The role of sport decision-making bodies in fostering development and peace
Extraordinary events, such as pandemics and wars, expose the shortcomings of a sports system that rushes to react to protect its image, praises and protects its autonomy, and yet fails to recognise that it is intrinsically dependent on society. It is a system where decision-making is arbitrary and often not based on a clear set of policy and regulations. The vacuum left does not provide fertile territory for sustainable development and long-lasting peace.
For nearly six months the world has witnessed the breaking of another war, another conflict. The reaction has been somewhat consistent across the various economic sectors. Sports Governing Bodies (SGBs) have replied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by quickly suspending Russian athletes, teams and federations. It was a call for exclusion.
However, what was not consistent was the reaction in comparison to other recent war, violations of human rights, and invasions - for instance Syria played a decisive football World Cup Qualifier match in the United Arab Emirates; Israel has regularly competed in all UEFA competitions; and athletes, teams and federations of Saudi Arabia, United States, United Kingdom or France were not - fortunately - sanctioned for their countries’ governments wars and invasions in Yemen, Iraq and Libya respectively. The IOC President Thomas Bach explained that the Russian-Ukraine war was different because “it is a blatant violation of the Olympic Truce and there are far-reaching political, social and economic consequences”.
Whether or not wars can be distinguished, sports have to better serve society and contribute more effectively to development and peace. So how could this happen?
Be proactive instead of reactive
SGBs should develop a proactive mindset in defining the vision for their sport in society - in order to be prepared and have a consistent approach, there is the need for better regulations and coding, as well as monitoring mechanisms, which should be composed of an effective feedback system to allow for continuous improvement and increased credibility.
Lacking a strategic organisational mindset leads to opting for reactive quick fix solutions, mainly motivated by the need to contain public opinion's judgement - these may result in interesting activation, however, temporally limited and whose impact is hard to track. Often, the sport system remains passive until a crisis occurs and it is forced to change - it took the mental breakdown of a teenage ice skater in Beijing Olympic Games, under the eyes of the world, to trigger change and force the ISU to rethink age limits.
Standardise rather than randomise efforts
Being proactive requires looking at and incorporating external expertise and best practices into the operations. Even though principles of good governance, sustainable development, and human rights are mentioned in several legal documents (e.g. Codes of Ethics), it is often vague enough to allow for a case-by-case approach implemented according to specific motivations and contingencies. SGBs should develop a set of policies and regulations in line with international best practices, incorporating what has already been developed by leading agencies. Building on the existing body of knowledge should influence areas such as governance, bidding procedures, equipment manufacturing, sports and development programmes.
Standards can help to build accountability and trust, which can pave the way to long lasting peace and sustainable development. Sports actors and society deserve to know how and why decisions are taken and how these codes are actually implemented.
Sponsorships are often a platform for controversies because there are multiple parties involved in a mutually beneficial and risky commercial relationship. In sports, moral and ethical values can be overshadowed by the economic interests and by the action on the field of play, so sweatshop questions targeting sports equipment manufacturers are ignored. Nonetheless, on 28 February 2022, UEFA announced the ending of Gazprom sponsorship without any explanation. The ethical balance cannot be used at random for convenience.
Embrace inclusionary over exclusionary approaches
Inclusion is the essence of sports and inclusionary solutions should be at the core of decision and policy-making. Civil groups, universities and general grassroots movements should be listened to and incorporated into the governance of sports to ensure diversity and inclusion and avoid exclusionary measures.
Remedy and support mechanisms should be available to direct and indirect stakeholders, especially to protect the athletes. South African runner Caster Semenya was ruled out of middle-distance competitions due to her personal natural testosterone condition. And although there is a lack of scientific peer-reviewed evidence on the competitive advantage of transgender atheltes, swimmer Lia Thomas was barred from any FINA competitions because of her gender.
Paris Mayor Hidalgo made public statements calling for the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Paris Olympics on the basis of the acts of war from the Russian government towards Ukraine. How does this action help to build peace?
Sports have the power to foster a journey for healthy and sustainable development: should not be a forum for discriminatory policies. When sports actors are proactive, inclusionary, consistent, and transparent in making decisions they will pave the way for more effective contribution to development and peace.
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