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SPORT BUSINESS INTELLIGENCE

Hans Westerbeek

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The rights of athletes and the rising power of the stars

Where the loss of democracy in society at large presents clear and present danger, the counter balancing movement of crumbling autocratic and self-regulated power in international sport governing bodies delivers a much-needed opportunity towards developing transparency and accountability in world sport. Long-time established sport governing bodies such as national and international federations are starting to lose their almost absolute control and stranglehold on the development and management of their sport. An example is the exposure of widespread corruption in FIFA and the resultant charging and arrest of several corrupt FIFA Board members including the downfall of its former President Sepp Blatter. The most recent arrest of former UEFA President Michel Platini shows that these (corruption) issues don’t just go away either. Another example of an emerging loss of absolute power is a ruling by the German Cartel Office in February 2019 in regard to Rule 40 of the Olympic charter. The bye-law paragraph 3 states that “Except as permitted by the IOC Executive Board, no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games”. 

The German Cartel Office ruling stated that Rule 40 of the Olympic charter was too far reaching and the office released German athletes from having to clear their personal marketing activities with their National Olympic Committee when preparing for and participating in the Olympic Games. The President of the German Cartel Office explained that “We ensure that the advertising opportunities of German athletes and their sponsors during the Olympic Games, which the DOSB [German Olympic Sports Federation] and IOC significantly restricted in the past, are extended. While athletes are the key figures of Olympic Games, they cannot benefit directly from the IOC's high advertising revenue generated with official Olympic sponsors”. The Cartel Office stated that IOC and DOSB should be subject to competition law.

On the 27thof June the IOC announced it will amend bye-law paragraph 3 to read: “Competitors, team officials and other team personnel who participate in the Olympic Games may allow their person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games in accordance with the principles determined by the IOC Executive Board.” It can (and will) be argued that this is merely a paraphrasing of the original text, where the power still firmly lies with the IOC Board, but the fact remains that more equal distribution of power and resources has firmly been set on the agenda. This is further exemplified by the rise of international, or even global athlete advocacy. A start-up athlete representation organisation called Global Athlete sent out a press release on the 11thof April 2019 wishing: “the athletes that have been invited to attend the International Olympic Committee’s International Athletes' Forum in Lausanne (13-15 April 2019) the best of success for constructive and open dialogue to further enhance the rights of athletes. With the current global surge in the athlete voice for positive progress, the time for meaningful change is now upon us. This is an important opportunity for athletes from around the world to come together and discuss emerging issues that are deeply affecting the collective international athlete population; issues that have spurred the athlete community to speak up for change like never before”. Again, one may withhold judgement on how well this new organisation represents a collective athlete voice, but the fact remains that the time probably is there that “a new international athlete-led movement [can] inspire and lead positive change in world sport, and collectively address the balance of power between athletes and administrators. [Global Athlete] aim to help athletes gain a more represented voice in world sport, recognising that the neglection and suppression of the athlete voice has gone on for too long”. (at https://globalathlete.org/about

Research by Victoria University and Tennis Australia has found that beyond the star power of global tennis stars – for example as measured by their ranking or the number of followers they have on social media – some athletes more than others possess the power to significantly influence the level of engagement on social media. No better example than the current case of fallen rugby star Israel Folau, who has generated a media storm and a massively divided debate on the issue of freedom of expression. Folau was sacked on the 17thof May by Rugby Australia (RA) for posting a message on Instagram that included a reference that ‘hell awaits homosexuals’. RA described the post as a high-level breach of the Professional Rugby Players’ Code of Conduct. The point of course is that the ‘influencer’ Israel Folau, as a professional athlete greatly extends beyond his sport. He has ignited and continues to fuel a National debate that divides radical/rigid Christians from more enlightened believers and non-believers. The rise of global athletes who have amazing influence is here to stay, and most likely will continue to rise. The (mostly unexpected) sensational fundraising success by Folau to fund his legal campaign has further sparked debate and action, to the extent that comedian Magda Szubanski set up a counter fundraising page at https://www.gofundme.com/f/forlove-aus. On their page they express the core of the debate that Folau, by his actions has sparked.

“Our Australian community is diverse, accepting, powerful, and generous. It's that spirit for which we should be known, and it's with those values that we should be donating our time and money.Fundraising efforts which seek to divide us divert time and energy from those in real, immediate need. There are too many in Australia in the "fight of their lives" - doing their best to survive, and not seeking the chance to put others down.We are a diverse group of people; a united team of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists - some gay and some straight. 90% of funds raised will go to the Children's Cancer Foundation, which distributes grants for research, patient care, and family support.10% of funds raised will go to Twenty10, which provides health, legal, and housing services (among others) to people of diverse sexualities and gender identities”.

The emerging democratisation of National and International sport governing bodies is a good thing. The increasing voice that athletes have in that process, about how their sport is developed, promoted, commercialised, and shared is an important input into and output resulting from such democratisation. However, we should not forget that with great(er) power comes great(er) responsibility. By the way, I donated to ForLove

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