Who holds the power in sports governance?
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Athletes have a right and responsibility to participate in sports governance, and more opportunities should be extended to ensure that their voices are heard in governing bodies.

This article was submitted as part of sportanddev’s call for articles on sport and democracy. Want to share your views? Find out how.

FIFA didn’t create football. The IAAF didn’t teach people how to run or throw. Basketball was invented by an enthusiast and educator. A form of badminton was played 2000 years ago.

Today, children are born into a world of rules and regulations set by Governing Bodies. Sports Governing Bodies dictate how people play their sport for four main reasons:

  1. Standardisation: By dictating how the sport is played, governing bodies can establish rules and regulations that ensure consistency and fairness across all levels of the sport. This allows athletes to compete on a level playing field and ensures that the outcomes of competitions are determined by skill and athleticism, rather than by external factors such as rules interpretation or equipment variations.
  2. Safety: Governing bodies have a responsibility to ensure the safety of athletes who participate in their sport. By establishing rules around equipment, playing conditions, and techniques, they can minimise the risk of injury and provide a safe environment for athletes to compete.
  3. Integrity: Governing bodies also have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of their sport. By dictating how the sport is played, they can prevent cheating, doping, and other unethical behaviour that could undermine the legitimacy of competitions and damage the reputation of the sport.
  4. Promotion and development: Governing bodies are also responsible for promoting and developing their sport. By establishing rules and regulations that make the sport engaging and exciting for fans, they can attract more viewers and generate more revenue for the sport. 

Sports governing bodies are often treated with a certain level of respect and influence by governments for several reasons:

  • Economic impact: Sports events and activities can generate significant economic impact, including job creation, tourism, and infrastructure development. 
  • National pride: Sports events can be a source of national pride, and governments may see supporting sports governing bodies as a way to promote national identity and pride.
  • Soft power: Sports can be a tool for promoting a country's values and culture to the rest of the world. 
  • Community building: Sports can bring people together and build a sense of community and social cohesion. 
  • Political influence: Sports governing bodies often have significant influence and connections in the political and business worlds. 

Mega sports events like the Olympics and the World Cup can promote international cooperation and understanding, cultural exchange, and the development of sports infrastructure in host countries. They can also provide economic benefits to host countries through increased tourism and investment.

In terms of promoting democracy, mega sports events and institutions can help foster civic pride and engagement, encourage participation in physical activity and sports, and promote gender and racial equity in sports. They can also provide opportunities for political leaders to showcase their countries' commitment to democracy and human rights.

From my personal experiences of creating events in multiple destinations around the world, as well as interactions with National Olympic Committees, I can speak of various levels of reality that we have to face up to. But I want to highlight here the significance of one crucial factor that in my opinion isn’t listened to enough in sports governance circles – the athlete’s voice. 

In diplomacy and social impact terms, there have been a number of incredible examples of how powerful the athlete’s voice can be to instigate change – most recently, we have to pay tribute to Marcus Rashford’s actions in the UK to lobby for change in government legislation, which meant children at risk of hunger could access free meals. What if this sense of ownership, belonging and action was applied to more subject areas and also to the governance of sport in general? 

Sports governance needs a more inclusive voice from athletes in the running of their sport. From referees or officials through to rule evolutions and management, the experience of playing the sport in question is critical for authenticity to be at the core of future decisions. 

There are, however, several reasons why athletes may not be involved more in sports governance:

  1. Lack of interest: While athletes may be passionate about their sport, they may not be interested in the administrative and governance aspects of it. They may prefer to focus on their training and competition rather than getting involved in the bureaucracy of governing bodies.
  2. Time constraints: Athletes often have very busy schedules, with training, competitions, and other commitments. They may not have the time or energy to devote to governance activities, which can be time-consuming and require a lot of effort.
  3. Lack of knowledge and experience: Many athletes may not have the knowledge or experience necessary to participate in governance activities effectively. They may not be familiar with the rules and regulations of the governing bodies or the intricacies of governance processes.
  4. Limited opportunities: Some governing bodies may not provide opportunities for athletes to get involved in governance activities. They may not have athlete representation on their boards or committees, or they may not have processes in place for athletes to provide input or feedback.
  5. Conflicts of interest: Athletes who are currently competing may have conflicts of interest if they are involved in governance activities. They may be hesitant to speak out on certain issues or advocate for certain changes if it could impact their own performance or career.

Overall, while there are some athletes who are involved in sports governance, it can be challenging for many athletes to balance their athletic careers with governance responsibilities. Governing bodies can help by providing more opportunities for athlete involvement and ensuring that their voices are heard in decision-making processes.

I believe that Sports Governing Bodies are actually intimidated and scared of athletes’ voices. Athletes, in my opinion, have a right and responsibility to participate in sports governance. If they stepped up more, perhaps their contribution to society, diplomacy and more would enhance too.


Daniel Wood is the co-founder of the World Freestyle Football Association and advocate for sport as a tool for social change. Freestyle Football aims to become the first community governed sport in the world.



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