at the seminar, at least some sports organisations seem in favour of reforms.

According to Ingrid Beutler, several of the international federations under SportAccord are now willing to change. And as Gianluca Monte, policy officer at the European Commission, pointed out, the EU's support of the various ‘good governance' projects has in itself helped to increase focus on sports’ management challenges.

In any case, the recent years’ increased efforts to fight corruption at the political level and in the private sector will eventually leave their mark on the sport sector despite fierce opposition among some sports leaders, Sylvia Schenk from Transparency International estimates.

“Of course some organisations are still very reluctant, but we have to go on with a step-by-step approach, everything else will fail. Will sport be reformed? Yes – it is just a question how much time it will take. If we press more it will be a shorter time, otherwise it will take longer. Sport can only be reformed by sport. Autonomy of sports organisations is very important, and we have to find a balance with pressure from politicians, sponsors and of course the media,” she said.

But the best argument for the belief that real change is possible and will eventually happen may be the simple fact that the vast majority prefer good management rather than poor management. As Jens Sejer Andersen said at the seminar:

“It is our great chance that Europe has no monopoly of values like transparency, democracy, accountability and solidarity. These are universally recognised ideals outside sport and inside sport, and they are shared by hundreds of thousands of athletes, trainers, managers and sports officials all over the world”.

Read more about the AGGIS project and download the Sports Governance Observer at


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