Politics & Governance, Women's Sport, Security and Integrity, Gymnastics, Multiple sports, Olympics, Paralympics, Global

Marisa Reich | Misogynists, cheats and liars… the sad perception of international federations

SportsPro columnist and chair of She Sports Switzerland Marisa Reich ponders how sport’s traditional governing bodies can rid themselves of malignant forces and overturn their negative public perception in the process.

by Marisa Reich
Marisa Reich | Misogynists, cheats and liars… the sad perception of international federations

In retrospect, every crisis always brings its own good. For the current crisis, I hope that it will help us to critically question and change structures and practices that have crept into the sports governing systems over decades.

What is the legacy of sport supposed to be? What is sport's raison d'être as a cultural asset, and especially that of the governing bodies? Shouldn't we take a closer look at the sport ecosystem and try to develop a model that goes hand in hand with societal and cultural changes? How should sport position itself in the future?

Just think of the Qatar 2022 case, the Belarus 2021 case, the Russia case, the weightlifting case, the Larry Nassar case: the list goes on. Integrity is a very sensitive issue and, once compromised, can cause a great deal of lasting damage. 

In 2001 Jacques Rogge, the then International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, said: "Because sports is based on ethics and fair competition, the governance of sport should fulfil the highest standards in terms of transparency, democracy, and accountability."

We all like and stand behind such statements, and yet they have, perhaps always, left a sour taste in our mouths.

Why? Because they are precisely crafted sentences, reviewed, amended and rewritten until they fit what they should project. These are empty words. Only when the actions are in harmony with the words do the words themselves have meaning and flourish.

Good sports governance is more in demand than ever in these times, and with it the pressure on sports’ infrastructure is increasing. The question is where and when this external pressure will impact most acutely and what it can truly trigger. Will there be greater solidarity in sport and will it mark an era of altruism? Will cross-subsidisation have to be discussed to save the diversity of sport? Or will the self-preservation instinct of the strong be so great that, now threatened by Covid-19, they virtually condemn the weaker to death?

In September 2015, the United Nations (UN) highlighted sport as an 'important enabler' to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and, considering the significance of sport in society and the impact of its resources on the environment, make it a powerful force in sustainable development. This is what the power of sport should be about.  

And yet we learned to rationalise suboptimal behaviour in the pursuit of triumph. Against all the odds, and despite how we got there, the show must go on. But it's about something else. Something much bigger. It's about empathy, equity and the common good - that doesn't mean that success and a victory can't be achieved. The businesses that enjoy lasting success are those that are driven by improvement, obsessed with the journey, and create a thriving culture centred around good, professional people and excellent habits that set them apart far beyond the playing field.

The negative issues in sports are systemic, subtle and endemic. Though comprised of businesses, sport is a never-ending game. Sport is not a product. Everything is constantly evolving. There is no defined end, but everyone is striving to steadily improve and advance the game without changing the rules too much. Winning is, at best, a pleasant byproduct, but not the endpoint. Coincidentally this is one of the most difficult questions for athletes once they have reached their ‘life goal’: “What should I do now?". For governing bodies, this should never be a question. 

How do we create - together with the unstoppable force of social change - a more sustainable, transparent, equitable and innovative sports system?

After years of major scandals that have deeply tarnished the original values of sport, such as fair play and integrity, it is time to deal with the root of the problems. However recognising, accepting and working on problems is not in the comfort zone of human beings and so they are often not addressed, put on the agenda of the next president or secretary general, or considered not relevant or urgent enough 'in the current situation'. To call a spade a spade: the established, archaic management models, the systemic, widespread abuses and malpractice of sports administration have to be reformed.

We need to consider what is really important to us in sports. Should human rights considerations be a central concern in the selection process for tournaments? Should there be the possibility of interference in decision-making processes by independent bodies outside the federation? Is it everyone's responsibility to ensure that sports federations are free from financial and moral corruption? 

Why do so many people oppose big events by voting against hosting them, when there are also so many advantages for the host cities? It's not the sport itself. It's the structures, the scandals, the lack of transparency and the lack of integrity. It's the lost trust and faith in the system.

Match-fixing, financial misconduct, corruption cases, bribery, vote-buying in the awarding of major events, money laundering, tax evasion, inequalities, illegal betting, exploitation of people, or trafficking and abusing of young athletes. Time and again, the highest authorities say that good governance must be paramount, and yet few actually manage to implement it.

We need to work on all this and prevent it, not cover it up or look the other way. We must not forget that most athletes and teams enjoy a positive reputation in society, and they are role models for many children and adults, but not the institutions that provide the foundation for the athletes. There are enough people in sports and at federations who want the same. When will these voices and, more importantly, actions become louder than those who want to enrich themselves from sport - whatever the cost? 

We need robust regulatory systems capable of effectively mitigating corruption risks and promoting integrity and cultural change. A lack of transparency and accountability in major sports federations has led to a crisis of confidence in potential host cities, society and sponsors. The initiative of establishing independent integrity units - such as those formed in athletics, badminton, hockey, biathlon and equestrian - is a great and very important step in the right direction.

Here I also want to give a shout-out to Australia, which has established Sports Integrity Australia. I don't know of any other country, let alone continent, that conducts so much research in the areas of sports management, diversity, integrity and sustainability. They are pioneers and role models in so many areas. Please, keep up the good work and to all others, feel free to follow their example.

We need to make sure key principles of good governance are ingrained into the minds of the leaders of today and tomorrow. The cry for autonomy in federations is great, but autonomy should only be granted if good governance is practised and promoted.

Are more organisations willing and able to take proactive measures and put in resources to eradicate the culture of corruption, lawlessness and inequality within their ranks, and prosecute misconduct in a consequent manner? Only when this has happened will society truly recognise the value of organised sport and support it with appreciation.

I am confident the current evolving speak-up culture will bring us there. Let’s keep up this momentum.  

About the author: An expert in sports marketing and communications, Marisa Reich is the chair of She Sports Switzerland and former head of events and culture at Infront. Her previous roles include managing international communications for Red Bull’s Wings for Life World Run and the Berlin Marathon, while she has also represented elite athletes in track and field as an IAAF-accredited agent. She became a SportsPro columnist in October 2020, writing about issues surrounding women in sport.

Find all of Marisa's SportsPro columns here.