PtG Comment 15.07.2017

The unsung heroes that bring us out of the dark

Through three simple steps, including protecting whiste-blowers, governments would render to sport the helping hand it so obviously needs, Jens Sejer Andersen said in his keynote speech at UNESCO's International Conference of Ministers and Senior Officials Responsible for Physical Education and Sport.

Speech held at MINEPS VI, Kazan 15 July 2017:

The threats to the integrity of sport may not be the best issues to bring you a cheerful start to the day, nevertheless I would like to start on an optimistic note.

Having watched and engaged in international sports politics for the past 20 years, I have no doubt that the UNESCO agenda that we share today represent a watershed moment in international sport.

Never before have governments around the world addressed sports political issues with the same realism, never before have they showed the same appetite for playing an active role and assuming a co-responsibility for developing sport - such as you have all expressed it in the recent revision of the International Charter for Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport.

The development is impressive.

20 years ago, in 1997, when our organisation Play the Game for the first time gathered investigate journalists, experts, whistle-blowers and sports officials to discuss certain sensitive issues in sport, like doping, corruption, harassment, discrimination, lack of access – not one of these issues were broadly recognised as connected to how sport was financed and structured.

The governing bodies of sport at the time worked hard and successfully to promote the idea that doping was just a sin committed by a few individual cheaters, and that corruption among sports leaders was an infection from the society around them. Match-fixing? It was beyond imagination.

So in the spirit of self-congratulation, which is so frequent in sport, let us at least appreciate we have come so far as to recognise the magnitude of challenges we face.

However, this insight comes at a price. You, as the generation of sports ministers who realised the scope of the challenges, will also be held accountable for your ability to deal with them. It will be a great pity if the leaders of the next generation will meet at MINEPS 12 or 13 and regret that the burden of problems they inherited has grown, just because their predecessors never took effective action.

Admittedly, the task is not easy. In many, maybe even most, countries, governments have little experience in making national strategies for sport, and on a purely practical, but very important note, sports departments are typically under-staffed and under-financed.

So when you look at the long, ambitious and complex work document in front of you, you may be tempted to close your eyes, shelve the paper and move discreetly on to the next official conference dinner.

The sports integrity issues alone are overwhelming. How on earth can you as the government effectively address that many different topics in one go:

  • To safeguard athletes, spectators, workers and other groups involved
  • To protect children, youth and other vulnerable groups 
  • To foster good governance of sports organizations
  • To strengthen measures against manipulation of sports competitions
  • To ensure an adequate anti-doping policy framework and effective compliance measures

The easy answer is that you can’t – at least not to perfection. There is no way you can handle this plethora of issues from a small central office in government. There is no way you can regulate every little detail on your own, from the level of professional Olympic sport to the rugged playground in the local village.

In spite of this, I will point out three remedies that can boost your efforts in the field of sports integrity. Three steps that are free or cost-neutral. They will give you a solid knowledge base for your decisions. They will multiply the working hands at your disposal, and they are simple to carry out.

They will not finalize your job, but they will give you a good start and will bring you nearer to not only realising the ambitions in the chapter of sports integrity, but to embrace as much of the Kazan Action Plan as you desire.

The first step

is to live up to the commitment you already undertook in the new UNESCO Charter:

Engage all relevant stakeholders in shaping a national strategy for sport, including the integrity issues. Think creatively. Don’t limit the conversation to the National Olympic Committee – after all, the Olympic families at the national and international level were for many years in a state of denial regarding these challenges, and many still are.

Invite athletes, coaches, youth groups, volunteers, local authorities, urban planners, health organisations, private gyms, educators, referees and many other stakeholders to nation-wide consultation on which priorities your country should have for sport, play and physical activity.

People with field experience have a surprising knowledge about how public resources are best spent, and how they themselves can best contribute to solving the challenges. Few areas have the same abundance of volunteer workers as sport. They represent an enthusiasm, a commitment and a creativity you cannot afford to waste – and they will deliver advice, solutions and cooperation, also in the integrity field, if they are given attention, room and respect.

The second logical step

is to re-distribute the public grants that most governments shower generously over sport, so they reflect the outcomes of the stakeholder debate and the strategy you decide to follow.

In that context, don’t forget that in the new charter you wrote that public authorities – quote – “have a right and duty to audit and control the proper use of the resources they have granted on behalf of society.” Unquote.

