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Was 2018 the Year of the Athletes – or Will it be 2019?

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Kara Eaker of the U.S. hugs teammate Simone Biles after winning the women's team final of the world championships at the Aspire Dome in Doha, Qatar, on Oct. 30. Photo: Vadim Ghirda, AP

By Michael Pavitt |

Given that sport is considered to be all about athletes, you might question why I am considering whether 2018 was the year of the athletes in sport.

This year, though, it feels athletes have been at the heart of many of the key stories involving sports governance. Individual and groups of athletes have appeared to have become increasingly aware of their role in shaping the sports they compete in. Whether it is out of choice or as part of a desperate attempt to force governing body’s to change, athletes have clearly become more vocal.

Athletes have been at the heart of one of the central sports stories in the United States throughout the duration of 2018.

Numerous gymnasts provided testimony over the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, which led to the final outcome of the former USA Gymnastics team doctor serving up to 175 years in prison. The fallout from the scandal has continued since, with USA Gymnastics having now had three chief executives in 18 months and have seen other appointments criticized.

While Senate and potential FBI investigations will look likely to prove important in shaping sport in the US, it is apparent that the power in gymnastics lies with its athletes. In particular, you could make the case that Aly Raisman and Simone Biles have become the real powerbrokers. 

Raisman’s allegation that the appointment of Mary Lee Tracy as elite development coordinator for the women’s programme in August was a “slap in the face” to sexual abuse victims quite clearly played a role in Tracy swiftly being asked to leave her position. 

Similarly Biles was the most high-profile athlete to draw attention to a tweet by Mary Bono criticizing Nike’s campaign involving Colin Kaepernick, who had sought to highlight what he sees as institutionalized racism against African Americans by kneeling before National Football League matches. The controversy led to Bono serving a mere four days as USA Gymnastics chief executive.

The latter case could arguably seen as the final straw for the United States Olympic Committee, who then announced they were beginning a process which could see the Federation’s status revoked. USA Gymnastics has since filed for bankruptcy.

While USOC has unveiled a series of measures to enhance protection of athletes, the organization has undoubtedly been shaped from the scandal this year. You could make the argument that the case has at least partly led to the departures of Larry Probst and Scott Blackmun as chair and chief executive respectively, in 2018, significantly more so the latter. With Susanne Lyons and Sarah Hirshland coming in as replacements, it seems notable that USOC’s top two are now both women.

With lawsuits filed against both USOC and USA Gymnastics, it remains possible that athletes will further shape both organizations in 2019.

Athletes have also been at the heart of the schism involving the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which exploded into life in the latter stages of 2018 following the reinstatement of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA). Given that the Russian doping scandal is now into its fourth year, the opinions of athletes in the debate seemed well overdue.

An emergency anti-doping summit at the White House in Washington D.C at the end of October certainly shook things up. Given that National Anti-Doping Organisations had been urging WADA to reform and reduce the role of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for a good couple of years to deaf ears, it showed the influence athletes can have that suddenly this topic was dominating the agenda for around a month.

Depending on who you spoke to the athletes were part of global athletes, a small group from critical countries or not democratically legitimate as they had not been elected. The latter view reflected the tensions between which emerged between both the IOC and WADA Athletes’ Commissions earlier this year.

The latest WADA Foundation Board meeting in Baku appeared to see a partial truce agreed, with a month of complaints disappearing as quickly as they emerged. With RUSADA appearing set to miss tomorrow’s key deadline to provide WADA with full access and data from the Moscow Laboratory, it would come as no surprise if the truce is called-off and pitchforks are raised again. 

WADA vice-president Linda Helleland has already positioned herself as speaking on behalf of athletes. Athletes who attended the White House summit dubbed her as the “athletes’ choice.”

Athletes will provide an interesting role in WADA in the coming year, with the election of the organization’s next President due to be elected.

Polish Sports Minister Witold Bańka, former Dominican Republic marathon swimmer Marcos Diaz and one other, thought to be from Asia, are expected to challenge the Norwegian.

Bańka, Poland’s Minister of Sport and a former top-level international runner as recently as 2012, has also sought to appeal to athletes by claiming his agenda would focus on “athletes rights.”

The backing of athletes could be important, politically, in shaping the race to become WADA President in the build-up to the election in November.

Recent weeks have also pitted athletes against their own governing body as a dispute between the International Swimming Federation (FINA) and the International Swimming League (ISL) has developed.

With a lawsuit having been launched by a trio of athletes against FINA for allegedly violating anti-trust laws, the governing body quickly unveiled a new series in an attempt to appease with the promise of increased prize money.

Athletes are claimed to be contemplating the establishment of a Professional Swimmers Association, which would aid efforts to withdraw from competitions in which they do not believe they are receiving a fair share of revenues. It is claimed this would also lead to consultation with other athletes over issues, including image rights and race formats.

The challenge has laid down to FINA by athletes. Swimmers have dared the governing body to ban them if they take part in ISL events, while some have even questioned the role of the organisation’s own Athletes Committee. Given it is a recent challenge, the situation looks set to provide a fascinating storyline throughout the duration of 2019.

With unions seemingly interested in offering athletes further advice on how to take their claims further, it remains possible that the dispute could inspire further action in other sports. 

As the International Boxing Association leadership appears to have its head in the sand over the threat to boxing’s Olympic place at Tokyo 2020, it would not surprise me if an athlete-led challenge emerged to shift the governing body off its sleepwalk to destruction. 

One wonders whether greater scrutiny and questions will be asked of Athletes Commissions in the coming year, with several having already been asked in 2019.

Given that there feels a long way left to run in the stories involving USA Gymnastics and USOC, the WADA and FINA, perhaps 2018 could be viewed as the starting point of athletes seizing and embracing their considerable role in sports governance.

Perhaps 2019, rather than 2018, will be the year of the athlete.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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