In sport, distrust?

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In sport, distrust?

“Not the perfect script”
The boos rang around the London Stadium as twice-banned Justin Gatlin spoilt Usain Bolt’s farewell party, and the question of (dis)trust in sport once again became a focus of attention.  The cries of condemnation came loud and clear from the public, other athletes, and the media, with questions along the lines of “How can we trust what we see happening on the track?”.  Even Lord Coe, President of the IAAF, said that he was not “eulogistic” about the result, which did not constitute the “perfect script”.

Trust is important.  But more than that, it is a fundamental pillar on which sport is built.  It is difficult enough to build and maintain it, but to rebuild it once it is eroded or lost altogether is an almighty task which a sport can ill afford to get wrong.

What do the public, and the athletes, think?
Recent public and athlete surveys have revealed worrying trends.
Brewery at Freuds, the strategic communications consultancy, surveyed 2,000 members of the public, one third of whom said their trust in the sports industry had declined in the past 12 months due to recent doping and corruption scandals.  While their survey responses provided evidence that elite sport is viewed as being inspirational and a force for good, there were equally strong indications of a growing disconnect between the industry and fans, many of whom felt that making money ranked too highly above providing them with entertainment and enjoyment.  Portland Communications has also carried out a survey which resulted in 52% of people saying they would stop watching professional sports if integrity issues were seen to persist.

UK Anti-Doping (“UKAD”) commissioned its own public survey which produced equally concerning results.  Notably, 66% of the British public believe doping stories have a negative impact on their trust in the integrity of sport, and 48% of Britons think doping is widespread.

UKAD (no doubt correctly) pointed out that this public opinion does not represent the true picture, but acknowledged the importance of ensuring the public is educated about the realities of the situation.  Perception is in many ways as important as the reality.

It is not only the general public which holds these views, but athletes as well, according to a project co-funded by the European Union, called “FIX the FIXING”.   More than 600 athletes across 13 sports were surveyed: a third of them believed match-fixing had taken place in their sports; 15% said they had been approached by fixers in the past year.

These views are understandable when one considers recent events.  From state-sponsored doping in Russia, systematic doping in cycling, corruption scandals at both the IAAF and FIFA, and, closer to home, reported City of London investigations into alleged fraud and bribery at the Greyhound Board of Great Britain (on top of a trainer being jailed for cheating at gambling) and a racehorse trainer manages to send out the incorrect horse for a race, which it wins – these incidents naturally erode the public’s (and participants’) trust in sporting events, and in the people and organisations responsible for ensuring the integrity of sport.

Why does this matter?
Lack of trust leads to suspicion.  Suspicion about individual athletes and governing bodies, suspicion about surprising results and remarkable achievements.  The unpredictability of sport has been one of its greatest attractions, but is it now too often a catalyst for allegations, and consequently a turn-off for spectators and investors?

The stunning performance of the Pakistan cricket team to beat India in the final of the ICC Champions Trophy should have been celebrated as a great sporting underdog story.  Instead, it prompted the Indian Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment to allege that the match must have been fixed by Indian players given how easily they had beaten Pakistan earlier in the tournament (although this politically motivated claim was widely ridiculed rather than echoed).

In Chinese football, a fourth official was allegedly physically attacked after a controversial draw (following the award and conversion of a late penalty) that triggered claims of match-fixing from angry fans.  Chris Froome has become accustomed to frequent abuse in France and to carrying the tag of Britain’s “least popular sportsman” (surely not solely down to his birthplace being Kenya and his residence in Monaco), despite being one of its most successful, ever, and there being no evidence of him ever having broken the rules.  Meanwhile the discussions and suspicion around Team Sky’s, particularly Sir Bradley Wiggin’s, use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions refuse to go away.

There seems to be an increasing tendency to conclude that talent and hard work is not a good enough explanation for some outstanding sporting achievements, and to instead suspect (often on an unfounded basis) more sinister forces at work (although this is not universal, for every Chris Froome there is a Roger Federer, for example).  Such cynicism, perhaps on occasion understandable, taints everything to do with a sport.  While part of the attraction of sport has always been its talking points and controversies, the conspiracy theories are gaining greater traction, and causing more damage.  While “hardcore punters” may say they have harboured (and been prepared to accept) a degree of distrust in certain levels of “volume” horseracing, dog racing, and tennis for years, any increased distrust could have an impact on their activity, and a potentially much greater effect on emerging mass market betting.  The same theory would apply to anybody watching or investing in sport.

