Sport is still in need of governance reforms

Play the Game Leuven NSGO seminar

Jens Sejer Andersen opening the seminar in Leuven. Photo: Play the Game


By Stine Alvad
Play the Game’s launch event of two reports mapping governance in national and international sport showed broad consensus that many of sport’s governance reforms so far have not been substantial enough to have real effect.

At a seminar in Leuven, Belgium, this week, two new studies were presented in the presence of European and international sports researchers, politicians, journalists and other stakeholders. The studies reveal that across European and international sports federations there are large differences but one common trait remains: a lack of essential structures supporting good governance.

“Good governance will perhaps not overcome all challenges in sport, but without good governance no challenge will be overcome,” Andersen said in his introduction and stressed the need for inter-stakeholder cooperation referring to a number of scandals in international federations. “Global systemic scandals require global systemic answers.”

The day included the launch of the Sports Governance Observer 2018, which is a detailed assessment of the governance of five international sports federations as a follow up on a more comprehensive study of all 35 Olympic federations back in 2015.

Presenting the results, author of the report, Dr. Arnout Geeraert, underlined that in spite of recent years’ ad hoc committees and sectoral initiatives in various sports, it is apparently still difficult for sports federations to make these changes fundamental rather than cosmetic. One reason is the lack of willingness to change from inside sports, Geeraert argues.

“The problem is that implementing good governance has severe impact,” Arnout explains. “It can change established equilibrium, the power of equilibrium between people and between stakeholders, and it can restrict senior officials’ leeway, their influence, and their decision-making power.”

“So, when you want to implement reforms, you will have people who have a vested interest in the status quo, people who do not want to change their organisation. Especially those who are negatively affected by these reforms, they will have a very strong incentive to minimise change,” he said and called for outside scrutiny of sport. “In the absence of external pressure, you will never see fundamental reform,” Geeraert concluded his presentation of the SGO2018.

One of the reform initiatives that has been initiated since the first Sports Governance Observer in 2015 revealed large governance deficits in international sports federations, is the International Athletics Federations’ independent integrity unit, the AIU.

Brett Clothier, who heads the unit, explained attendees about the work and methods that the unit has engaged in so far. Clothier pointed to the independence of the unit ranging from a board consisting of independent members and the unit’s investigative powers and right to prosecute as some of the strengths of the unit.

Clothier said the process of ‘scratching the surface’ has uncovered “a lot of concerning things in athletics”.

“And I’m sure this would not be an unusual experience in any other international federation, if they went through a similar reform process,” he said stressing the need for independent evaluations of governance in sport.

Watch interview with Brett Clothier

Stakeholder initiatives
Another move to ramp out corruption and crime in sports is the International Partnership Against Corruption in Sport (IPACS), a coalition trying to unite and create consensus between governments, intergovernmental organisations and sports bodies with the aim of creating a common platform for efforts against corruption in sport.

“IPACS has no teeth to sanction organisations that do not comply with these benchmarks, but it can create a movement towards the use of them,” said Stanislas Frossard, Executive Secretary of the Council of Europe’s Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport (EPAS), one of the intergovernmental institutions that form part of IPACS. Other members include the IOC, the OECD, governments of the UK, Germany, Japan and the US and more.

Frossard argued that it is important that good governance reforms are made operational for sports organisations and mentioned term limits, financial transparency and rules on conflicts of interest as issues that relatively easily could be addressed.

Athletes have also united in various coalitions urging the sports movement in general to improve their governance, partly through greater involvement of stakeholders, including athletes.

Especially WADA has recently been the target for athlete critique. Speaking in Leuven, Paulina Tomczyk, general secretary at EU Athletes, stressed that the way athletes are currently represented in sport is not the ideal way. The athletes’ committees that are in place in some international federations are too limited, she said.

“Athletes committees will always have certain limits because they are internal committees of the organisation they are in, eg. IOC athletes comittee,” Tomczyk said. “They are consultative bodies who get most of their funding from the sports federation, who is also able to determine the actions that they can take and how much they can actually do.”

According to Tomczyk, many of the athlete representatives wear too many hats or do not have enough time to do the task, and are too far away from their peers, whom they are expected to be representing.

EU Athletes seek more independent representation of athletes in committees with elected members, independent from sports organisations and who do athlete representation as a their full time job.

“Athletes can really bring benefit to the governance of sport, because athletes are the main stakeholders in sport. Sport can exist without the officials, but not without the athletes.”

Watch interview with Paulina Tomczyk

Sports journalist Nick Butler was in accordance with Tomczyk and also argued for stronger athlete representation in sports governance. In fact, according to Butler, sports leaders currently have too much power and that power needs to be spread out through more independent efforts.

“If you compare the running of international sport with a political regime, it would have a lot more in common with an authoritarian country than a liberal democracy,” Butler said.

For many sports leaders, good governance has become a buzz word, said Butler, something that sounds good, but is actually “more of a PR exercise to maintain status quo”.

Butler also lashed out at the various ethics committees in international federations, which he claimed were often used to cover up delicate issues: “The main aim of an ethics commission is not to uncover cases of corruption or crime but more to cover it up,” he said, and referred to the case involving Sheik Al-Sabah that has been handed over to the IOC Ethics Commission, seemingly as “an excuse not to talk about it”.

National federation and hard vs. soft law
The afternoon focused on governance in national sports federations and set off by Arnout Geeraert walking participants through the overall results of the National Sports Governance Observer, an Erasmus + supported project that has assessed the governance in national sports federations across nine European countries and Brazil.

Participants heard from a number of partners in the project who highlighted findings and conclusions from deploying the NSGO tool in national federations.

The overall results of the report show large differences in the level of governance in federations across the countries, ranging from scores of 27% (Cyprus) to 78% (Norway), while there would only be minor differences between the individual sports examined across Europe. The results indicate that the national governance culture in a country could be of greater importance than sports related matters.

The results also show that even in the best scoring countries, there is still work to be done, especially within the areas of societal responsibility and democratic processes.

According to Geeraert, one of the main issues preventing sports organisations to be governed correctly is that good governance is difficult to define and that there are gaps between the various perceptions of ‘good governance’ across the sports movement and the different actors in the field.

In the UK, a Sports Governance Code has implemented in 2016 and Emma Harlow, senior compliance manager from UK Sport, spoke about the code, which she concluded actually has made UK sports federations compliant with a set of principles as they are mandatory for federations receiving public funding.

According to Marijke Fleuren, president of European hockey and member of the IOC Commission on Women in Sport, sport does not always play by the rules, which is why she argued that while implementing and ruling by hard laws can improve the level of governance, there are no guarantees.

“Sport is a strange battlefield, on as well as off stage,” she said and pointed to election lobbying as an example: “People who say they will vote for you, wont, and the other way around.”

Change is difficult in the current sports system, concluded German reporter Hajo Seppelt, whose investigations have played a major role in exposing the Russian state-backed doping system.

“The honest people working hard are powerless, because the key people of international sport, ex Thomas Bach, have no interest in changing the system,” Seppelt said and called for more collaboration and networking between critics and reformers, and for a change of mindset within sport. Even after many years of having reforms on the agenda, the state of sport is still worrying, Seppelt said, not worse, not better.

“It’s time for people to wake up!”

Further information


The reports that were launched at the event in Leuven can be found here:

The NSGO project is open for applications from new countries. See more here.

See presentations from the day in the box on the right

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