PtG Comment 20.09.2011

The integrity of sport requires good governance

Comment: It would be disastrous if politicians took over the governing of sport. To avoid such a worst case scenario, it is essential that sport federations at all levels work a lot more with good governance, argues Niels Nygaard, President of the Danish NOC and Sports Confederation in this fourth contribution to Play the Game’s comment series on corruption and good governance in sport.

Sport plays a very big role in society. A lot of people are actively taking part in sport, even more people are enthusiastic spectators, sport takes up a lot of space in the media and the economic impact of sport is substantial.

As in all other spheres in society, we experience that people are cheating in sport. Athletes use illegal means – including doping – to achieve better performances, referees are being bribed to achieve certain outcomes of competitions and sports officials make wrongful decisions to benefit themselves, their friends or their country. Cheating has always been going on in sport, but because of the ever growing role of sport economically and politically, the problem is getting bigger.

A lot is being done to prevent cheating in sport and we must never forget that the vast majority of athletes, referees and sports officials could never dream of not adhering to fair play. But as the problem is growing we have to be even more active in preventing people from cheating. 

Sport must keep its autonomy

The sports movement is part of the society and all sports actors have to adhere to the rules of the society. But at the same time it is important to guard the autonomy of sport. The sports movement and its elected officials must be in full charge of making decisions of competition rules and all other matters related directly to sport. It would be disastrous if the politicians took over the governing of sport, since a lot of their decisions would be taken not to benefit sport but to benefit all other purposes – including their own reelection!

If the sports movement wants to keep its autonomy, it requires that we work a lot more with good governance within sport. We have to secure that we have good rules that everything we do is transparent, that we make sure that our decisions benefit our sport and our athletes and that officials and athletes are punished whenever they are cheating.

I believe that it is the responsibility of every international and national federation to implement good governance in its rules and operations. National governments and international institutions – like United Nations and the European Union – can give guidance to the sports movement, but it is up to each international and national federation to decide their own rules. Only if actors in the sports movement act illegally, must the authorities intervene and punish the persons and institutions that violate the laws.

Cooperation with governments on doping and match-fixing

If the sports movement does not have the tools to make sure that cheating can be identified, it can ask governments and international institutions to help or to intervene. This was what was done to strengthen the fight against doping.

Since doping is an area that involves persons and institutions outside the sports world – including police, border control, pharmaceutical companies and other parties – it has been natural to make a cooperation between the sports movement and the society in the form of WADA - the World Anti Doping Agency.

In other areas of sports-cheating – illegal betting, tampering with sports results and corruption within the sports movement – it can be necessary for the sports movement to require some advice and assistance from outside. This can be in the form of help from the police to investigate fraud and to have impartial experts to sit on ethical and other committees that are dealing with corruption and other unethical behavior. 

Match-fixing is the most recent example of cheating within sport. IOC – the International Olympic Committee – together with a number of international federations have realized that match-fixing is and can be a huge threat to sport and a number of initiatives to combat this evil have been launched recently. Because match-fixing is a border-crossing activity, and because it involves criminal activities been conducted by people both inside and outside the sports-world, it is necessary to involve governments and other public authorities in combatting this threat.  

Gambling companies also have a vast interest in fighting match-fixing, since many people might be scared away from gambling if the results are being fixed. Where it has been the right move to organize the global anti-doping activities in an international body – WADA – the activities to combat match-fixing and other illegal activities related to sport should be done in partnerships between IOC, international federations, public authorities (like Interpol) and gambling companies. 

Good governance within the sports movement

Whereas illegal activities like match-fixing should be dealt with in cooperation between bodies inside and outside sport as quickly as possible, the creation of good governance within the sports movement must be the responsibility of the sports movement itself. 

Some people will claim that it will take too long for a number of international and national federations to decide and implement good governance in their governing bodies and therefore advocate that society should intervene and impose some rules. 

I believe that the principle of autonomy in sport is so important that we have to live with that some federations are a little slow in implementing sufficient good governance rules. In the long run, I believe that federations that do not act in the right manner will lose the support of the spectators and of the sponsors and that they therefore eventually will have to make changes. 

Niels Nygaard is President of the National Olympic Committee and Sports Confederation of Denmark.

Read more about the comment series on corruption in sport.