The countdown is under way for the Paris Olympics and, for sports which struggle to command media attention, it will be a rare opportunity to make headlines.
But greater media attention also brings greater scrutiny and governing bodies can find themselves in the firing line. Stories which might normally go under the radar suddenly become big issues. Whilst the focus is primarily on performance, the media spotlight can be unforgiving and governance also attracts increasing attention.
We have seen numerous examples of this in recent years; athlete welfare and safeguarding issues have triggered negative headlines across several sports, crossing over from the sports pages into mainstream news. Other contentious issues facing governing bodies include questions of gender and identity; diversity and equity; financial sustainability; and athlete advocacy.
The stakes are high. The British Ju Jitsu Association, founded in 1956, is currently facing the threat of derecognition by Sport England because its constitution is deemed not fit for purpose; its equality, diversity and inclusion and anti-doping policies do not meet the recognition requirements; and it has failed to provide adequate development plans. De-recognition will mean the association no longer receives public funding.
Athlete welfare and safeguarding:
British Gymnastics is embroiled in a high-profile scandal after the 2022 Whyte Review detailed ‘systemic’ physical and emotional abuse in the sport with 1,326 concerns raised with the welfare team since 2020. British Gymnastics has doubled its spending on welfare to around £1m a year, but its chair, Mike Darcey, has called for the government to establish an independent safeguarding body across all sports to “show we care as much about athlete welfare as we do about medal table success”. He admitted that governing bodies have “neither the expertise nor resources” to handle abuse allegations, and individuals were waiting too long for justice”.
But gymnastics is not alone in having to confront these issues. Earlier this year, Sport England published an independent review into Swim England’s handling of allegations of bullying and abuse which made nine recommendations for reform. Swim England published a new safeguarding, welfare and culture plan in response to the allegations.
This is not exclusively a UK problem. The entire Hockey Canada Board resigned after it was revealed that the organisation had reached an undisclosed settlement with a woman who alleged she was assaulted by eight players, including members of the country’s 2018 world junior team. In October 2022, an independent investigation into player abuse in US women’s soccer concluded that abuse and misconduct was systemic and basic safeguarding was inadequate.
Athlete welfare is the biggest single reputational risk facing governing bodies. The rules around safeguarding have changed immeasurably in recent years, but not all of them have kept up – either by updating processes or challenging a culture of indifference.
In February 2023, UK Athletics was criticised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission after announcing plans for a new transgender policy. UKA said it wanted to ban transgender women from female events on fairness grounds – but it would be too “risky” to do so unless the government changed the law. The EHCR accused UKA of misinterpreting the law despite having been told that a ban was justified.
According to the EHCR, Section 195 of the 2010 Equality Act allows sports to restrict competition in the female category on safety and fairness grounds. British Triathlon, the Rugby Football Union and Rugby Football League did not face legal challenges for taking action.
The issue is emotive. In May 2023, British Cycling were criticised by Emily Bridges, the country’s highest-profile transgender cyclist, after banning transgender women from the female category of its competitions following a nine-month review and consultation.
Bridges accused British Cycling of engaging in culture wars, but the truth is no governing body can stay aloof from the debate, however much some may have preferred to do so. Even in angling the issue has recently come to the fore, with the sport’s global body banning transgender anglers from women’s competitions.
Whilst some administrators may have wanted to avoided taking difficult decisions, inaction can itself be a decision – and reputationally that carries as much risk as formulating a policy that will not be universally welcomed.
Nearly half of all national governing bodies were given the lowest three available grades in the first index to track race representation across UK sport. The Race Representation Index tracked hiring practices at board, senior management, senior coaching and playing or athletic level, mirroring a similar approach in college and professional sport in the US. Whilst three bodies, England Handball, Basketball England and GB Taekwondo, received an overall A mark, by contrast British Canoeing and Snowsport England were given an F.
The most high-profile issues have been in cricket where an independent investigation found that institutional racism, sexism and class-based discrimination are deep-rooted and widespread. More than 4,000 people provided evidence to the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket, which led to an apology from ECB chair Richard Thompson and the promise of a “re-set”. Meanwhile, Cricket Scotland was found to have failed on 29 out of 31 tests to measure instances of racism in the game.
Governing bodies cannot ignore their responsibility to promoting EDI within their sport any more than could a public company in the corporate world, which is accountable to shareholders and whose actions are scrutinised by the media.
The Powered by Purpose programme encourages athletes to use their platform to promote and inspire positive change. According to UK Sport research, two in three people believe that athletes have a role to play in championing causes they believe in and raising awareness of social issues.
There is no better platform than the Olympics, but this could lead to awkward instances where athletes go against their governing body’s policies. For example, British Cycling was heavily criticised for a partnership with Shell UK. What should they do if a high-profile cyclist speaks out?
UK Athletics has been grappling with well-publicised financial problems, which could affect athletes’ preparations for Paris. One of the sport’s biggest names, sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, criticised UKA for dismissing technical director Stephen Maguire in October 2023. This could become a repeated theme in the lead-up to the Olympics.
But reputationally it is not a good look for a governing body to suppress dissent, however unwelcome it might be.
For any organisation, in sport and beyond, the key to effective reputation management is to anticipate and plan for issues, not to deal with them when they are already attracting media attention. Creating a comprehensive risk radar to identify likely issues and then formulating a coherent plan to deal with them is the best way to mitigate risk.
The Olympics should be the high point of the four-year cycle for any sport – but a lack of planning could generate the wrong headlines.