Michael Pavitt

Athlete representation has been the focus of the past couple of weeks in sports governance circles, with several different events featuring panellists musing over the topic.

The topic has been covered as the recent EU Sports Forum in Bucharest, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) International Athletes' and World Olympians Forums and the Partners for Clean Competition event in London this past week.

The events have proved an interesting watch from afar - thanks to the ability to live stream.

IOC President Thomas Bach began the International Athletes' Forum with a typically frustrating speech. The German stated there was "no single truth and way to do something" before clearly deeming Athletes' Commissions as the sole way to do athlete representation.

"I know you can speak for yourself," Bach said. "You do not need others, who pretend to speak on your behalf. You are sitting in the decision-making organisations and on the Boards of your organisations. You are in a much more powerful position than just commenting on decisions from outside."

Bach succeeded in both beating the drum for a greater athlete voice and slamming the door to voices from outside the existing sports framework.

The Forum itself did appear a worthwhile exercise in some areas, with presentations and discussions taking place on important topics such as mental health and the safeguarding of athletes.

Bach also deserves credit for fielding around two hours’ worth of questions from athletes, even if he did not necessarily give them the answers they were hoping for.

Rule 40 and the IOC’s solidarity model were two of the key topics to under the spotlight, along with a probing question of the governance standards of sporting organisations. Most of these questions appeared to come from Canadian athletes.

IOC President Thomas Bach fielded questions from Athletes' Commission representatives last week in Lausanne ©IOC
IOC President Thomas Bach fielded questions from Athletes' Commission representatives last week in Lausanne ©IOC

While the IOC have continually resisted change to Rule 40, Bach offered his "recommendation" to athletes to begin negotiations with their respective National Olympic Committees (NOC) on the issue. His statement followed the recent ruling in Germany, which scaled back the advertising restrictions placed on athletes by the IOC’s rule.

The case had been brought by the Federal Association of the German Sports Goods Industry, German athletes’ group Athleten Deutschland and two athletes.

Rule 40.3 of the Olympic Charter warns that "no competitor, team official or other team personnel 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".

Bach’s comments certainly appeared to offer greater flexibility, but there are questions that remain over the approach he suggested would work.

Max Hartung, who chairs the German athletes group, explained in an excellent podcast with fellow fencer Joseph Polossifakis of Canada how they had sought legal help to push for greater rights. Hartung highlighted how athletes do not necessarily have the skills required to ensure they could challenge and achieve a satisfactory result.

It seems clear that other athlete groups would not have the resources of the German group, who have Government rather than IOC or NOC funding, to enter complex negotiations over their rights.

About the solidarity model, there was a lengthy presentation from the IOC detailing their repeated claim they redistribute 90 per cent of revenues to sport.

Personally, I think the model is a good a thing. Having had the fortune to spend time in the Pacific over the past couple of years, I have been able hear how some of the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity funding does benefit both athletes getting to the Games, as well as projects on raising awareness of climate change and educating people on diseases. Benefiting society through sport is part of the IOC’s job.

It was useful in the debate held on the subject last week to have the input of the athlete representative from Mali, who detailed how the funding is vital to ensuring they can help athletes and send a team to the Olympic Games.

Australia's IOC Athletes’ Commission member James Tomkins was probably right when he claimed that if the model did not exist, several countries would not be able to attend.

What I did find frustrating though, was how "recommendations" were produced at the close of the IOC Athletes’ Forum, which would then be passed on to the IOC Executive Board.

One of the recommendations was the assertation that athletes supported "the strengthening of the IOC solidarity funding model", which you could argue was not unanimous the case given that there were questions over the IOC’s redistribution of funds.

The recommendations were swiftly passed by the athlete representatives present, which seemed to fly in the face of what I would argue Athletes' Commissions should be doing. Given they had been the recipients of the presentation about the model and the reasoning, would it not make sense for them to return to their countries and disseminate the information to fellow athletes and garner feedback.

It may have ended with unanimous support for the recommendations. Or it could have ended with some tweaking, which could suggest backing of the model but encouragement for the IOC to consider ways to satisfy the concerns of other athletes.

Athletes, who are largely from Western nations, do also have a case when it comes to ensuring they had the requisite rewards for their achievements.

While Bach is understandably defensive of Athletes' Commissions, I wonder whether there is scope for changes to be made.

Hartung questioned whether the IOC Athletes' Commission is truly representative of its electorate and wondered whether it made sense for elections to take place during the Olympic Games.

"There is little campaigning and it is hard to determine what they stand for," he said. "At the Olympics, do athletes really sit down and decide who the athletes are, what they represent.

"It is hard, you are at the Olympic Games, the biggest moment of your life, it is not the time to decide. If you vote for Guy A on this policy and he does not stand for it, is there a recall?"

German fencer Max Hartung currently leads the independent German athletes group ©Getty Images
German fencer Max Hartung currently leads the independent German athletes group ©Getty Images

The EU Sports Forum also saw an allegation made that one federation had handpicked their own Athletes' Commission, which could lead to suggestions the body would simply subscribe to the views of the governing body’s leadership.

While the IOC have pointed to how 35 out of the 95 IOC members are Olympians and former athletes, you could argue a negative aspect of this, is that the supporting the status quo can been seen a positive career move. In recent years, more outspoken "opponents" of the IOC have departed the organisation, while those seen as adopting its position have enjoyed greater roles.

The trump care for the Athletes' Commissions is their ability to claim they have a wider representation from around the world.

Sports lawyer Mike Morgan was right when he highlighted how athlete groups were "too fragmented" in Olympic sports at the Partners for Clean Competition event in London, pointing out this made collective bargaining difficult.

This is clear in regard to anti-doping, where the spectrum of opinions from athletes differs wildly whenever a case occurs. Some athletes will call for life bans, others will suggest more leniency and education across the board.

The fragmentation was touched upon by Hartung in the podcast, when he highlighted how athlete representation on a worldwide scale was a challenging issue and one facing the recently founded Global Athlete.

"They have to solve the problem of how to get everyone together and solve the problem of governance, ensuring they can give themselves legitimacy and say we can speak for a big group of athletes," he said.

"Maybe it can be an international platform, maybe we can be a blueprint from Germany, we hope we can do this one day.

"We cannot have a discussion with the IOC on a global scale and right now Global Athlete can’t either, but I hope they can do that one day.

"We are seeing how they set up and what their next moves will be."

Globally it will be fascinating to see how the push for increased athlete representation develops. While it remains fragmented, it is easy for sporting organisations to continue to operate on a system that has worked for them for so long.