More engagement needed for effective athlete representation
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Issues around participation are also key in sports governance, and international Olympic sport federations (IFs) have long been neglecting the crucial role that athletes play in the sports movement. They are now trying to catch up by creating athletes commissions, forums and opportunities to exchange opinions and ideas with this stakeholder group. 
This article was submitted as part of our call for articles on participatory approaches in sport for development. For more information and to find out how to submit, read the call for articles.

We have been witnessing independent athletes organizations arising to fill in the gaps left by the power imbalances within the IFs: athletes are becoming increasingly aware of their rights and demanding their voice be heard when decision-makers are defining the future of sports. However, although new platforms and forums now exist, more strides need to be made towards more effective engagement between governing bodies, athletes and their entourage for effective representation in the context of athletes protection, rights and responsibilities.

In the spirit of fostering dialogues and exploring new solutions in the world of sports, SCORE – a Sport Think Tank based in Lausanne – organized several SCORE Labs, a meeting which draws on expertise from within and outside of sports to address challenges that the sports industry and its connected stakeholders face, to identify alternative trends and solutions. Following those SCORE Lab sessions, it is safe to acknowledge the progress of athlete representation in the Olympic Movement - e.g. new bodies, revised governance structures, forums of exchange. An important hurdle to tackle now is how to engage athletes in the process of consolidation of their voices.

Ticking the box or transformational change? 

SCORE Lab participants raised important challenges in this conversation; for instance, sports face different realities and athletes are heterogeneous; and new bodies lack a strategic role or do not have capacity to act and implement.

Accept complexity 

In addition to the national context of a large base of members, each sports’ resources capacity and unique structures influence and define athlete representation in the different levels of sports governance. Among the various challenges, even within the same sport, athletes are a heterogeneous group: it is therefore difficult to create one international body similar to an union, that represents athletes' interest because challenges and interests are mainly national, or tight to national environments and realities. 

Embrace a strategic approach 

Although under the influence of the IOC, many IFs have created athletes commissions, there seems to be still little influence and representation in crucial decision-making bodies such as executive committees and boards of administration. Should athletes demand and pursue representation in IFs? And what type of issues should athletes seek to influence? Is this representation just ticking the box rather than a real space for athletes to engage and interact with the relevant stakeholders? What should be the mandate of Athletes’ Commissions at the international level? 

Time to invest in multi-stakeholder engagement

Although it is clear that athletes need support to be empowered - and they need budget - athletes should seek different representation channels in addition to those offered by the system and try to influence the system from within and from outside. However, in order to achieve any level of successful representation, athletes need to improve their engagement - i.e. participate in forums, share experiences and resources, occupy the spaces. Whatever engagement is happening at the international level needs to be enhanced and cascaded down to non-international and underage athletes, including the entourage. Athletes could and should have a say on all that concern them and beyond technical matters.

Understand who are the key stakeholders 

All stakeholders who can directly influence the athletes should be empowered to help them excel as athletes and as members of society. Whereas the family can be influential in the underage years, coaches are undoubtedly the most influential stakeholder group when athletes become professionals. Depending on the context, governments can also be relevant stakeholders, as well as unions and agents.

Define what type of representation is needed

With the support of expert facilitation, athletes should agree and have a common understanding of what type of representation they need on the international as well as on the national levels. It can be argued that being part of a Board of Administration and other decision-making bodies, for instance, does not give athletes leverage and delegitimizes their influence; as if being part of the system governance structure does not help them. Such an existential question matters because it helps to define priorities and agree on common grounds - e.g. is an athletes’ commission needed and what is its role and deliverables?

Ensure commitment: the earlier the better

When a common ground has been defined and the priorities have been set, all key stakeholders need to be aligned and committed with the process of empowerment and representation. In addition to governing bodies and the athletes, key stakeholders are coaches, agents and the family; and all those stakeholder groups influence the quality of athlete representation.

In spite of all the challenges and a diverse national context, SCORE Lab participants agree that to engage athletes and empower them to have an effective representation in the governance structure of the Olympic Movement, it is important to train athletes and their entourage  - especially at the earliest professional stages; include athletes across all commissions; and refer to indicators of performance to measure timeframe for formalizing commission, allocation of resources (human, financial, material), local activities on channels of engagement (before and after rates).

About the authors

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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