An athlete group hailed as revolutionary by those behind it was launched to much fanfare last week amid what it claims is an "unprecedented uprising" from competitors who have grown tiresome of the status quo and the way the sporting world operates.
The body, called Global Athlete, promises it will give athletes in Olympic and Paralympic sport a voice which many believe has been ignored by those in power at organisations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Global Athlete also lists repairing the “disconnect" between athletes, who many forget are sport’s most important stakeholders, and leaders of global sports bodies among its main aims. It has also insisted its focus will not simply be on anti-doping and will expand to athlete welfare, harassment and ensuring that athletes receive Olympic revenues or prize money.
If the idea behind the group was to douse the waves of social media and the world’s press with platitudes and clichés, then it has made a pretty solid start.
It is far too easy, particularly in today’s media cycle where quick headlines and stories are preferred over detailed analysis and perspective, for Global Athlete to come out with all sorts of promises and pledges without backing them up with details.
There were plenty of those in the press release and subsequent interviews given by lead athlete Callum Skinner and director general Rob Koehler, although this is to be expected given the initiative is in its infancy at this stage.
Yet when a group emerges so brazenly onto the scene as Global Athlete did, scrutiny and wider perusal are not just necessary but are imperative if the group is to establish itself and live up to the various vows it has already made within the first week of its existence.
The launch was heavy on rhetoric but weak on substance and raised more questions than answers.
How exactly will Global Athlete work? How will the decisions be made? And how will the group expand its scope wider than the Western world?
BOTTOMS UP!— Global Athlete (@GlobalAthleteHQ) February 20, 2019
As they say...
Global Athlete will work with a “bottom-up” approach, whereby it is the athletes that determine and dictate what needs to change and the best way of achieving that change. Sign-up today at: https://t.co/crrVwA8zzz #WeAreAthlete #GlobalAthlete #BottomsUp pic.twitter.com/73tILGKXlU
At the risk of straying into pariah status - it is, after all, unpopular to query any athlete-led initiative, even if the gaps are considerable and merit further probing - the answers to those questions and many more should become clearer over the coming months.
Global Athlete said part of its early work would involve conducting a “listening exercise” to gauge the thoughts and opinions of athletes worldwide on what they want to see changed and how it can be achieved.
“The whole idea is to spend some time over the next six to eight months, listen to them, engage them and mobilise them and really get a sense of where the main triggers are and then get a better sense of how we address those,” Koehler told insidethegames.
“If we are going to have something different and athlete-centred, the athletes that are engaged and involved need to drive the mission, the vision and the way forward for the organisation, otherwise it is just another organisation trying to find a platform to do something the same as the others.”
A key part of this should surely be ensuring the reach stretches further than the droves of Western athletes who have, quite rightly, spoken out against the controversial decision made by WADA to lift the suspension on Russia despite the country failing to meet the criteria and a subsequent refusal to meet a crucial deadline.
This provides a difficult hurdle for Global Athlete. In countries outside of the Western sphere, it is often not culturally acceptable to speak out against the establishment.
At the time of writing, Global Athlete has five “start-up group members”, ie the first who have officially signed up to the newly-created organisation, and only one of them is from outside the United Kingdom, the United States or Canada. Perhaps a more fitting name would be Western Athlete.
Koehler, who abruptly quit his position as deputy director general of WADA last year, is all-too aware that addressing this preconception will be far from easy.
“I think that is a convenient argument, the western countries have been vocal and have spoken out and it is more prevalent that they feel they can speak up and have a voice,” Koehler said.
“It is a way of now finding a way to garner that opportunity to give others a voice that want to but have difficulties and you do have to accept the realities on the ground.”
Another task for Global Athlete is to harness and mobilise an athlete voice that, while Western centric, has become increasingly vocal yet divided in the wake of the Russia decision.
A fractious and occasionally bitter dispute emerged between the athlete bodies at WADA and the IOC, both of which chose a starkly-different path when responding to the reinstatement of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, last year.
The WADA Athlete Committee was up in arms while praise emanated from statements released by the IOC Athletes’ Commission. The two organisations then became embroiled in a public slanging match plagued with frequent condemnation of each other.
This was the very definition of counter-productive as it came at a time where the calls for increased athlete representation on decision-making bodies were at their loudest.
Putting the clear hypocrisy aside, IOC Athletes’ Commission chairperson Kirsty Coventry urging athletes to “lay down their swords” and work together was a welcome intervention for those who wanted to see change.
It led to a brief ceasefire between Coventry’s group and the WADA Athlete Committee, chaired by Canadian Beckie Scott. The two groups even vowed to come together and pledged to hold working meetings sooner rather than later, something which seemed a distant dream when relations between them reached their nadir.
There is a danger that the launch of Global Athlete – criticised by the IOC Athletes’ Commission but praised by Scott – could reopen those wounds.
Global Athlete insists it will welcome all input from across the athlete community, positive or negative, and is not a threat to athlete bodies which were established long before it appeared on the sporting landscape.
Judging by the statement released by the IOC Athletes’ Commission in the immediate aftermath of Global Athlete’s launch, that view is not shared by everyone.
The IOC Athletes’ Commission was scathing of the group, reacting with typical defiance and resistance towards an organisation which had the temerity to encroach on its turf.
Such a response hardly dispelled the widely-held view that the Athletes’ Commission is merely an extension of the IOC administration and, as Skinner put it, “maybe pushes their end goals more than the athletes”.
Given the evidence at hand, it is hard to disagree. You would be hard-pressed to find an occasion where the Athletes' Commission dared to go against the grain or openly dispute a move made by IOC President Thomas Bach.
Surely it would have been more productive and cooperative to follow Coventry’s previous advice and hold a meeting with Global Athlete instead of lambasting it before the full intentions of the group are known?
Granted Global Athlete did not approach the Athletes’ Commission before launching but that could have been easily put aside. As it is, the two organisations have started on opposite ends of the spectrum and it is difficult to see them reaching common ground any time soon.
The IOC Athletes’ Commission also retreated to their disingenuous and factually-inaccurate claim that the group is entirely democratically-elected, a favoured barb of the group when others have attempted to speak out on behalf of current and former competitors.
IOC Athletes' Commission statement regarding the Global Athlete initiative. pic.twitter.com/oUJn0zUfpz— Athlete365 (@Athlete365) February 13, 2019
“The idea of putting labels to athletes such as ‘elected’ or ‘non-elected’, ‘appointed’ and ‘not appointed’ is the old approach - with Global Athlete we’re shifting that and changing the culture towards a new approach where everyone’s equal and free to speak their mind, as we enter this new era for athletes leading change,” British Paralympic medallist Ali Jawad told insidethegames.
“I think the great thing about Global Athlete is we also have no baggage, no parent body or influences, and an ethos that free speech is welcome. We are a clean slate, and that’s an opportunity to be embraced.”
The IOC Athletes’ Commission was deservedly castigated for its premature response to Global Athlete but a valid point was made amid its poorly-worded statement.
“There remain many unanswered questions about universality, accountability and funding,” it read.
Global Athlete simply must answer these questions and the many others which no doubt will arise as the group grows in stature and numbers, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming merely an echo chamber that regurgitates previous criticisms of the IOC and WADA ad nauseam.
Global Athlete does not have any special credibility as some global voice of the athlete but there is no reason why it and other athlete bodies cannot co-exist amicably, working together instead of in direct conflict.
After all, it is in the best interest of competitors past and present, who feel they have been let down by those that govern them, for that to happen.