Who bears the burden for legitimacy crisis in international sport governance?

Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game

Pâquerette Girard Zapelli, the chief ethics and compliance officer of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game


By Juliana Barbassa
The growing recognition of governance failures and corruption within organisations that govern international sports fuelled a sharp debate during the first plenary session at the main conference venue of Play the Game 2015, with many calling for the International Olympic Committee to take more responsibility for improvement.

The Monday morning session brought together a journalist, legal experts, and members of state government and the sports organisations themselves. It provided the packed auditorium with a broad outline of the very serious problems facing international sport governance and described various efforts and tools to address them.

The often opposing perspectives made for a rich exchange; what was clear, however, was the need for change through, as the conference’s theme proposes, either reform or revolution.

“International sport governance is experiencing a legitimacy crisis, which may lead to instability and disorder. We do not want that,” said Arnout Geeraert, governance analyst for Play the Game, who presented a survey assessing governance structures within sports federations.  

The examples of misdeeds, reviewed by investigative sports journalist Jens Weinreich, ranged from lack of transparency to tolerance for rule-breaking and outright criminal activity. The list was also notable for what it lacked – with the omissions too numerous to list.  The actors at fault include the international sports federations themselves – notably FIFA, called by the US Justice Department a “racketeer-influenced corrupt organisation”  – the national organising committees, and even host states.

Unanswered questions, ineffective remedies
Many questions remain unanswered, even once raised by the media, Weinreich pointed out, such as those arising just this year from the first European Games, hosted oil-rich Azerbaijan, whose President, Ilham Aliyev, has repeatedly faced charges of corruption and human rights abuses from international rights organisations.

Geeraert followed with a discussion of his survey of 35 Olympic sports federations, which was presented in the Sports Governance Observer 2015 report. Taken together, these federations have opaque internal procedures and are struggling to deal with the serious governance challenges facing them, including match-fixing, transnational criminal activity and human trafficking. 

Their attempts to remedy this situation are either ineffective – such as bringing up the autonomy of sport when faced with external criticism – or commendable, in the case of the few reforms implemented by FIFA, but still clearly insufficient.

The road to improvement, as provided by Geeraert’s report, involves improving institutional design: screening new staff for integrity, increasing transparency and reporting procedures, installing robust ethics committees and firm term limits.

Failing to do this, he warned, may cost these sports federations the legitimacy they have enjoyed for so long.

IOC ethics officer: Individual sports federations responsible for compliance
Pâquerette Girard Zapelli, the chief ethics and compliance officer of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) followed Weinreich and Geeraert, who had laid some responsibility for improving the current state of affairs on the IOC, by saying she welcomed the debate.

“Ethics should be the DNA of the Olympic movement,” she said.

She also conceded that the Olympic movement is facing unresolved and complex issues, which have become more serious with the increase in sports revenues in recent decades, and the nefarious interference of politics in the National Olympic Committees.

She highlighted the IOC’s efforts to establish a framework with principles of good governance in 2009 and then again in their Agenda 2020.

Nevertheless, Girard Zapelli said the burden of compliance rests with the individual sports federations.

“The IOC is not able to interfere,” she said. “Each organisation is responsible for respecting its applicable law.”

She also presented the IOC’s own efforts to increase transparency, although, as she said, “under Swiss law, it is not obliged to do so.” It has agreed to be externally audited, and has reviewed its code of ethics.

This must all be seen in context as important reforms, she said.

“Where were we 15 years ago? How are we today? Much better. We all improved: the IOC, all the federations,” she said. “I agree, it is not easy. We have to work together. All together we are sharing a part of the responsibility.”

“Quasi-unregulated” governance structures demand overhaul
As Girard Zapelli mentioned, part of the reason why these sports associations have had such opaque governance and funding structures is that, under Swiss law, they face very few requirements.

This legal landscape was explained by the next panellist, Wilhelm Rauch, head of legal services for the Federal Office for Sports, Switzerland.

Since the IOC chose to establish its headquarters in Lausanne in 1915, the rest of the sports associations and federations followed, and they all benefit from this freedom. But it is not fair to say that they profit from a “quasi-unregulated” environment, he said.

National legislation does afford non-commercial associations such as these sports entities a “great deal of freedom in regulation of internal affairs,” he explained. It even tolerates a fair bit of commercial activity.

There are parameters that must be met in order to maintain the status as non-commercial associations, he said. That includes two of three of the following: their total assets must add up to less than 10 million Swiss francs, their turnover must be less than 20 million Swiss francs, and their annual staff must be fewer than 50 full-time employees.

Still, there have been some calls for change, he said.

“Some politicians are calling for an end to associations and making them instead commercial enterprises,” he said. But so far, he explained, the Swiss government has seen no need to revise the law.

In spite of Switzerland’s conservative approach, the majority of other European states are seeing a broader need to overhaul the way international sport is managed.

Commissioner: Member States’ not EU’s responsibility
The next panellist was Stanislas Frossard, executive secretary of the Council of Europe, and he presented the results of an extensive survey among 21 European governments.

The vast majority expressed higher expectations of sports governance, saying they have enhanced the rules, tied public financing contracts to compliance, and reported a high level of awareness among the public of the relevance of these issues.

Still, more than half of states still said they relied on internal reporting from the organisations, without external audits, and when there was a problem, they issued warnings (70%) or interrupted funding (40%) to express displeasure. In only 15% of cases did they lodge a complaint in court.

So while it is positive to have greater awareness of sports governance failures, there is still no shared understanding of how to improve, he said.

Szabolcs Horváth, cabinet member of European Commissioner Tibor Navracsics, spoke next about the European Union’s role, which he maintained should be focused on supporting member states.

“It is not our role to run sports organisations,” he said.

Change is possible – if we are clever about it
Finally, Poul Broberg, director of public affairs from the Danish National Olympic Committee, brought the conversation back to basics, saying that before talking about governance, it was essential to make sports socially, environmentally and financially sustainable.

“We talk about governance… that is a somewhat mechanical approach. A lot of paragraphs are written but where is the improvement?” he said. “What we need to change is the political culture. And that is not done by paragraphs, it is done by leaders.”

He called for bolder leadership in these organisations, and efforts to build alliances for change not just within Europe, but beyond.

“We do have possibilities,” he said. “Everything is not as bad as we say sometimes if we are clever.”

  • Aftandil Haciyev, 27.10.2015 09:04:
    It's all garbage. Look how many dignitaries visited Azerbaijan, from this we can conclude that the application of human rights organizations have been no more than a lip service and a desire to denigrate the President Ilham Aliyev.
  • Denis Mowbray, New Zealand, 27.10.2015 03:25:
    I agree with Ms Zapelli's comments, that “Each organisation is responsible for respecting its applicable law,” and the "burden of compliance rests with the individual sports federations." However, I believe the IOC, as the principle funder of the majority, if not all the federations within the IOC family. Has a significant moral and leadership role to play in the review of federations progress towards, and compliance with, the relevant standards of good governance and (country specific) regulatory or legislative requirements. The IOC has within its grasp and capability, the ability to be on of the greatest influencers and leaders of change within the international sporting world. All it takes is the IOC's willingness to pick up the torch, apply the required resources, and hold all federations accountable to the spirit and letter of the Olympic Values.

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