THE BLOG

In Defence Of Institutions: The Danger Of Losing Faith In Sporting Organisations

15/08/2017 14:58

It has become one of the most cited characteristics of our society; we have a fundamental distrust of institutions. Donald Trump exploited it, as did the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. These populist movements were constructed explicitly in opposition to the institutions of government, judiciary and the media. 'The man' has rarely been less popular.

The same distrust of the big, the official and the organised is just as prevalent in sport. FIFA has had its reputation collapse around it, in the wake of a series of scandals under Sepp Blatter. Doping in athletics and match fixing in cricket are just two examples of sports where scandals have eroded trust in those tasked with governing them. Often these are crimes committed by individuals, but that doesn't stop them damaging the reputations of these sporting bodies.

These lines of attack continue to be popular, and it's not that hard to see why. Stories of the little guy standing up to the big bad enemy are engrained in our culture. Whether it's David against Goliath, Leicester City winning the Premier League or Luke against the Empire, it is way more fun to back the plucky underdog against the big, the traditional and the entrenched. This storyline is so pervasive in our culture that it has become second nature, and along with some high profile scandals it has meant our default position is not to trust when we see an institution, to assume they are in the wrong. But this comes with danger.

Of course, where there is corruption, or mis-management, or both, we must push to reform organisations that have become broken. But problems can arise when we assume fault when there is none. Take the issue that arose during the recent World Athletics Championships around the health of Botswanan athlete Isaac Makwala. The IAAF, put in a tough position when a selection of athletes fell ill from a virus, quarantined Makwala for 48 hours, forcing him to miss one of his events. Hugely unfortunate for the athlete, particularly if Makwala wasn't actually suffering from the illness, just some of its symptoms. But the thing with regulations is, they have to be solid, consistent and mandatory, or they lose all effectiveness. If the IAAF had allowed Makwala to compete, on grounds of compassion, the risk to other athletes would have been far greater. But watching the BBC broadcast, it was a story of one athlete, bravely fighting for his right to compete against an organisation trying to stop him. When a medical expert from the IAAF was sent onto the broadcast, she was given a brutal cross-examination by the BBC's panel of former athletes, all naturally inclined to support the athlete and undermine the governing body. It was such a dressing down that the IAAF reportedly considered formal action. It's not necessarily the fault of the individual personalities, they were doing what everyone on TV does, giving the audience what it wants. The public wants the governing body put on trial whether they deserve it or not, so that's what they were given.

Post-championships, the pressure has moved onto British Athletics. After what's been called a disappointing performance, questions are being asked about how the body has spent its £27m budget. Of course any public body should have its spending questioned, but should the simplistic metric of a medal table be how we are judging an entire organisation? There were many British athletes who finished in the top 6 in the world, denied only by brilliant performances by their competitors - which by the way, is allowed the happen. But with our natural distrust of institutions, we assume British Athletics have been wasteful, throwing away our money for a trifling 6 medals. Those bodies who spend significant public funds to deliver sport do have a duty to spend it wisely, but it doesn't mean we should assume they aren't. If public pressure leads to a mass removal of coaches/administrators, simply because a few athletes lost out by just a handful of seconds, are we really in a better place?

So why does this matter? Of course it is right to question institutions and demand they be better, but we cannot get to a stage like we have in politics where vast swathes of the population simply assume some institutions are always wrong, whatever the facts. If big sporting bodies like this become so universally unpopular that anything they do, however positive, is met with distain, they may never be able to turn the tide of public opinion again. That would undoubtedly lead to these organisations struggling to pull together the support, the sponsorship and the permissions to deliver world class sport on the scale we are used to. The huge global events that are so irresistible can't exist without international bodies that can bring together all parties to bring out the best in the game. If we lose faith, we risk losing these bodies, and the value they bring to our sport. So for the sake of sport's future, we must remain sceptical, remain inquisitive, but not lose our hope, not give in to cynicism. Sometimes having faith is more important than having doubt.

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