James M. Dorsey

Tackling the elephant in the room: the incestuous and inseparable relationship between sports and politics

September 13, 2017

Sports administrators, politicians and government officials uphold the fiction that sports and politics have nothing to do with each other even when just a cursory glance at the facts tells a very different story.

The fundaments of the most recent crisis that erupted with the awarding in 2010 by world soccer body FIFA of World Cup hosting rights to Russia and Qatar is all about politics, the incestuous relationship between administrators and governments, and the fact that political corruption enables financial and performance corruption of sports.

A recently developed index that measures the degree of autonomy from politics enjoyed by national Olympic committees constitutes a first, albeit limited, stab at creating a yardstick to assess the independence of sports governance.

The index, produced by researchers, Mads A. Wickstrom and Stine Alvad, under the auspices of Play the Game, a Danish NGO that advocates greater transparency and democracy in sports, provides insight into the extent of the problem and its geographical distribution.

It also serves as a guide for broader questions underlying Wickstrom and Alvad’s research that cannot be answered statistically. Those questions include whether sports can be independent of politics and if not, whether political interference can be guaranteed in political systems that lack transparency and accountability and do not allow for autonomous civil society organizations and uncontrolled public space.

In effect, the index raises the question whether the Olympic Charter in its current form can guarantee the autonomy of sports without revisions that put flesh on its skeleton by defining more precisely its terms. Articles 27 and 28 of the charter ban national committees from activities that would contradict the charter without defining what that includes and insist on the election of committee members without determining what constitutes a free and fair election.

A clean bill of health?

On the bright side, the index that ranks 205 national Olympic committees, concludes that only 15 percent or 30 panels are directly controlled by governments. With other words, the index gives the vast majority a clean bill of health.

Leaving it at that, would, however, amount to applying the charter of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selectively, and denying the fact that violators represent autocratic, authoritarian or hybrid forms of government that rank low in terms of political freedoms and in most cases, in terms of lack of corruption. If further evidence of the incestuous relationship of sports and politics was required, the index’s implicit correlation of autonomy of sports and political system provides incontrovertible proof.

The co-relationship between lack of sports autonomy and restricted freedoms is nowhere more obvious than in Asia which, according to the index, has the highest number of politically controlled committees, 16 of the region’s 43. Of the 16, seven are autocratically governed Central, Southeast Asian and East Asian nations. Add to that Southeast Asian nations, including Myanmar and Malaysia, two nations with varying degrees of democracy that are wracked by corruption.

Equally important is the fact that more than a third of the politically controlled committees identified by the index are Middle Eastern, four Gulf autocracies and two hybrids, Iran and Jordan.

That number would rise to ten or more than half of all affected Asian committees if Syria and Yemen had been included, two nations wracked by wars, as well as Lebanon where sports is controlled by competing political groups, including the likes of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, and the Saudi-supported Future Movement, and Palestine where sports is dominated by a former security chief and leader of the governing political group who has presidential ambitions.

Problems of political control go beyond national committees

The exemptions reflect the criteria applied by the Play the Game researchers who defined political control as the president and/or secretary general of a committee being either a senior government official or a member of a ruling family in a monarchy. In doing so, they excluded committee functionaries that hold office in governing parties or Central Asian republics like Kazakhstan that are de facto dominated by a family.

The Middle East’s contribution to the high degree of political control in Asia goes beyond numbers and would have become even more evident if the index had been expanded to include international and regional sports associations. A review, for example, of the executive committee of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), not only demonstrates that the problem of political control goes beyond national committees, but also raises questions about the possible cultural affinity between autocracy and international sports governance and its integrity given members’ potential involvement in abuse of athletes’ basic rights.

Of the 23 members of the AFC’s committee, three, including the group’s president, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa are government officials in line with the index’s criteria, eight others hail from countries in which sports is politically controlled, and one is tainted by corruption charges.

Sheikh Salman has never been required to properly account for allegations that he played a role in a crackdown in 2011 in his native Bahrain on athletes and sports executives, some of whom have asserted that they were tortured for participating in peaceful anti-government protests.

A gentleman’s agreement is not enough

IOC president Thomas Bach appeared to set the stage for a more open discussion when in 2014 he broke ranks with the world of sports governance by calling on associations and administrators to acknowledge their ties to politics as well as big business while at the same time ensuring that that they maintain their neutrality.

“In the past, some have said that sport has nothing to do with politics, or they have said that sport has nothing to do with money or business. And this is just an attitude which is wrong and which we cannot afford anymore. We are living in the middle of society and that means that we have to partner up with the politicians who run this world,” Mr. Bach said. He said politicians and business leaders needed to respect the autonomy of sporting bodies or risk diminishing their positive influence.

Mr. Bach’s statement was a first step. However, to ensure the respect he demanded, more will be needed than a gentleman’s agreement or even a tightening of the criteria embedded in the Olympic Charter. Acknowledgment of the inextricable relationship between sports and politics opens the door to development of a set of governing principles and a system of independent oversight. Play the Game’s Autonomy Index could be one pillar of that system.

About the contributor

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and several books.

James M. Dorsey