Democracy in theory but maybe not in practice
International sports federations (IFs) have numerous commonalities. One of the most notable is the prominence of the "Congress" or "General Assembly" as the highest authority within the governance of the sport, with each National Federation member having an equal representative vote, irrespective of population, geographic size, economic development, or sporting success.
In essence, international sport is a democracy that enables all voices to be heard and ensures that the rights of all are respected. Or is it? And should it be?
Although democratic principles are generally regarded as the most equitable form of governance, politicians and authors have sometimes had differing viewpoints through the years.
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence said, "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine." E. B. White, a twentieth century writer, said, "Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time."
Others have been far more complimentary of the virtues of democracy. Winston Churchill observed, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all others that have been tried." And, Mahatma Ghandi said, "My notion of democracy is that under it, the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest."
While it is difficult to criticise IFs for instituting democratic principles in their governance, there are some inherent drawbacks and relevant operating realities.
Although some International Federations are comprised of more than 200 National Federations, some members have few athletes, coaches, or organised competitions. In order to demonstrate sport's universality, some IFs have actively encouraged new national sports organisations, sometimes even supplying formatted constitutions and other organic documents to enable quicker acceptance. Under the "one country, one vote" principle, National Federations with few athletes have equal representative rights to those that may have millions engaged in the sport.
Others argue that the modern environment for international sport demands leadership by those who best understand the complexities of sports management, including marketing, broadcast, and information technology. Clearly, these highly complex areas are not well understood within all member federations, and in the competitive marketplace of international sport today, success is contingent upon enlightened leadership and professional management.
Additionally, it has been observed that political alliances - usually, geographic, but sometimes based upon other characteristics - have diminished representative democracy because Continental Associations often demand loyalty from members that transcends individual differences and stifles debate on important issues. In each continent, there are often wide disparities within member federations, and political alliances limit individual expression of viewpoints and perspectives.
For democracy to be effective in any context there is reliance upon an informed and active electorate that is capable of making decisions based upon sound judgment. In reality, for some well financed IFs, in which there are substantial subsidies or even complete reimbursement of travel and accommodation expenses for congress representatives, these individuals may not be the most knowledgeable or capable leaders, or worse yet, may be influenced by IF-supplied travel funding to be more inclined to obediently follow the wishes of the IF's leadership.
Observers at some IF general assemblies often witness what is tantamount to a scripted meeting in which there is minimal debate amongst the member federation representatives. In some cases, decisions have already been reached in continental meetings or prior executive committee meetings, thus limiting the potential for dissent or criticism that is vital to democratic activity. Too often, general assemblies that might be conducted infrequently - usually every two or four years - end without anyone asking a question or presenting a different viewpoint. For some, this is democracy in theory, but not in practice.
Protecting the ideals of sport
However, while recognising some of the pitfalls and practical realities of democratic institutions within IF governance, others suggest that without the "one country, one vote" principle, most sports would be left with a small, powerful group of decision-makers, primarily drawn from the most developed countries or those nations that have achieved the highest level of competitive success within their sport. If Olympic sports appropriately value universality and development, it is crucial that their leaders understand the issues that most directly impact the weakest national federations and commit to providing available resources for the growth of the sport worldwide.
It is interesting to note that the leaders of many federations emanate from countries where sport plays a small role. While some may argue that this shows the deficiencies of the system, the reverse is of course that the strength of international sport lies in its diversity. Clearly, the leaders of IFs who come from less developed sporting nations certainly recognise the difficulties associated with the growth of their sport.
It is sometimes suggested that the nations with the highest level of performance in the sport should have more input into its future direction and more accountability for the various outcomes. In essence, those who have the most to gain wish to have the most control. While this may appear to be less than democratic, there are certainly advantages to this approach; however, these can effectively be minimised by a strong professional management team, including senior executives who fully understand the modern sports marketplace.
Encouraging continual progress
Therefore, while democratic principles are firmly entrenched in IF governance, there are areas of potential improvement - some might say reform - that can help to provide balance and perspective to the current environment.
International Federations that truly embrace democracy do the following:
- Encourage dialogue, including dissenting viewpoints
- Ensure that National Federation representatives are well-prepared and knowledgeable about the procedures to be utilised and the topics to be presented
- Enable secret balloting in elections, including electronic voting procedures if feasible
- Recognise that sports marketing and sports development may accentuate the differences between "haves" and "have nots," but embrace both simultaneously
- Motivate full participation, but do not make financial support a method to generate blind loyalty
It is likely that, within certain International Federations, the push for increased authority for the most developed nations will increase, not diminish. While a high level of competence is necessary to compete in the modern global sports environment, it is hoped that this will not lessen the need to hear the voices of the less developed nations. Likewise, sports leaders representing less economically advantaged countries must not abdicate their role to expedience by not being prepared to participate fully and capably in IF governance.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw observed, "Democracy is a device that ensures that we shall be governed no better than we deserve." Hopefully, for the future of Olympic sport, its leaders understand the importance of effective, progressive governance, characterised by active participation.