Han Xiao

My name is Han Xiao, and I would describe myself as a recovering Athletes' Commission member.

Until recently, I served as chair of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes' Advisory Council (USOPC AAC). In the summer of 2020, a lot of people felt that we were doing quite well. We had been heavily involved in governance reforms within the Olympic and Paralympic system in our country. We had signed an unprecedented memorandum of understanding with the USOPC to secure an increased budget and some autonomy over that budget. We had just hired the first executive director in the AAC's history.

It was in this environment that, in a phone call about podium protests and International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Rule 50, someone unfamiliar with our work brought me back to reality with two straightforward questions. First, she asked if we were an athlete union. To which I calmly replied that we were not and explained what an Athletes' Commission is. She then followed up with her second question: "Then where do you get your money from?"

To preserve my dignity, I won't go into detail here on my rambling and excuse-laden response to the second question I attempted to answer that day. You see, it's this second question that starts to get at the fundamental problems with the Athletes' Commission model. 

Athletes' Commissions inherently have an uphill climb in driving tangible positive change for athletes due to their funding model, structure, and lack of leverage and decision-making authority. Without solving these problems, it is unclear whether they will ever be a useful counterbalance to all the other interests within sport or whether they will endure the test of time.

These factors are problems because Athletes' Commissions have to overcome a huge obstacle to make many improvements for athletes: the organisational inertia present in most of the organisations with which they interface. The Athletes' Commission itself does not possess the power to do much at all. Instead, it depends on persuading other people to make decisions that are beneficial to athletes and then implement those decisions. 

Sports organisations' goals and athletes' goals are generally aligned, including the growth of the sports we love. However, there are also areas where goals and opinions may not align. For example, when an organisation is unwilling to sacrifice revenue or brand image to protect athletes' interests, athletes may feel that the decision is unjustified. 

When athletes suggest a new resource allocation strategy that may significantly decrease the budget available for staff compensation, the organisation will be resistant. Sure, there is usually some low-hanging fruit that Athletes' Commissions can claim as long as the Commission raises these issues and presents reasonable solutions. 

However, making more extensive changes on critical topics such as athlete abuse, fair wages for athletes, commercial rights, or investment in marginalised populations often involves overcoming this organisational inertia in some way as these issues are often more contentious.

The funding of Athletes' Commissions is the first issue that puts them at a disadvantage when dealing with these contentious issues. Usually, Athletes' Commissions have two choices when it comes to controversial topics. They can avoid these issues and be content with the status quo to maintain good relationships with their parent organisation. Alternatively, they can act and speak entirely on principle and likely damage these relationships. 

A big reason that this is the case is the funding model; as one of our NOC leaders once expressed, why would they want to give the Athletes' Commission money to punch them in the face? No organisation wants to fund a group that is likely to be adversarial on specific issues, especially if some are in the public eye. 

Suppose the Commission's athletes disagree and feel that it's the Commission's job to push hard to advance athletes' interests even if there is public disagreement. In that case, the mismatch in expectations of the Commission's role puts a strain on the relationship's collaborative aspects, even though there are many issues where the parties are likely to align.

IOC Athletes' Commission chair Kirsty Coventry, right, sits on the organisation's ruling Executive Board ©Getty Images
IOC Athletes' Commission chair Kirsty Coventry, right, sits on the organisation's ruling Executive Board ©Getty Images

A second disadvantage for Athletes' Commissions is their structure. Most are composed of currently competing and recently retired athletes, with a small eligibility window. The representatives are elected volunteers who are busy with training and competition or establishing their post-athletic careers. They often don't have the same professional and life experience that their non-athlete counterparts do on Boards and committees. They usually are not seen as peers in these groups as a result. They often don't have the time to fully engage while they are eligible to serve through no fault of their own. 

Many of these athlete representatives don't remain involved in governance after leaving, with very little succession planning and institutional continuity due to the commission's volunteer nature. That means that if a sports organisation doesn't want to confront an issue that their Athletes' Commission has brought up, stalling and shifting the goalposts becomes very useful. Running out the clock on the Commission is usually relatively easy.

A third core problem of Athletes' Commissions is a lack of any inherent leverage or decision-making authority. Without collective bargaining, they frequently face scrutiny from both athletes and sports organisations regardless of which position they take. Athletes are never a monolithic group. There will always be athletes wondering whether the Athletes' Commission is indeed advocating on their behalf if the commission takes a position they don't personally like. 

