Christer's corner: Do we really need international sports federations?

Photo: AU UN 1st photo/Tobin Jones/Flickr

Photo: AU UN IST Photo/Tobin Jones/Flickr


Comment by Christer Ahl
Instead of protecting their ‘oligopoly’, international sport federations (IFs) should focus more on grassroots development, says Christer Ahl in this comment piece in which he analyses the core tasks of the IFs and finds that there is room for improvement in the way these tasks are performed.

The adoption of a reform package and the election of a new president in FIFA have failed to convince many observers that an elimination of the mismanagement and corruption in FIFA will follow anytime soon.

So it is not surprising that some skeptics have begun to raise the question: do we really need international sports federations (IFs) and, if so, why is that the case? Would we not be better off if the necessary coordination instead took place at a continental level? But then there is the immediate realization that, in the case of FIFA, some aspects of the corruption in fact are even more firmly entrenched among continental officials.  

So where does that leave us? From my own experience, especially in handball, and from my insights from other sports, I will endeavor to offer some explanations and answers on these questions.

Global development
For most sports, from the large and well-known ones to the more obscure ones, it tends to hold true that the origin and stronghold is concentrated in a limited group of countries and in one or two continents. Moreover, some sports do not exist as naturally as, for instance, football, which benefits from the rather instinctive activity of kicking a ball around. So this means that most sports have a ‘missionary’ kind of task, in order to ensure that the sport eventually obtains a worldwide existence. While to some extent, this can become too much of a matter of pride and prestige, it is a totally legitimate endeavor, and an obvious function for the international federation of each sport.

But this is a labor-intensive and long-term effort, which does not produce results quickly, and not all IFs have the resources and inclination to take this task seriously. Football and FIFA, all other problems notwithstanding, may be one of the few clear exceptions in this regard.  Another concern is that the need for recruiting and making available suitable instructors is not as easy a task as it may seem. Instructors from countries where a sport has traditions, often struggle to adapt to the realities of countries where the conditions are very primitive.

The main risk in the area of global development is that power hungry leaders of an IF cynically misuse the efforts to spread their sport. It becomes a matter of ‘signing up’ the newest and smallest countries on earth, adding them to the list of member countries and thus to the list of eligible voters in IF congresses etc. It will always be easy to find inexperienced persons who are only too happy to become prominent in their home countries by virtue of carrying the title of ‘president of national federation’ in a sport. This abuse of a supposedly legitimate form of democratic methods is perhaps the worst manifestation of how IFs operate, fully in the spirit of colonialism, and simply for the purpose of allowing its leaders to perpetuate their hold on power more easily.

Broadening the top
In most sports, particularly in team sports, it takes a very long time for the teams and athletes from brand new member countries to become truly competitive in worldwide competition. At the same time, the image and credibility of a sport requires some turnover at the absolute top level. But it really requires a concerted effort on the part of the IF in order to provide the necessary support for emerging top contenders.

In some sports this is handled quite well. But in other sports, again particularly in the team sports, it is both more difficult to accomplish and also seen as a rather ambiguous role for the IF. Established powers may resent that others are given special support to join the elite, and an IF may also be justified in having some concerns about hand-picking member countries for special treatment, as this may all too easily lead to accusations of favoritism and political consideration. But it is typically feasible to identify target countries from among those who both seem to have the potential for improving quickly. Results in international and continental competitions normally provide sufficient indications. But often the IFs fall short in this area.

Regulating competition and other relations between member countries and athletes
It is generally necessary to ensure that competitions are guided by rules and regulations which are uniformly applied. This is not only good for the global development of a sport but also a necessary element to ensure a good degree of fairness and transparency. It would be difficult to argue that this role is not best placed in an IF.  Regulations regarding nationality changes, transfers, and eligibility for participation should be possible to establish without much controversy, but also here there can be room for manipulation and bias.