Part of this audit and control can – and should in my opinion - be linked to criteria for good governance in the organisations you support with tax-payers’ money. You do not need a Nobel Prize in administration to practice good governance. Sports organisations can take major steps through simple initiatives such as providing full transparency in their economic activities, ensuring healthy democratic procedures for their decision-making – and introducing internal and external accountability.

Is this a threat to sport’s autonomy, to association freedom? Not at all. Association freedom is a universal right, established in the UN Human Rights Charter. But receiving public money for an association is not a human right. And outright mismanagement is a waste of public money –in severe cases a crime.

Moreover, many sports federations have built profitable business using their status as free associations as a shield to cover dubious practices. It is your responsibility to have legislation in place so that sports associations are not hijacked by criminal elements, such as it happens much too often today.

Setting up objective criteria for public support to sport is not undermining association freedom, but protecting it from abuse. It will also enable you to secure that public money is spent more effectively, and you may even save money – last week UK Sport saved 9 million £ because table tennis did not meet the governance criteria for receiving support.

Less than two years ago, Play the Game analysed the basic governance standards of all 35 international Olympic federations. As you can see on our poster down in the exhibition hall, two thirds of the federations fell short of complying with just half of the very basic criteria.

A few of them have made progress recently, for instance international athletics, but they very rarely improve on their own initiative. The IOC, FIFA and the IAAF all went through massive outside pressure from the media and from politicians before they reluctantly understood that change was necessary.

This leads me to the third and perhaps most important single step you can take to consolidate your sports policy. This step is fundamental for a successful outcome of the multi-stakeholder consultation I suggested before, and it will strengthen the case for the reform of sports governance that so many of you wish to see.

This third step is to make sure that the public debate on sport is truly open and welcomes the best facts, the best scientific data, and the best personal experiences available – even when truth is inconvenient.

May I remind you that not one single item on today’s sports integrity agenda was first raised by the authorities of sport.

We would not discuss sexual harassment if courageous individuals had not decided to share their childhood trauma with the public, at great personal costs. Issues of workers’ rights in stadium construction were raised by unions and civil society groups.

Sports governance would not be a word in our dictionary if it was not for sports administrators and investigative reporters working secretly and tirelessly together over many, many years. We would not discuss systemic doping if fearless athletes, scientists and journalists had not gone undercover to get the irrefutable documentation on several occasions since the mid-1990’ies.

The integrity agenda that may seem as a routine today would simply not exist without brave men and women who put their career, their reputation and their personal safety at risk in order to tell the truth.

I have noted with interest that among the new measures taken by the Russian government to increase its credibility in anti-doping affairs, there is a hand stretched out to protect future whistle-blowers. This is a much welcomed move, and I think it will be fully trusted by athletes and coaches if the government will also create the conditions to convince whistle-blowers of the past, such as Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov and others, that they can safely return to the home country they love.

Should anyone in the room believe that an uneasy relation to whistle-blowers is a specific Russian challenge, allow me to correct that assumption. Over the past 20 years Play the Game has heard testimonies from whistle-blowers, reporters and independent experts in countries as different as Australia, Qatar, Nigeria, Canada, Norway, Argentina, Philippines, Italy, United Kingdom… just to mention a few – and they have all experienced attacks in various forms on their personal reputation, livelihood and even life threats.

These are the unsung heroes who have shown the rest of us the true picture of the challenges around us. Without them, we would not know the reality on the ground and we would be fumbling in the dark.

This is why encouraging media freedom, independent voices and whistle-blowers has been and will continue to be essential for a successful sports policy.

It is within your powers as governments to make strategies for bringing about the data, the facts, the truth that we all need. It is your obligation to establish spaces and channels where information from scientists, journalists, athletes, coaches and all other relevant stakeholders can flow freely and reach the wider public.

To conclude

I would like to honour our host country by drawing on inspiration from the giant Russian author Leo Tolstoy:

“Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.”

I think it is fair to say that in its successful quest for gold, the sport movement has washed too many other values away over the past two generations. If sport would show the same commitment in getting to the truth, it would have a lot of washing to do, but the hard work would be rewarded with an increased credibility and, hopefully one day, a true integrity.

Ladies and gentlemen, through three simple steps, a broad stakeholder consultation, a clever and conditioned re-distribution of your public grants and an effort to secure truthful documentation and evidence, you will render to sport the helping hand it so obviously needs and deserves.

More information

Read more about MINEPS VI.