Similarly, those within sport organisations who disagree with the Commission's perspective will often doubt whether other athletes genuinely agree with the Commission. The commission does not necessarily have the unity and credibility that an athlete association or union typically would bring. It certainly also does not have any power to organise athletes to take any significant action, the extreme example being a strike or boycott. 

Not having this support and influence means that Athletes' Commissions typically have very little leverage to negotiate change that other influential stakeholders in the organisation might oppose. 

USADA chief executive Travis Tygart is among the officials to have called for athletes to be given a greater say in decison making ©Getty Images
USADA chief executive Travis Tygart is among the officials to have called for athletes to be given a greater say in decison making ©Getty Images

In theory, Athletes' Commissions' main power is to appoint or elect representatives to a Board or Executive Committee and other key committees. Here, those representatives run into many of the problems I raised previously: other members often don't see them as respected peers and leaders.

In my opinion, Athletes' Commissions have one real power, and that is their voice. When sports organisations refuse to protect or serve their athletes adequately, Athletes' Commissions can speak out with whatever platform and reach they have about how organisations are letting athletes down. 

Sometimes, external pressure can help force desired change where internal feedback fails to make a difference. Athletes' Commissions have to use this power carefully and strategically. Still, without it, the Commission faces the real risk of terming out before they can influence significant change. Otherwise, the Athletes' Commission model depends entirely on others who have power over the athletes to do what's right. 

As many of my predecessors in the US have put it, the Athletes' Commission is the organisation's conscience. Just like a conscience, we are at the mercy of the owner of that conscience to heed it.

In many ways, the last four years in the US have shown how difficult it is for an Athletes' Commission to overcome organisational inertia. During my time serving on the Commission, we gave direct feedback on many occasions about problems. We were relentless in pushing for cultural change to focus more on athlete well-being. And in many cases, we were publicly outspoken about critical systemic flaws such as power imbalances between individual athletes and other stakeholders, leading to a fear of retaliation. 

Unfortunately, most of the progress we made was likely attributable to external factors. The most influential factor was the unfortunate circumstances around sexual abuse in gymnastics and other sports and the increased scrutiny from the public, the media, and the United States Congress. This external pressure lent reformers an unprecedented amount of leverage to accomplish change. Still, the path to incremental progress has been a long and winding road thus far.

The US Congress has increased its scrutiny of sport following the gymnastics abuse scandal ©Getty Images
The US Congress has increased its scrutiny of sport following the gymnastics abuse scandal ©Getty Images

Despite my opinions on the Athletes' Commission model's weaknesses, I still have the utmost respect for all the athletes who choose to follow this path. 

Having been in their shoes, I empathise with the challenges they face. It is a thankless volunteer job, and the structure has not set them up for success for all the reasons I have discussed. Everyone should admire the passion and energy they put into being the athletes' voice regardless of their progress. I only hope that their journeys are as fulfilling as mine has been and that they feel they have done some good at the end of the road.

By now, you might be asking whether I feel that Athletes' Commissions are entirely pointless. 

There is still a role for Athletes' commissions to play as long as organisations are willing to be open-minded and empower their Athletes' Commissions. Significant systemic changes could address some of the limitations and narrow the power gap between Athletes' Commissions and other stakeholders. These changes would further improve the impact that these groups can have. 

However, there is a growing demand for other athlete representation models that athletes connect with and trust. More and more independent athlete groups have emerged, for example, to represent athletes in various sports, whether domestically or internationally. These groups can be unions, trade associations, or something more loosely defined. They all have more freedom than Athletes' Commissions when speaking on issues when athletes' interests and other stakeholders' interests may be adversarial. They can also collaborate just as Athletes' Commissions can on topics where everyone's interests align. In many ways, the most successful of these organisations may have the power and influence in the future to render any Athletes' Commission in their space obsolete for athletes.

Ultimately, more and more athletes will gravitate more towards athlete representation models that resonate with them. These may be organisations with more transparent accountability to athletes or a more proven track record of making tangible progress for them. Not only does it make intuitive sense, but these athlete organisations will have a compelling story to tell. 

When someone asks them questions like "why do you exist," "how do you make things better for athletes," or "where does your money come from," they will be able to answer clearly and candidly. For the Athletes' Commission model to remain relevant to athletes as the sports world continues to evolve, it needs to do the same.