PtG Comment 13.06.2018

The athlete’s right to have a voice

“One of the best ways you can avoid being used is by making your voice heard in the public domain,” said Jens Sejer Andersen, International director at Play the Game, when speaking to athletes at the WADA Global Athletes Forum, held in Calgary, Canada, on June 4, 2018. Read the speech that he gave on the occasion.

Speech given at the WADA Global Athletes Forum, Calgary, Canada, June 4 2018

Dear athletes

Less than 25 years ago, the Secretary General of the world’s largest sports federation was asked by a Brazilian magazine what he thought about a union of professional football players. His answer was very clear:

”FIFA doesn’t talk to players.”

FIFA it was, and Sepp Blatter it was. What a difference to half a year ago, when FIFA and FIFPro signed an agreement that formalised the role of professional players in defining the future of the sport.

“An important milestone in the improvement of the global governance of professional football,” said FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

There is little doubt that you players and athletes are much courted these days by those who govern sport. There even seems to be a war on athletes’ charters going on – it is hardly a coincidence that the International Olympic Committee sent out an enthusiastic press release outlining its own unfinished athletes’ charter a few days ago, right before we gather here to discuss WADA’s charter in the field of anti-doping.

With such a rush from prestigious organisations to promote your rights, and with such a first-hand expertise in the room, I have struggled a bit to find out how I can possibly contribute to the conversation.

My family and friends would never stop laughing if I pretended to speak as an athlete, so I will throw in some observations and questions based on the 20 years I have been engaged as a journalist and campaigner in international sports politics, hoping that some of them will be useful to you.

The voices of athletes have never been more needed than today. Those who have had the responsibility at the highest political level to safeguard the values of sport have failed.

They have not been able to prevent the moral breakdown that has come with the immense commercial success of elite sport over the past 40 years. On the contrary, many of today’s top leaders have been accepting or driving the decadence, or been passive bystanders as it happened before their eyes.

At a time where international sport is met with public mistrust, many of these leaders will find it attractive to push athletes before them and benefit from your credibility and prestige, without really sharing their powers. Paul Milea from the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport mentioned yesterday how athletes are treated as commodities.

Allow me to add another risk: That you become foot soldiers for the army of well-paid propaganda consultants in sports, and for the generals behind them.

Nobody can better protect your independence and credibility than yourself, but allow me to share an advice: One of the best ways you can avoid being used is by making your voice heard in the public domain. We miss you out here!

Missing the voices of athletes

I come from Play the Game that has set a stage for the international sports debate for more than 20 years now. The speakers that come to our conference have been first movers in uncovering corruption among the people who have the global powers in football, volleyball, handball, weightlifting and a number of other sports.

Our speakers have warned against illegal doping trade, match-fixing, sexual abuse, abuse of public and private money, trafficking – issues that were for many years taboo, but are now all over the public agenda.

We easily engage journalists, academics, government officials and even a few – sometimes reluctant – sports leaders, but when we look for active elite athletes … we often search in vain. There can be many good reasons for this, other than a need for stronger glasses.

Any elite athlete is extremely busy focusing on his or her career, caught up in a tight competition schedule, or committed to side events organised by sponsors, managers, federations. Many elite athletes are young, inexperienced and often unaware about the wider context they are working in.

But it can also be that athletes are afraid of speaking up. In many countries, in many organisations, in many commercial settings, sport is driven top-down as a very authoritarian system.

Even the most prominent among athlete representatives, the 15 athlete members of the IOC, have to swear an oath of loyalty, declaring that they will never appeal IOC decisions and defend in all circumstances the interests of the IOC.

Trained to obey

Athletes are trained, sometimes from a very early age, not only to swim, run, jump and play the ball, but also to follow rules, to take orders, to obey, to do whatever the parent, the coach, the manager, the sponsor, the club president, the sports federation, the minister, the anti-doping regulator – to do whatever these authorities tell them to do.

And not to do.

Over and over again, we hear sports officials tell us that sport is so wonderful because it teaches us respect of the rules. Indeed, without respect of rules it would be difficult for human beings to live together.

But couldn’t sport be even more wonderful if it taught us not only how to obey by rules, but how to create rules, and how to administer them together, in the best interest of everyone? Is it inconceivable that athletes at all level, from an early age, was invited to take a co-responsibility of how their daily sport is run?

That would require some fundamental changes of the way we organise sport, and this is in my view the heart of the matter.In today’s world, sport yields plenty of power to the governments, the industry, the media, and particularly to the sports institutions.

How can we do more to empower the athlete, the human being, independently of his or her talent, fortunes, race, gender, religion etcetera?

A battlefield of values

Let me to side-step for a moment of philosophic reflection.

Competitive sport as we know it today is not an eternal phenomenon given by an almighty creator. It is just one among a plenty of human-made variations of movement culture as it has unfolded since we rose on our two feet and started dancing.

In our history, there has been a constant exchange between the rules and norms that guide our lives, and the movement culture we practice. We saw a wonderful example of this last evening when the First Nation people shared their blend of philosophy and movement culture.

Modern sport is similar: At one and the same time, it expresses and shapes our norms. You may say that sport is a battlefield over human values.

