PtG Article 27.04.2011

Sport: A battlefield for value fighters

It may seem unfair that sport more than any other cultural phenomenon must constantly explain its human and social values. There are however some very good reasons to demand a little more from sport than from other activities.

It may seem unfair that sport more than any other cultural phenomenon must constantly explain its human and social values. Could you imagine that Metallica, the New York City Ballet or Olafur Eliasson were constantly questioned about their own moral standards and how their art contributed to create a better living for the general population?

There are however some very good reasons to demand a little more from sport than from other activities.

One obvious reason is that the sports leaders themselves, on every level from the local club leader to the international federation president, claim over and over again that thanks to sport, we can create a healthy, peaceful and harmonious society. This tune has proven efficient in the search for financial and political support for sport, also in cases where evidence does not fully support the claims.

Another good reason is that sport does reach out to even the most remote corners of the globe. As practitioners or as spectators, we are involved in massive numbers.

But on top of this, sport is held accountable to its values because it contains some potentially dangerous emotions: anger, frustration, aggression. The very idea of having rules in sport is of course that we do want to keep these feelings under control, so the boxing fight or the hockey game does not end up in violence, even death.Add to this that we are often practising or following sport in teams or crowds with the increased impact that mass affiliation provides.

Last, but not least, sport’s inner meaning is to produce images of the norms and ideals that we search to guide our lives as individuals and communities by. When practising sport, norms and ideals are marked in our bodies and minds with a force much stronger than in front of the TV. But also the TV screen offers a wonderful platform for propagating ideas through sport thanks to its global outreach. And it works: Look to the amount of politicians and companies that rush to be seen in the context of an international sports event.

If you think that a ball game is merely a game about a ball, you may have got it wrong. Sport as a whole is an intense, never-ending battlefield about the values that guide our lives.

This is why those who define and decide about these values have a tremendous power. At Play the Game, we believe the definitions and decisions are much too important to leave in the hands of small groups in the international political, sports or media elite.We believe that every sports participant is entitled to decide about her own sporting life and enjoy the fullest possible freedom to choose and realise the values that she believes, on her own, in a team or in communities.

In principle, this means that the public and sporting authorities must ensure a variety of sports activities to choose from – and of course leave room for the athletes themselves to develop and innovate their activities. The ultimate responsibility for practising this freedom of choice of course rests with the athlete herself and must be carried out with due consideration for others. But the clubs, federations and governments must ensure that there is space for movement.

This is why the core values of Play the Game are democracy, transparency and freedom of expression.

Democracy, because every athlete must be empowered to influence the sport she exercises. In theory, there is a direct link between the individual athlete and the president of the international federation through a system of representative democracy.

In practice, the international federations work independently from their members, flexing their impressive financial and political muscles in headquarters covered with mirrors on the inside and the outside. They are very rarely held accountable for their practices. Not by the media that have a century-long tradition for supporting sport as fans and often have own commercial interests in a conflict-free image of sport. Not by the public authorities and politicians who often see sports organisation as much too powerful to confront, fearful of losing the opportunity to be granted the next important mega-event. And they are even less controlled by their own democratic constituencies – the national federations – who show happy disengagement in the way the sport is governed, as long as the money keeps flowing out from the international to the national level.

It may be too much to demand a perfectly working democracy from the top to the grass-roots, but most federations do not even bother to try.

It is a paradox that the International Olympic Committee, which in its structure is the least democratic of all major sports organisations, has over the past ten years been in sport’s forefront by democratizing its activities, inviting representatives of national committees, international federations and Olympic athletes into its legislative assembly, and displaying a notable degree of transparency.

Transparency is another key requirement, a value that all sports federations share – at least in theory. When accounts are falsified such as it happened in the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), everybody can see that change is needed (except the volleyball leaders themselves). But also FIFA is a great example of talking transparency, but showing secrecy. One of our regular guests at Play the Game, the British reporter Andrew Jennings, has repeatedly dragged top secret documents out of FIFA’s headquarters that give evidence about mismanagement and manipulation. The response? FIFA has banned Andrew Jennings from all its activities and so far decided never to accept invitations to speak at the Play the Game conferences.

So it is not with the help of FIFA that the world’s largest corruption scandal so far has been brought to light: The payment of bribes worth 140 million CHF – over 100 million dollars – to sports officials in mainly FIFA in return for tv and marketing contracts to the former market giant ISL.

It would be unfair to blame FIFA alone for only practising transparency when a glittery and happy facade can be shown. Like few other values, sports organisations always stress the family values: The Olympic family, the football family, the basketball family etc. etc.

This may produce good feelings in the corridors of power, but is not as innocent and heart-warming as it may seem. The family unity is also used as a shield against open internal debates. In a family we are loyal to each other. We do not have any real conflicts of interest. We do not hang our dirty laundry out in the open. Perhaps we could add: And at the end of the day, papa knows what is best for us…

If sport was regarded as a community rather than a family, conditions for the debate would change radically. At Play the Game, freedom of expression is perhaps the value that we have had the greatest success in promoting.

You might find it exaggerated to demand freedom of expression in a world of leisure activities. After all, the leaders of world sport do not send hitmen out to take down their critics.

This is true: we must keep things in proportion.

But 14 years in the international sports debate and six international conferences have taught us that speaking out can have very serious consequences. We have had the privilege to meet a number of courageous, intelligent and very well-informed people who all had one thing in common: They were fired, expelled, sued, marginalised, ridiculed or threatened because they told the public of events and facts that their conscience did not allow them to keep to themselves.

Take for instance the Italian athletics coach Sandro Donati who for more than a decade fought a lonely fight against doping organised by the sports establishment itself. His own employers at Italian Olympic Committee filed 11 lawsuits against him and lost them all.

Or the Argentine volleyball leader Mario Goijman who was expelled from the FIVB together with the whole Argentine federation, because he had raised criticism about the way the volleyball president Ruben Acosta cashed in millions of dollars through his sports leadership. A practice also criticised by the IOC, but never stopped.

Exposing many such cases has not given Play the Game a high degree of popularity in the inner circles of international sport politics. But a growing number of international leaders recognise that the public must be involved if some important threats to sport are to be countered: The illegal doping trade orchestrated by mafia groups, the global problem of match fixing and illegal betting, fan violence, gene doping, tax evasion, trafficking… you can add a number of challenges to that list.

Also, society and sport must work together to realise some of the more positive potentials of sport, for instance the use of sport in countering obesity and other lifestyle diseases.

It is often overlooked that around half of Play the Game’s agenda is completely non-controversial and focused on how sport can be developed to benefit more people than today. Instead, many sports leaders wrinkle their nose and turn their face in disgust as soon as they see that the fight against corruption, exploitation and other forms of abuse is also put forward on our open agenda.

Sport in general has a tendency to see criticism as something evil and obstructive, although anyone who lives in a relationship knows that constructive criticism and love can go very well hand in hand.

If Play the Game and our hundreds of speakers have sometimes criticised sport, something we cannot deny, it is not because we want to damage or destroy sport. It is because we believe that open and honest dialogue is the only way to healthy and sustainable development.

It is because the future must build on a truth that we can all recognise, and this truth is approached only by hearing contrasting voices. It is not because we hate sport, but because we love it.



Slightly updated version of text first published in “Du brauchst Bewegung - Sport zwischen Bildung, Bodykult, Doping und Wertevermittlung”, 2009, Hofmann Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany.