15 Dec 21

A fundamental role of an International Federation is to serve as custodian of their sport. Traditionally, this sense of responsibility has led to a reluctance to embrace independence and bring “outsiders” into their governance and operational functions. Integrity, principally encompassing doping, match-fixing and any other form of corruption, is one such function where experience tells us operational independence is critical. Fortunately, many IFs now recognise the issue and are addressing it. Occasionally, this has been a response to a serious incident that has inflicted significant damage on a particular sport and its reputation.

AIBA and FINA AIBA has just announced the formation of its new Boxing Integrity Unit in response to a devastating independent report by Professor Richard McLaren. FINA, on the other hand, have taken pre-emptive action with a view to protecting their sport. They both join athletics, tennis, badminton, hockey, equestrian and biathlon in setting up or restructuring their integrity units in the last few years. In AIBA’s case Professor McLaren’s report highlighted several bouts at the 2016 Olympics, including gold medal bouts, where results were manipulated by judges under authorisation (and even influence) of senior executives at AIBA. The damning report left AIBA with the belated realisation that things needed to change dramatically. Their status and heritage as one of the IOC’s “core” Olympic sports was at stake. FINA’s announcement also came on the back of a report, but in their case it was an internal governance review that reported vulnerabilities in the way FINA structured its response to integrity issues. The conclusion was that changes needed to be made to ensure a fair and robust system was in place to protect the integrity of international swimming. Independence Unsurprisingly, the key feature is independence. However, not just independence in practice but the public perception of independence. The “traditional model” used by IFs should still ensure independence, but it may not always be perceived that way – especially when an issue is raised in public. That public perception can only be achieved through clear operational independence from the relevant governing body – which is as independent as can realistically be hoped for (given that financial independence is unworkable without funding coming from outside the sport). This means that an integrity unit should be a standalone legal entity, run by its own executive team who are free to make their own decisions with support from a board that is weighted in favour of individuals from outside the sport. In caseload terms, this means having the power to investigate as it sees fit and freedom to charge individuals subject to the relevant rules where they have a case to answer. Take the new International Tennis Integrity Agency which started assuming integrity functions in tennis from January 2021. Its Supervisory Board has five independent individuals and four representing the four principal international governing bodies of tennis. If, for example, a decision needed to be taken on whether to charge a high-profile player, the sporting representatives can always be outvoted. Their structure ensures that the key benefits of independence, as noted by David Howman (the former WADA, and current Athletics Integrity Unit, chair) are entrenched in tennis. He suggested the four key elements are:
  • the removal of the potential for interference in decision making by the relevant IF;
  • individuals with the right expertise are undertaking roles suited to that expertise;
  • conflicts of interest are reduced; and
  • trust of stakeholders is regained (or maintained)
  Practicalities For an IF to permit the establishment and operation of an independent integrity unit is a big step in practice. It is natural that IFs see their role as protecting their sport and that they trust those with an understanding and love for the sport. They rightly see their role as custodian to include safeguarding the future integrity of their sport – for the benefit of all stakeholders, from the competitors right through to the fans. However, to adequately achieve those ends requires an acceptance that a degree of control must be ceded to independent and suitably qualified bodies and people. The independents can be balanced, as tennis has shown, with IF representatives who understand their sport. The unit’s fundamental aim of protecting the integrity of the sport could not be more closely aligned to the interests of the IF. Fortunately, many sports are recognising this and embracing best practice and, if they are to avoid the humiliation of the AIBA directors, others will surely follow. Authors: Ross Brown (Legal Director), Flora Peel (Paralegal), Jamie Singer (Partner).
Ross Brown