Whistleblowers in sport need more support

Whistleblowing has become one of the hottest topics in discussions on sports integrity. Independent voices have been instrumental for disclosing problems of doping, corruption or other types of crime. But who should guarantee the necessary support and protection when whistleblowers are endangered?

Today, it may seem obvious that a safe and functional whistleblowing regime is of utmost importance to sports integrity.

During the past years, we have seen enough examples of major revelations of doping, fraud and corruption in sport to know that information from brave women and men inside sport can be effective in disclosing organised cheating, malpractice and corrupt systems that would not have been noted otherwise by relevant authorities, be it the IOC, sports organisations, WADA or national anti-doping organisations.

For many scourges of sport such as match-fixing and corruption no test can be performed. And where testing is the prevailing tool, like in the fight against doping, not even the most complex analytical methods managed to detect the biggest doping scam witnessed to date: the comprehensive doping scheme in Russia.

It is only through determined investigative journalists and their close cooperation with whistleblowers that the world started realising the variety of challenges inherent to the modern sport world.

And in those cases where the legal authorities picked up the threads and continued the investigations, the magnitude of the problems has often come as a surprise even to the most critical observers. When for instance the FBI launched their dramatic action against 40 top officials and business partners in FIFA, based on evidence delivered by Andrew Jennings and other reporters, no one in the public had heard about the substance of the FBI case: corruption practices in the Americas worth around 200 million US-dollars.

Today, Olympic leaders are holding their breath to see what will be disclosed from the unprecedented co-operation between state prosecutors in Brazil, France and Switzerland – a cooperation that will be presented in more detail during Play the Game 2017.

A change in attitude
For 20 years, Play the Game has worked to highlight the dark sides of sport by encouraging freedom of speech in sports journalism and discussions on doping, corruption, harassment, discrimination etc.

When Play the Game first gathered investigative journalists, experts, whistleblowers, and sports officials to discuss these issues, there was no broad recognition of the relevance. On the contrary: Sports leaders would dismiss Play the Game and our speakers as hostile sensation-makers that tried to make a living by scandalising honest sports leaders who had selflessly committed their lives to the noble cause of the youth.

Today, the integrity issues are all over the public agenda and the global political discussions, and the need for better governance is recognised by even the most problematic organisation – at least in their declarations.

This fundamental change in public perception of sport would not have come about without determined men and women who put their careers, their reputations and their safety at risk in order to tell the truth.

Whistleblowers need better protection
While the intrinsic value of whistleblowers in sport is generally recognised by now, it goes without saying that policies and procedures must be in place to regulate the use of whistleblower information and protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

Whistleblower hotlines, policies and procedures are increasingly being implemented in various sports organisations and other authorities in the area of anti-doping, match-fixing and athlete harassment.

Yet, the protection of whistleblowers in sport is by and large vested in the hands of private sports organisations and/or public or semi-public authorities. They may have all the best intentions to support and protect any forthcoming whistleblower, but they are unlikely to have enough strength in cases where lives and livelihood of whistleblowers are threatened.

Legal assistance and media guidance may be provided by sports or via independent initiatives like Fair Sport, but the powers and means necessary to provide long-term financial support and physical security are only available to governments and their law enforcement entities. For now, they only act to a very limited extend and only in very rare cases.

Governments must play a much more active role
This is an area where governments must up their game. Sport organisations and anti-doping agencies cannot develop effective whistleblowing programmes in isolation. Law enforcement agencies should be involved and a united approach to manage endangered whistleblowers should be dealt with.

Governments need to play an active role. Collaboration with sports organisations and anti-doping and integrity agencies is a fundamental necessity if protection of whistleblowers is to be credible and effective.

Governments should take measures to guarantee that whistleblowers do not need to flee or in worst cases to change their identities in return for telling the truth and take measures to provide financial support at least temporarily until they are able to support themselves again. That is the least we can do if we want whistleblowers to do the right thing.

Whistleblowers considering speaking up must be professionally advised to make informed decisions: Will it be worth it? What are the risks? How will life look on the other side? This is also a responsibility that should rest with law enforcement and where sport and anti-doping organisations must realise they need a helping hand.

The lack of will to protect compromising information
Naturally, this will only work in situations where governments can be trusted. Often, they cannot. Or they lack the will to protect people giving compromising information. You only have to look at Yulia and Vitaly Stepanov to see the impact whistleblowing can have and where neither the governing body, IAAF, nor the Russian government succeeded in providing security.

Still, closer cooperation between sport and the world’s governments seems more relevant than ever. We are very far from convincing solutions, but there are signs that interest is growing. WADA has implemented a programme to protect informants, called ‘Speak Up’. The IOC says it has established a whistleblower programme a few years ago, but no information on its policies, protection measures and results are shared with the public.

Governments have taken a first look at how to better protect whistleblowers as this was one of the recommendations in the ‘Kazan Action Plan’ endorsed by UNESCO in July 2017. It remains to be seen how many countries will follow the recommendations to the necessary degree.

A4header 14X3cm 2017
In more than 40 sessions, over 200 speakers will present their thoughts and opinions on a wide range of the most topical questions in world sport during the tenth Play the Game conference, taking place in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 26-30 November 2017.

Discover the programme and the continuously updated speakers list.

Sign up now and secure yourself four days densely packed with debates, discussions and networking between experts and professionals from sport, media and academia.

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  • nikolaos theoodorou, ATHENS GREECE, 22.11.2017 11:48:
  Dear Cristrina your article justifies the issue and the importance of the martyrs of public interest and the role of EU legislation that will force autonomous sport at least in Europe to become serious and not pathetic


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