10 October 2017

Athlete involvement needed to safeguard sport’s integrity

Athlete involvement, rather than new agencies, regulations, legislation or ombudsmen is key to safeguarding the integrity of sport and its competing athletes, it was highlighted at a conference in London today. Delegates at ‘Priorities for integrity and duty of care in sport – progress, policy options and the UK’s global contribution’ heard that athletes need to have a meaningful involvement in the process of protecting sport’s integrity in order to avoid a ‘them and us’ situation developing – and this should not just be a box for sports governing bodies (SBGs) to tick. It was also highlighted that sport currently does not do enough to adequately safeguard against the unique vulnerabilities that affect athletes.

“Issues cannot be parked at one organisation’s door to resolve”, warned Nicole Sapstead, Chief Executive of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD), highlighting that it had referred 17 cases to other welfare authorities in the last 12 months alone. Sapstead said that a decision to dope is often connected to other athlete issues, and suggested that some sporting bodies were not examining this link.

“I detect a reluctance to turn over that stone and see what’s there”, she said. “Organisations are crossing their fingers and hoping. Doping is going on in every single sport, and this attitude is just not good enough.” Sapstead pointed out that UKAD had completed its self-assessment, which was one of the governance recommendations made by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Compliance Review Committee (CRC) in 2015, and six “corrective action” reports were addressed. She pointed out that she considered UKAD a “competent organisation” and if it still had six issues to address, then other anti-doping organisations (ADOs) are likely to have similar – or worse – issues.

Speakers pointed out that unless sport resolves its integrity issues it could face commercial as well as repetitional damage. “The commercial realities may be harsher than the public trust realities” warned Dr. Stuart Miller, Senior Director of Development and Integrity at the International Tennis Federation (ITF). “Sport risks losing control of its own destiny”, said Simon Morton, Chief Operating Officer at UK Sport.

Safeguarding athletes

A big theme of the day was safeguarding athletes from the unique dangers sport presents to social and mental well-being. Anne Tiivas of the National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children’s (NSPCC) Child Protection in Sport Unit pointed out that loopholes in the law exist which mean that children involved in sport remain more vulnerable than they would in other areas of society.

For example, she pointed out that it is a criminal offence for a teacher to have a consensual sexual relationship with a pupil, yet it is not a criminal offence for a coach to have the same relationship. Tiivas said that more information is needed from SGBs about coaches who are in a position of trust in order to get loopholes such as this closed.

Delegates heard that there are almost no regulations governing who can be involved in an athlete’s entourage and – amazingly – there is no international federation for sports coaches. “The potential for a coaching federation is something that should be considered for the future”, said Dr. Rod Jaques, Director of Medical Services at the English Institute of Sports (EIS).

Tiivas said that of the child abuse investigations conducted under Operation Hydrant involving sport, over 70% still have an ongoing safeguarding risk. This is due to the people concerned still being involved in sport, or the structures that enabled their behaviour remaining in place.

However, progress in this area is being made. Tiivas said that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would publish an Athlete Protection Toolkit during November to be utilised by SGBs. Jaques said that a professional code on sports science and medical staff had been drawn up over the past 18 months, and also spoke about the need for a contractual code for medical advisors utilised by SGBs.

Leon Lloyd, ex-rugby player and Director of Switch The Play, pointed out that most athletes spend their early life focussed on specific sporting goals, and face unique challenges in transitioning to normal life after their elite career is over. SGBs often do little more than abandon an athlete once their career is over, and this needs to change.

Regulation, Legislation, Ombudsmen…

A certain amount of scepticism was expressed about whether there is a need for further bodies involved in regulating sports integrity. SGBs said that they already had to deal with a wide range of agencies, and that the bodies already in place were capable of effectively regulating sport if they went about it in the correct manner.

Sapstead spoke about the need for athletes to have confidence that clean sport is being regulated fairly across the world. “The IOC’s inaction over Russia is a very strong bone of contention for anti-doping organisations”, she said. Sapstead referred to the concept of an Independent Testing Agency (ITA) – proposed by the IOC – as “a bit of a fudge” that could undermine the role of National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs).

She pointed out that the ITA is designed to be utilised by the international federations, yet it is funded by the IOC. “If anything is complicit, I would say that was”, she added. Delegates expressed concern about whether a sports ombudsman, which was one of the recommendations of the Duty of Care in Sport Report published by Tanni Grey-Thompson on 21 April, would be able to provide anything not already covered by the regulatory remit of existing SGBs.

Chips to monitor athletes

The headline-grabbing topic of the day was the idea that in the future, SGBs should consider microchipping athletes in order to monitor biological variables at any time in order to identify potential doping. Mike Miller, Chief Executive of the World Olympians Association (WOA), clarified that he envisaged a future where microchipping would become commonplace, and it was his personal view that SGBs should consider the possibilities that this affords to policing against doping in sport.

Such technology has already been utilised in the workplace. Similar less invasive technology has already been proposed in order to simplify the ‘whereabouts’ system, under which selected elite athletes must file their location for testing. Miller was alive to the fact that such technology could be manipulated, but pointed out that no system is foolproof, as Russia’s opening of ‘tamper proof’ doping sample bottles illustrated.

Future steps

Emma Mason, a Director of Badminton Europe, pointed out that SGBs should have already held discussions on how they would be ensuring that they meet the requirements laid out in the Code for Sports Governance, published last year. The Code sets transparency, accountability and financial integrity standards that SGBs who wish to continue to receive government and National Lottery Funding must meet. SGBs must demonstrate compliance by 21 October, or their funding may be cut.

“Money is part of the integrity of sport”, said Jon Smith, football agent and Chair of First Artist Mission. “It is also the least understood part of our sport”.  He pointed out that despite the fact that the English Premier League is set to generate £8 billion in revenue this year, three out of five Premier League footballers will go bankrupt within five years of retirement.

This is an important point. The biggest change in elite sport during the last 20 years has been its commercialisation, which puts new pressures onto athletes. The education policies of SGBs have not coped well with keeping pace with that change. The commercialisation of sport puts extra pressure on athletes to perform and succeed. This can manifest itself in doping in order to succeed or to prolong a career. In addition, new pressures to fix aspects of a sporting performance have been created by the proliferation of new methods of sports gambling, which puts additional pressure onto athletes.

Today’s debate illustrated that the changes stipulated by the Code for Sports Governance may not go far enough. It is a tenet of most governance systems that those being governed should have a say in the structures that govern them. Today’s discussion highlighted that sport is still having that discussion, and athlete involvement in SGBs is often little more than a box ticking exercise.

Dr. Miller of the ITF warned as to the danger of creating a “them and us” scenario involving SGBs on one side, and athletes on the other. He said SGBs needed to avoid drifting towards a scenario where sport is in the hands of the privileged few. Badminton Europe’s Mason said that it would take a couple of years for the impact of the Code for Sports Governance to be assessed, but warned of the dangers of imposing a “British solution” on world sport. Hopefully, by 2019 the sports governance will present a more equitable landscape.

• A summary of tweets from the day is available by clicking here.

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