The rules guiding the competition itself are typically developed with little risk for political influence, although there are instances where pressure can be applied from the stronger member countries to suit their particular preferences. However, the more common concern is that, at least in some sports, there may be clear distinction between what is desirable at the international elite level and what is suitable at the grassroots or youth level nationally. But this can normally be handled through an explicit two-tier approach, with special regulations for the IF’s own competitions at the elite level.

Organizing international competitions
Regrettably, it seems that in many IFs the role of organizing international events becomes far too dominant, even though admittedly this is an important task for the general growth and development of a sport. Young, budding athletes around the world need to have big events and star athletes to serve as an inspiration for their own hopes and endeavors. So this requires well-managed and attractive world championships and similar events.

Ideally, the tasks involved should be shared mainly between IF technical specialists and competent organizers in host cities/countries, at least if one assumes that the IFs allocate such events to hosts who have the necessary competence and experience, rather than to hosts selected for less legitimate reasons. An IF should also have available a technical cadre, which is totally separate from the political and administrative functions of the IF.

However, there are several reasons why what I have just aligned is very different from the reality. A world championship, let alone the participation in the Olympic Games, is typically such a predominant ‘cash cow’ for an IF that it becomes the all-absorbing focus (and resource consumer) for the leadership and administration of the IF. Moreover, such events constitute the opportunity for the leaders of an IF to appear in a glamorous setting and to be in the spotlight. In the case of many hard-working, otherwise anonymous IF officials, it may be a deserved reward for their activities behind the scenes. But for many IF leaders and political types it may, in fact, constitute their only form of involvement.

In these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why the attention to the other areas I have mentioned above, all of which are clearly less glamorous, suffers correspondingly, both regarding the adequate budgeting of financial resources and in terms of personnel available for those tasks. Revenue earned through big events, from the IOC, sponsors or TV contracts, is mostly ploughed back into the organization of big events, and the hiring or contracting of adequate staffing for especially global development and the technical evolution of the sport gets insufficient priority.

Some ideas for improvement
First, I hope it is clear from what I have said above that IFs have several legitimate functions which are best carried out in an IF context. But some measures could surely be taken to achieve improvements.

One step would be to mandate that all IFs set aside a considerable portion of their revenue for global development at the grassroots level and for ‘broadening the top’ of their sport.  But it would then need to be ensured that this does not simply take the form of ‘throwing cash at’ national federations, which may have a limited ability to make the best use of the resources. Even worse, in the hands of corrupt officials, the resources may be squandered through fraud or waste, and thus amount to nothing more than bribes. So development aid needs to be closely supervised and ideally take a more practical form.

The IOC could and should play a stronger role in the monitoring of the development work of the IFs, in part through its insights regarding the varying realities of the individual sports, but mainly because the IOC is such a huge source of revenue for most Olympic sports. There should be ‘strings attached’ when the IOC distributes this money, and it is a welcome sign that IOC has recently expressed a need for monitoring the IF spending.  

Another factor would be the role of the sponsors. They are used to tying their ‘generosity’ to exposure at big events. But it should be possible for sponsors to appreciate that new and broadened exposure could be had if their names were tied to global development efforts instead of big events. Sponsors should demand that their contributions be specifically earmarked for such efforts.  

However, it would be even more critical to the hope for any change, if at least the larger IFs, with a sufficiently large structure and administration, explicitly and demonstratively separated their elite-focused and their development-focused responsibilities. There should be separate management and dedicated staff resources for development work, in addition to an adequate and equally delineated budget. Otherwise, the elite focus and the event organization will continue to overwhelm everything else.

It would also be important to see a change in attitude on the part of the traditional and dominant countries in a sport. Instead of selfishly protecting their ‘oligopoly’, they should see it as their duty to participate with personnel and other resources to the global development of the sport, either bilaterally or by making resources available to the IF. The same goes for the continental federations which dominate a sport.

Finally, just as in the general fight against corruption, mismanagement and power abuse in sports, media simply must be willing to play a larger role. Instead of dedicating so much of their attention to the glamorous elite events, they should refocus their attention to the excitement and benefits of the global development of sports at the grassroots level.


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