What Politics Can Learn From Sport

Governments could learn from the Olympics says Dick Pound.
By: /
July 30, 2012
Former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

The traditional refrain, at least in the western democracies, used to be that sport and politics do not mix. That may have reflected early reality, when organized sport first emerged as an entirely private activity, well outside the limited roles governments played in the day-to-day regulation of society. The increase of state intervention in daily life has, however, rendered such a view obsolete. For a time, it might have been more accurate to say that sport and politics mixed – but not well – as the social and legal orders expanded, beginning in the 20th  century, to incorporate more and more aspects of activities within the social spectrum.  During this period, governments faced determined resistance from sports authorities, who resented even the slightest encroachments by governments, and who claimed complete autonomy in their own spheres of sports activity.  The current state of development is the acknowledgment that sport occurs within the greater social context, and that such autonomy is generally limited to sport-related decisions, subject to overriding considerations of public order.


That said, sport has not been without its share of social and political successes, some of which could (and perhaps should) be instructive for governments and intergovernmental organizations. Sport has, for example, demonstrated considerable leadership in opposition to discrimination.  The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) expulsion of South Africa from the Olympic Movement in 1970 (after excluding it from participation in the Olympic Games of 1964 and 1968) proved to be far more effective than governmental and economic sanctions in bringing about the dismantlement of South Africa’s odious system of apartheid. The government of South Africa may have been able to explain away governmental actions, but had no answer for its people as to why the world refused to play with South Africans. When the IOC reintegrated South Africa in the Olympic Movement prior to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, governments immediately followed suit and dropped their own sanctions.

Other discriminations of a political, racial, gender-related, and religious nature have been successfully discouraged, alleviated, or sanctioned within the Olympic Movement, setting useful precedents for states and international government organizations. The IOC’s commitments to environmental sustainability in the organization of sport, in general, and the Olympic Games, in particular, have demonstrated the benefits of effective leadership in important matters of social concern.

Only the IOC has been able to find a solution to the so-called “two Chinas” conundrum, which has long baffled professional politicians, diplomats, and the United Nations. The Olympic Movement allows each to participate with full recognition, on a basis satisfactory to each.  It was the IOC, not governmental experts, that negotiated a solution to the potentially explosive situation surrounding the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, adeptly handling difficult negotiations with the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) in a manner that allowed the DPRK’s allies to participate in the Games, thereby avoiding a fourth successive boycott of the Games (following boycotts in Montreal (1976), Moscow (1980), and Los Angeles (1984), all of which had resulted from political authorities’ failure to find appropriate solutions).

In 1999, the IOC was instrumental in generating an international consensus that led to the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to lead and co-ordinate the fight against doping in sport. Doping, apart from the evident risks to the health of athletes, is a serious form of corruption in sport that, unchecked, destroys the integrity of sporting contests, the credibility of their outcomes, and the ethical values of the athletes involved.

There were several remarkable features inherent in WADA. First, it was a hybrid organization, with a membership and governance structure composed, in equal parts, of representatives of the Olympic Movement (the IOC, international sports federations, national Olympic committees, and Olympic athletes) and public authorities (member states). Financing is shared equally between the public authorities (on a continental basis, in accordance with a formula agreed upon by them) and the Olympic Movement.  Voting rights are, similarly, equally shared.

WADA negotiated with all stakeholders to adopt a single World Anti-Doping Code (Code), to be applicable to all sports, all athletes, and all countries.  All of the Olympic parties incorporated the Code into their internal rules prior to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Member states adopted an International Convention on Doping in Sport under the aegis of UNESCO in November 2005, in the most decisive move by that organization in many years. The Convention was conceived, negotiated, and adopted unanimously by the Conference of Parties, all within a remarkable period of 18 months.  It has now been ratified by more than 160 countries and applies to well more than 90 per cent of the world’s population. WADA has, by any standard of international measurement, been an extraordinary example of sport’s ability to organize, co-ordinate, and participate in complex international activities of importance to both sport and society at large.

One additional feature of WADA is that sport and member states have agreed that exclusive jurisdiction for the resolution of international doping disputes rests with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an arbitral tribunal originally established by the IOC in 1984 and later expanded to a much more arm’s length governance structure to ensure a sufficient degree of independence from the IOC. This exclusive jurisdiction in doping matters has several advantages, including speedy proceedings, relatively cheap costs, the fact that decisions are rendered by knowledgeable arbitrators, and the international ability to enforce arbitral awards, pursuant to the New York Convention. State courts, the only other feasible alternative, lack experience in doping matters, and their awards are enforceable only in their own jurisdictions, a feature that does not conveniently lend itself to an international sport system.

Sport does not have all the answers to political difficulties, but it has learned quickly over the past few decades how to find a place within the social and political order in which its particular strengths and networks may enable it to play important complementary roles in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Also in the series


The London Security Spectacle

More than a billion pounds will be spent on security for the Games. Will it make anybody safer?

A Leap Forward For Saudi Arabia

For the first time, Saudi women will compete at the Olympics. It's a triumph for Saudis and non-Saudis.

The Culture of Cheating

Does cheating in sports have anything to do with the culture of the athlete?