OpEd: Questioning the Autonomy of Sport

(ATR) Aaron Bauer reflects on a nagging question as he prepares to leave the Olympic beat behind.

(ATR) After spending the last seven years covering the IOC and the Olympic Movement day in and day out, I am finally leaving the beat.

I think I’ve written that sentence and an ensuing column many, many times in my head before finally writing it today, my last day at Around the Rings.

Tomorrow is going to be both freeing and terrifying, leaving the only journalism job I’ve ever had for a new, unrelated challenge.

I’ve looked back on the last seven years really proud of the work I’ve done, and the stories I’ve chased that many others were not covering, but also with regret of the many I’ve picked up and never got a chance to finish. I’m also eternally grateful for the opportunity to have lived in Brazil for over a year reporting on the ground about the impacts the Olympic Games have on a community.

The beat these days may be smaller, but the reporters writing about the Olympics are dogged and most important, many are incredibly skeptical of the people in charge.

Speaking of being skeptical, I leave this beat with many questions about the Olympics and its impact, but one sticks out to me these days more than most: why is sport autonomous?

The answer to the question is simple, it is considered autonomous because it benefits the powers that be. Sport bodies can make their own rules, which are pitched as in the interest of sport, outside any framework related to state actors.

For the last 120 or so years this system has largely worked. The Olympics are one of the world’s biggest commonalities, and if you trust the IOC-commissioned "independent research," the Games one of the most recognized and well-liked events.

Sports used to be viewed by many as an escape from the world around us. It would create a level playing field and the ultimate meritocracy, where athletic skill was the only currency for success. No matter where you came from, if you were an elite athlete, the Olympics would provide a global platform for your skills and encourage dialogue between countries.

If we look at the modern Olympics, then we realize that the event touches almost every aspect of a society. From a pure sport perspective, where you are born, how you are raised, and what resources you have access to matters just as much for your performance as the work put in honing your skills.

The IOC works very hard to bridge that gap, so that sport could indeed become universal, and it is one of the admirable goals of the organization. Initiatives like creating a Refugee Olympic Team, and solidarity grants redistributed to countries with less sporting infrastructure are fantastic and needed.

Still, that does not take away the amount of resources needed to stage a modern Olympics, and how those resources get prioritized to stage a short sporting event instead of other political plans. Choosing to even pursue the Olympics is not done in an autonomous vacuum by a country’s National Olympic Committee. Political guarantees are needed well in advance, as are development plans. Plus, there are many examples of governments using the Olympics to showcase political legitimacy or broadcast political soft power.

Preserving autonomy will only preserve this status quo, and has the effect of enabling rights violations to go on with impunity.

Removing the autonomy of sport would not solve these issues, as they exist in our imperfect world. What it could do is to remove the idea that sport is not intertwined with these issues, and compel actors with the backing of the state to address them instead of an unaccountable non-government organization.

Athletes, to their credit, now have begun to realize they do not exist solely in this autonomous realm. The last few years has led to the growth of the athlete’s voice to put pressure on sporting administrators to be part of the decision making process. No longer content with how things are running, athletes want a say and are fighting back against abuse. They also are willing to use their platforms to speak out against injustice around the world, a potent opportunity on a global stage.

The IOC loves to say "athletes are at the heart of the Olympic Movement," and they are right. Athletes have now woken up to demand better and to question the status quo.

Sport at its best can be one of the most uniting and compelling activities worldwide. Spreading sport around the world in the name of universality and to promote health is a noble mission, with great intentions.

The time right now has come to listen and, in my opinion, more importantly join in asking questions.

Written by Aaron Bauer

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