What is being done to rebuild the trust?
In very simple terms, an obvious way for a sport to build trust is to take positive action to protect its integrity and make sure people are aware of what has been done.  In our view, there is more of the former going on than people realise and, therefore, not enough of the latter.

Some sports (largely those affected by recent problems) have taken steps to rebuild trust and confidence, whether through (often independent) governance or integrity reviews, or standalone initiatives.  One such initiative was UKAD’s “National Clean Sport Week”, launched in July.  This included allowing a Telegraph journalist to attend an unannounced testing visit at British Rowing’s national training centre – the first journalist ever to have witnessed UKAD’s testing procedures.  That sort of openness and transparency could be demonstrated on a wider and more frequent basis by sports bodies, despite an understandable innate reluctance to reveal their (necessarily) confidential procedures.

Indeed, last year’s Code for Sports Governance identified greater transparency as one of the primary objectives for UK sports bodies in receipt of public funding.  With a 31 October 2017 deadline for compliance looming, and Table Tennis England having initially had its funding suspended due to a failure to secure sufficient member support for new governance standards (such support has subsequently been obtained, and funding released), sports bodies are under increasing scrutiny to reform.

The IAAF responded to its own corruption scandal by introducing governance reforms which included establishing a new Athletics Integrity Unit.  It is early days for that organisation, but the signs (which include an independent structure and a website featuring various statistics about its testing programme, information about its activities, and athlete educational materials) are promising. To further build trust, one issue it might wish to lead on (no doubt with significant public and athlete support) is the question of increased sanctions for doping offences, given the renewed calls for life bans in the light of Justin Gatlin’s victory at the World Championships.  It is a fair point to make that Gatlin had served his time and was eligible to race in London (and that his offences under any model may not have been sufficiently serious to warrant a life ban).  Nevertheless, his situation and reaction to it should be the trigger for WADA to rethink its current opposition to life bans (on the basis they would be legally difficult (particularly on a multi-jurisdictional basis) and susceptible to challenge).  We note that several tennis and cricket players are currently serving life bans (some having been upheld on appeal) for match-fixing offences.  It may be time to be bold and go down that route with intentional performance-enhancing doping, and let jurisprudence settle the matter.  It would certainly increase public confidence in the inclination and ability of the authorities to ensure a clean sport.

What next?
The evidence points towards a decline in trust across sports.  Once the trust has gone, spectators and investment (in its many forms) will follow.  In our view, this presents a conundrum as to what needs to be done, and by whom.

The task of (re)building trust and confidence in a sport and its ability to protect its own integrity, might start at the top, but is a matter of collective interest (and responsibility) for all involved.  While a governing body should lead and make decisions in the best interests of the sport (given that is the role “the sport” has mandated it to carry out), it must find a way to achieve buy-in from all stakeholders to agreed and shared objectives, and to ensure stakeholders are “on the hook” in their own specific areas of responsibility.  The establishment of clear responsibilities within the sport helps create an environment of mutual trust and confidence which can be projected externally.

An approach to “integrity assurance” should be established in a risk-based and proportionate way; the last thing that should be expected is that every single possible eventuality or mistake has a process to prevent it happening or it is legislated against – that would be hugely inefficient and cripplingly expensive.  Sports governing bodies and rights holders need to have the confidence to assess their risk and take proportionate steps to mitigate it.  They know their sport best, with a genuine stake in the sport and its best interests.  However, they need to show they can be trusted, and should not shy away from reaching out for help.

They should not be afraid to borrow or learn from others who have already put structures and systems in place elsewhere, or dealt with integrity issues in other sports, nor should they feel threatened by subjecting themselves to external reviews.  They should be open-minded to the most cost-effective solutions, which might be a pooling of talent and resources across organisations within a sport, or even across sports.  The greater investigative and sanctioning powers of regulators and law enforcement also need to be readily available to be deployed when appropriate, and there must be a good case for increased public funding (which we accept is being squeezed from all directions) if sports bodies can prove their houses are in order in line with the Code for Sports Governance, or for contributions from stakeholders benefiting commercially from sport, such as betting operators.

Taking positive and proactive steps to protect a sport’s integrity (and advertising the fact) is not necessarily an admission that a sport has a problem.  It is a statement of intent, a declaration that the integrity of the sport is important and the necessary steps will be taken to protect it robustly.  There aren’t many better ways of starting to build trust.  If only it were as simple as it sounds.