Athletes should be more than political puppets in the running of sport

IOC-Session in Buenos Aires

IOC Session in Argentina

Athletes should be more than political puppets in the running of sport

Von Nick Butler and Hajo Seppelt

Olympic powerbrokers are facing growing resistance from athletes striving to have genuine influence in the organisation of sport and anti-doping. This should be encouraged rather than dismissed.

History has taught us that revolutions can be ignited by the least likely of flames. In America it was a stamp act, in Russia it was an overly-influential monk with self-proclaimed healing powers. The Arab Spring was sparked by a flame of a more literal kind when a discontented Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire. Sport remains a long way from a revolution but, if one does ultimately materialise, a meeting in Seychelles which galvanised silent athletes into action may be remembered as the spark.

Despite being led by an ex-fencing champion in Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee has long used the "athlete-voice" for little purpose beyond window-dressing and reinforcing their own views. A German athletes panel led by another fencer in Max Hartung has already begun rebelling by demanding reforms, including payment for all Olympians.

unprecedented protests among athletes

But the IOC-driven decision of the World Anti-Doping Agency to reinstate Russia’s compliance in the Indian Ocean paradise last month, despite two of the conditions for readmission having not been met, prompted unprecedented protests on the new battleground of social media.

A new group, "Athletes for Clean Sport", has this week called for anti-doping reform and a move towards genuine independence from prying sporting and Governmental stakeholders. An IOC-championed “Rights and Responsibilities Declaration” for athletes, hot on rhetoric but less so on substance, has already been questioned by a coalition of different bodies.

Athletes finally seem to be rising beyond the voices which tell them to conform and are rightly demanding a genuine say in the running of sport. Rather than listen, the IOC have tried to counter on two main grounds.

The first is that their critics largely originate from 10 to 15 "Anglo-Saxon" and Western European countries who are opposed by the rest of the world. The second is that the WADA Athlete Committee identified as the focal point of the criticism is appointed and therefore less representative than their own athletes’ panel, which supported lifting the Russian suspension.

critics largely from the western sphere

Thomas Bach bei der IOC-Session in Buenos Aires

Thomas Bach bei der IOC-Session in Buenos Aires

Yes, athletes from Asia, Africa and vast swathes of Europe and the Americas have been quieter, but this does not mean they don’t share concerns. They often remain quiet for cultural and political reasons and very few have given the IOC position their support.

And yes, elected bodies are better than appointed ones, but many other docile athlete panels supported by the IOC are themselves unelected and other critical voices come from voted representatives on domestic panels. Only two thirds of the IOC Athletes’ Commission membership are elected and even those that are come from a limited pool of candidates approved by National Olympic Committees, themselves subject to IOC influence. This is an argument based on political convenience rather than genuine belief. More important is the actual effectiveness of these bodies once they are chosen.

IOC Athletes’ Commission members swear an oath of loyalty to the IOC, not to athletes, and are hamstrung by the patronage system of world sport. Angela Ruggiero, the American ice hockey player who chaired the panel until this year, juggled her role with involvement in Los Angeles’ bid for the Olympic Games as well as her own new sports market research firm. She could ill afford to risk upsetting the IOC and potential clients by taking any stance that deviated from theirs. Her successor, the Zimbabwean swimmer Kirsty Coventry, is also restricted. Anyone else would be too.

In contrast, WADA Athlete Committee chair Beckie Scott has frequently opposed the views of the WADA leadership and its IOC influencers. She claims there were attempts to bully her in the Seychelles and a sexist and condescending tone can be detected in attacks on her.

real decisions behind closed doors

Under Bach, the IOC have become less and less tolerant of criticism and have swiftly ostracised opponents while rewarding their allies. Athletes represent just one part of this. The IOC Session has been transformed into a rubber-stamping politburo as real decisions are made behind closed doors. Rhetorical commitment to "transparency" is misplaced. Some IOC officials privately disagree with certain decisions, but few are willing to risk their status - not to mention their plush lifestyle of first-class travel and five-star hotels - by doing so publicly.

The IOC did deviate slightly by inviting opponents, including the chair of the successful "No Boston Olympics" campaign group, Chris Dempsey, to speak at their Olympism in Action conference in Buenos Aires last week. Bach then ruined this by suggesting Dempsey did not represent public opinion and that his views were limited by him not having organised an Olympic Games.

Does this mean that none of us are entitled to write about the Olympics unless we have organised one? Or about doping unless we have doped?

outsiders rarely listened to by sports bodies

IOC-Session in Buenos Aires

IOC-Session in Buenos Aires

The broader problem is how sports officials - including the IOC Athletes’ Commission once they are elected/appointed - are essentially unaccountable to anyone beyond voting peers subject to similar influence. Sport resents allowing outsiders a say in the form of Olympic bidding referendums and frequently resort to the arrogant argument, also used recently with athlete opponents, that critics are "misinformed".

To a large extent they can get away with it. Money is still rolling in through lavish sponsorship and broadcasting revenues and, despite the scandals, the Olympic Games remains one of sport’s most attractive events. But a more critical athletes lobby can only be a good thing in the fight for clean and well-governed sport.

Stand: 12.10.2018, 16:00