Sports integrity: Is it time to end the war and bring everyone inside the tent?

Amid the furore over the Russian doping scandal, Leigh Thompson, Policy Manager at the Alliance, blogs about the risks to the integrity of sport and how they could be managed better in future.

As the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics and the recent weeks following the Brexit vote have certainly borne this out. The same could, though, be said of sport. With the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games imminent, sport has been hurtling at warp-speed through a doping crisis with the IOC deciding to ban some, but not all, Russian athletes from the Olympic Games as a result of state-orchestrated doping revealed in the McLaren Report. The IPC is set to make its own decision on Russian involvement in the Paralympic Games shortly.

What to make of all this? Clearly, there have been major systemic failures in a number of organisations that need urgent attention and I don’t intend to cover these in this blog. Rather, I’d like to look at some broader issues which, while not headline-grabbers, do – it seems to me at least – have a subtle but significant bearing on the way in which sports integrity risks are addressed currently and how they might be better managed in future.

Mind your language

The first of these is the very language we use to frame the debate around sport and integrity. Put simply, if I had a pound for every time I’ve read or heard the phrases ‘the war on doping’ and ‘the fight against match-fixing’ I’d be on a yacht somewhere sipping a large cocktail.

The use of this formulation is, in many respects, understandable. It provides a useful shorthand for those commenting on integrity in sport (and before you ask, yes I have used it myself) and utilises concepts that are easy for readers, listeners and viewers to understand.  However, I’m increasingly of the view that expressing the issues in the language of ‘wars’, ‘fights’ or similar – and its proliferation through social media and other channels – has a number of long-term, pervasive and negative side-effects.

Firstly, such language is reductive and does not reflect the complex reality of addressing integrity risks. In particular, implicit in the ‘war’ construction – often, it has to be said, served up with a healthy dose of moral opprobrium – is the idea that those supportive of the cause are self-evidently on the side of the right, while those that oppose it or criticise the way it is conducted are simply in the wrong. This simplistic language is unhelpful; constant repetition over time means it polarises the debate, obscuring the many grey areas that genuinely do exist and restricting the scope for considering new solutions.

Importantly these effects are not abstract; language matters as much as the substance. If the recent story charting British academic Paul Dimeo’s involvement with USA Cycling is any guide, the rigid confines of the current debate make it difficult for governing bodies and others in positions of authority to be open to new ideas and, potentially, to changing direction where it appears that the current approach may not be working. This cannot be in the long-term interests of sport and its participants.

Secondly, the language used can create unrealistic expectations, notably that the ‘war’ or ‘fight’ can be won and that threats to integrity can, if the screw is simply turned a bit tighter, be eliminated completely. While it may sound heretical, the brutal reality is that sport will always face these problems, certainly as long as money, competition and human frailty are present. To take the ‘war’ analogy to its conclusion, the key is to recognise that there is no peace that can be secured; rather integrity risks need to be managed constantly and proactively over time. In this context, replacing the current rhetoric with more pragmatic language would help reset expectations. And resetting expectations should not be confused with weakness; accepting there exists an integrity risk is not the same as condoning the conduct that creates that risk.

One of the most serious consequences of creating unrealistic expectations in this way is the fallout experienced by participants when – as they inevitably do – things go wrong. Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in the current doping controversy surrounding Russia and the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Athletes that abided by the rules – both Russian and otherwise – and trusted that their interests were being protected feel rightly let down. And make no mistake, in this particular instance the collateral damage to clean athletes and their confidence in the system has been significant.

Time to pitch the big tent

The preceding discussion leads onto a second important issue: the extent to which participants are involved in the process of managing integrity risks in sport. As with language, the role played by participants has important consequences for integrity and for the perceived legitimacy of sports governing bodies in fulfilling their integrity functions.

It is important to emphasise here that, as guardians of their sports, governing bodies retain ultimate responsibility for integrity. This responsibility cannot be abdicated but in discharging it, governing bodies should actively seek to involve sports participants in a meaningful way. The importance of this should not be underestimated: where participants are not engaged in the process they are likely to feel coerced and, as a result, less willing to buy into the objectives the governing body is seeking to achieve for the sport overall.

Where this collective buy-in is not secured, the long-term consequences for integrity can be damaging. This is because participants are often the first line of defence in terms of protecting integrity; they help to establish a positive culture and provide an important source of information and intelligence to governing bodies about wrongdoing within their sport. If participants do not feel they have a genuine stake in integrity arrangements and thus do not trust that their governing body is acting in their interests, this crucial first line of defence is undermined.

In this context, a recent example closer to home illustrates how governing bodies can better integrate key stakeholders into the integrity process. During 2015 the British Horseracing Authority undertook a wide-ranging Integrity Review. The review itself was designed to be rigorous and challenging and, as a result, the BHA is making a number of important changes to the way in which it discharges its integrity functions. A key outcome is the creation of a Stakeholder Integrity Forum made up of participants and other stakeholders from the sport. The Forum is designed to provide a means by which the BHA can consult with and achieve buy-in from those within the sport for integrity initiatives, and to identify areas for further improvement.

Overall, I’m hopeful that the debate on integrity in sport can evolve into a more nuanced and pragmatic discussion but an important first step in this process is to think carefully about the language we use. Similarly, participants have a key role to play in protecting integrity but achieving the best outcome requires meaningful engagement in order to get buy-in. In this respect, governing bodies really do need to bring participants inside the tent.