24th July 2018

Integrity in sport: is it a hopeless ideal?

In a world where integrity might have different connotations, we must first ask what is meant by integrity in sport. According to the UK’s Sport and Recreation Alliance, ‘a defining characteristic of competitive sport is that the contest should be unpredictable and decided by the skill of the participants alone. Where sporting outcomes are determined by other, illegitimate means – such as doping or match-fixing- the integrity of the competition is called into question and confidence in sport is undermined.’ 

It is in this context, that we argue that truly effective global and national measures are critical in order to protect the level playing field of integrity across all levels of national and international sports. Given the headline grabbing cases of allegations of corruption and cheating in all corners of the sports universe, the real issue is whether the current national and international measures against the individuals involved and their respective governing bodies are sufficient to protect integrity in sport. 

Endemic” is how David Howman, former Director General at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), recently described corruption across all levels of sports. Mr. Howman is now Chair of the recently established Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), which ‘represents a new era in the management of threats to the integrity of sport’.

The recently created AIU, which replaced the IAAF’s Anti-Doping department, is now responsible for all issues relating to misconduct within athletics. In July 2018, the AIU released details of over 100 cases (including at least 85 Olympic and World Championship medallists) involving athletes and coaches facing disciplinary action by the AIU for alleged doping offences. According to the AIU, it has released these details to protect the ‘integrity and reputation’ of international athletics, and for ‘increased transparency’ in the disciplinary procedure. 

In the past, the outcome of doping cases was only made public after the proceedings were completed. However, the AIU will now make public every part of the process following any positive doping test. Whilst transparency will go some way in promoting integrity in sport, it is arguable that transparency will itself not go far enough to achieve integrity. This is especially true where the governing bodies themselves are not exposed to any sanctions for the actions of their members. 

A shocking affront to Australia” is how Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the pre-arranged plan by Australian cricketers Steve Smith (captain), David Warner (vice-captain), and Cameron Bancroft to tamper with a cricket ball to gain an advantage in the third match of the series against South Africa earlier this year. Mr. Bancroft was spotted by television cameras hiding a yellow object in his trousers. A later inquiry determined this object to be sandpaper—something that neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Bancroft disclosed when they had earlier admitted the tampering plan.

The three players were handed nine to twelve month playing bans by Cricket Australia. Whilst one question is whether these punishments are severe enough to reflect the seriousness and extent of the dishonesty involved, another is what consequences do sports governing bodies face when their members have cheated or otherwise used illegitimate means to gain an unfair competitive advantage. 

In early July 2018, the International Cricket Council (ICC) held its Annual Conference in Dublin, Ireland. During the conference, the ICC announced four new offences in its Code of Conduct and increased the penalties for certain offences, including ball tampering. In addition to harsher penalties for those found cheating or disobeying the rules of the game, the ICC announced that it will investigate how Member Boards, such as Cricket Australia, can be held liable for the behaviour of their players. 

Whilst questions can be asked about why such measures against national governing bodies have not to date been imposed by international governing bodies such as the ICC and others, it is clear that across the international sports playing field the issue of integrity and the promotion of fair competition are becoming priorities. The first of the seven priority recommendations listed in the UK’s Duty of Care Review of UK Sport deals with the establishment of a Sports Ombudsman. Whilst the office has not yet been created, it is hoped that having an independent arbiter should – depending on whether it is able to, for example, sanction national governing bodies which have failed to act with integrity or otherwise failed to have proper checks and balances in place to ensure their athletes compete fairly – go some way to help protect integrity across all levels of sports in the UK and to sanction governing bodies for their failures to protect and promote fair competition. 

On a European level, it appears that integrity in sport is not considered a hopeless idea, at least on the parliamentary playing field. Real steps have been taken by the parliamentary arm of the Council of Europe (PACE) to hold governing bodies accountable for the failures in the governance of their sports. In January 2018, PACE adopted a resolution intended to address the ‘systemic failures’ by major sports governing bodies. Adopting a resolution based on the report ‘Working towards a framework for modern sports governance’ prepared by Mogens Jensen, members of PACE said that, above all, the sport movement  Needs to demonstrate that it is able and willing to take proactive measures in rooting out the culture of corruption and lawlessness within its ranks and to indict those who commit crimes’.

What practical steps can be taken vis-à-vis the governing bodies in particular? In PACE’s view, governments must create ‘a robust legislative framework that would enable the prosecution of sports leadership’. Recognising that autonomy in sport is important, the resolution makes clear that ‘Autonomy implies responsibility and should be granted only where there is good governance in practice. The Assembly believes that the sports movement cannot be left to resolve its failures alone. It needs to accept to take on board new stakeholders to embrace the necessary reforms.’

In order to allow proper monitoring and assessment of compliance with good governance standards across the sports sector, PACE has called for the creation of an ISO certification standard on governance of sports organisations and, at the European level, a Council of Europe Convention on Good Governance in Sport. The PACE resolution urges the sports world to set up an independent sports ethics rating system, which should be created and operated by third-party professional agencies of impeccable international reputation, similar to existing environmental, social, and governance rating agencies. 

According to PACE, the lead in setting up such a rating system should be taken by an inclusive international multi-stakeholder platform or alliance, which could be responsible for monitoring, assisting and consulting. Finally, noting that there is little co-ordinated parliamentary action or international parliamentary partnership in the current debate, PACE proposed to consider setting up a Parliamentary Alliance for Good Governance and Integrity in Sport with the aim of bringing together national parliaments and international parliamentary bodies around a meaningful discussion on sports governance and integrity issues. 

In an age where sports competition, coverage and scrutiny are fiercer than ever, maintaining the highest standards of integrity is paramount. Achieving this requires the collaboration of international government and sports governing bodies, who, together, are best placed to set strict standards and impose severe sanctions on not only the individuals culpable for sporting corruption, but also the responsible governing bodies. 

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