How democratic is the sport movement?
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Sport is neither democratic, nor undemocratic: it's a platform that can be used to foster both democratic and undemocratic values according to the context.

Democracy is not a new term within the sports movement. However, nowadays, there are as many different forms of democracy as there are democratic societies in the world; therefore, although there is a general definition of what democracy is, in practice, democracy can mean different models of governments, depending on the mechanisms to give life to it: how and how often people vote, how specific members or officials represent them, how people organise elections, etc., to name a few examples.

According to the Manual for Human Rights Education with Young People created by the Council of Europe, two principles give democracy its moral strength: individual autonomy and equality. 

1. Individual autonomy: The idea that no-one should be subject to rules which others have imposed. People should be able to control their own lives (within reason).

2. Equality: The idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to influence the decisions that affect people in society.

In addition to the use of people’s representatives, systems of democracy also have in common a "rule of the majority", which could mean that minority groups’ interests may not be represented. This simple principle brings a specific set of challenges: conflicting views on how to address particular problems and the need for a mechanism for managing contradictory views.

This is also applicable to sports, and leads to the following questions:

  • To what extent are SGBs democratic? And should they be?
  • How do sports organisations follow the principles of individual autonomy and equality?
  • Do decision makers (presidents, executive board members, councils.) represent the interest of all stakeholders involved in the sports movement, the athletes for instance?
  • What inclusive and participative decision-making mechanisms could be used and promoted by SGBs?
  • How legitimate are SGBs to exploit democratic symbols and principles?

It is arguable that SGBs are democratic because they hold free elections, use secret ballots, have voting structures to select their members, and even claim they "walk the talk" when more women join the governing body's executive board, for example.

Nevertheless, democracy includes far more than just elections. When assessing how democratic a society is, it is relevant to think beyond the institutional or voting structures, and consider how the will of the people is exercised and represented.

In the sport context, this question becomes more relevant because of the hierarchical structure that the Olympic Movement has adopted, the pyramid system.

This system does not have mechanisms that promote and allow the pyramid's bottom to have the same opportunity to influence the decisions that affect them and their sports: the principles of equality and representative democracy are not integrated into the pyramid, and athletes and other stakeholders must follow imposed rules by the top of the pyramid - an absence as well of the principle of individual autonomy. 

Although these systems can make use of tools such as consultations with strategic stakeholder groups, they do not  have any binding element, they are only informative in order to make recommendations, and rules are imposed top-down.

How much more democratic can the sports movement be - and should be?

Direct influence or influence through representation is a new element which could be incorporated by the sports governing structure. How can different stakeholder groups in the pyramid interact - and under which conditions - to ensure decisions taken are considerate to the needs of the different stakeholder groups affected? 


This article was submitted by SCORE - Sport Think Tank - independent sport thinkers who aim to support and cooperate with the sports community to SCORE impactful and relevant solutions.


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