This is why freedom of expression is so important in sport - every body has a voice. This is why it makes sense talking about sport and human rights, and why it makes sense to discuss athletes’ rights. This is why democracy is such an important value in sport, although it may not always be in demand.

Now stepping back to practice: Facing the global confidence crisis in sport, and confronted with strong institutional powers, how can we practically strengthen the rights of every single athlete?

I don’t pretend to have a detailed prescription that you can go home and follow, and besides, a prescription would not really be in the spirit of what I have just said. But I would like to add a few perspectives that could hopefully inspire you.

Democratic in principle, not in practice

First of all, almost every international sports federation is built on the understanding that every voice counts. In theory, the hierarchy in international sport is democratic from the top to bottom. In theory, the FIFA President has a mandate from around 300 million players who give a vote in their local club that gives a vote in the regional federation that gives a vote in the national federation that gives a vote to FIFA.

In all the federations that govern Olympic sport, the principle is perfect; it is the practice that fails.

In this situation, elite athletes in Germany, Canada and other nations have decided to break out in independent associations to safeguard their rights and the values of sport. This is freedom of association, a fundamental democratic value, at its best.

It is also completely legitimate to seek influence from the inside of the organisations.

Whether you choose one or the other, I think you will strengthen your chance of success by speaking not only for yourself, but for all athletes at all levels.

Look for a wider perspective

Bear in mind, you are in a privileged position. You are not just athletes, you are elite athletes. You are, at the sporting level, backed by a relatively wealthy, powerful and complex structure that has been essential for developing your talent and your career. I am not saying that you lead an easy life or that you have not earned your privilege, I am just asking you to accept that your situation is special.

You are perfectly entitled to fight for your self-interest in better working conditions: your competition calendar, your share of the revenues, your commercial rights, your safety, your education, your life after sport and other aspects of your profession.

But there is a wider perspective to reach for. The political structures that you may confront are the same that rule all other athletes in organised sport. So, you have a lot of new potential supporters and a lot of terrain to gain, if you commit to improving the democratic governance of your federations.

Because that is an essential task.

Bad governance leaves inefficient bodies

Together with experts from six European universities, Play the Game has developed a benchmarking tool called the Sports Governance Observer, and used it to analyse the governance of the 35 international Olympic federations. The results were alarming:

  • Only one third of the federations published their annual financial reports on their websites.
  • None of the federations published reports on remuneration of board members and senior officials.
  • In only two out of three federations, elections took place according to clear and objective procedures and secret ballots were used.
  • Only 11 out of 35 federations had some form of limitation of terms for elected leaders.
  • And even if almost all federation have an athletes’ commission, only two third of the Olympic sports allow athletes representatives into their decision-making body. In only eight federations, athletes are allowed to elect their own chairperson.

Since 2015, some progress has been made especially in athletics and football, but the overall picture has not changed fundamentally.

The problem about bad governance is not only that it opens the door wide for corruption and crime. Bad governance leaves the federation inefficient, unable to meet its goals, unable to serve the athletes and the wider public.

Improving governance is not rocket science. Transparency, open dialogue, democratic voting are not expensive or difficult to introduce. As high-profile athletes, you have unique possibilities of advocating for a more democratic sport.

Are you up for the challenge? OK, then I will raise the bar further.

An overlooked downside of elite sport

I admit having one concern about giving more political power to elite athletes. The risk is that you will consolidate the understanding of sport that dominates today: that the very meaning of sport is competition only, and that the ultimate goal of sport is only winning tournaments, championships, gold medals.

This thinking has laid the foundation for an overwhelming commercial success, driven by the fascination the rest of us have for your impressive skills and the suspense of your competitions.

I have already mentioned some of the monsters that have come with the success.

But one downside that is often overlooked is that blind focus on competition has estranged ordinary people from taking part in competitive sport. You may have been told that as role models you inspire people to get physically active.

The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming: Big sporting events, athletic success for individuals or teams, have almost no influence on sports participation. Your inspiration is of another kind.

Physical activity in the world is declining, in spite of the fact that sport is brought into our homes and onto our screens every minute 24/7. The activities that do grow, are found outside organised sport: jogging, yoga, mountain biking, street basket, parkour, skateboarding, climbing…

UNESCO and the richness of sport

If you wish to inspire others to become physically active, I will point to one source of inspiration that may guide your political perspective on sport and physical culture, namely the recently revised UNESCO charter on Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport.

This charter is not another contribution to the war on charters. It has been written after consultation with all stakeholders in sport, and it is a catalogue of actions that governments, sports organisations and others should take to pursue the fundamental right of every human being: the right to be active in sport and physical activity.

The UNESCO charter covers a wide range of areas from child protection to environmental sustainability, from non-discrimination to integrity, from responsible planning of major events to the particular consideration for less privileged groups.

When you look at all these challenges as you engage in sports politics, you may feel overpowered. But you can also consider it as the richness of sport that it embraces so many dimensions in human life. If we bear that richness in mind, we may in the long run find more meaning in engaging in sport.

I wish you good luck in your fight for better working conditions, for better governance and for the life quality we can achieve through sport and movement culture.

This fight is your right, as it is the right of every body.

More information

Read more about the WADA Global Athletes Forum
Read about the main outcome of the forum