The Athlete Uprising unfolding beneath our eyes is real. Very real.

30 April 2019

In the December “wind down period” that the world of business experiences each year, a plethora of articles predicting the next year’s industry trends typically emerges. What is less predictable is what those emerging themes will be, and the sport industry itself is certainly not immune from this seasonal crystal ball gazing – or, more accurately, informed foresight – into what the next 12 months will bring.

I remember at the close of last year reading one such opinion article in the sport industry press that foresaw an athlete uprising calling for changes to how sport is run. While this may not have been a journalistic act of genius – athletes had already been mobilizing throughout the year for a raft of different sports governance issues, ranging from athlete representation to advertising rights to anti-doping reform – it was certainly prescient in how it predicted that the arrival of a formalized athlete uprising system or “movement” was only a matter of time. 2019 was only six weeks old when this prediction became a reality, with the launch of athlete start-up movement, Global Athlete.

As someone leading the communications charge for Global Athlete, my main observation is just how well the movement has been received. The consensus from athletes, journalists, sports business stakeholders and fans has been that this is a movement whose time has come; not a minute too early, in fact. Yes, there has been a healthy dose of cynicism as with all new ventures – the result, I believe, of the hitherto poor state of sports governance in the Olympic world – but the overwhelming reaction has been a positive one. In essence: “Good on you”.

The scepticism, rather resistance, from some quarters has almost entirely emanated from the corridors of sports governance in Lausanne, where an old school “done way” has until now been all-pervasive, and where the words ‘status quo’ are more often seen as a badge of honour than not.

But elsewhere in the sporting world, far from the shores of Lake Geneva, things are changing fast – and in a good way. From the athletes’ perspective (across the world of Olympic and Paralympic sport), sportsmen and sportswomen have a spring in their step. They are seeing the opportunities harnessed by safety in numbers, where more and more of their fellow athletes are unleashing the shackles and voicing their views on sports governance issues that range from the liberalisation of athlete commercial opportunities at the Olympics to anti-doping reform, and much, much else in between.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Partnership for Clean Competition Conference in London earlier this month. The PCC Conference – or #PCC2019 as it swiftly became known amongst the Twitteratti – was nimble enough and, frankly, cognizant enough of the emerging athlete voice, to put athletes at the heart and soul of their biennial flagship event. This is all the more impressive for an organisation that is, at its heart, a scientific research body.

The PCC was savvy enough to view scientific research not in isolation, but through the prism of a holistic anti-doping landscape, where science and investigations, athletes and administrators, and compliance and education are all seen as equals within the ongoing quest for clean sport. Not only did the idea to include athletes in almost every session at the three-day Conference send a strong subliminal message, the proof of athletes’ growing role at the heart of the anti-doping debate was there for all to see during the Promoting the Athlete Voice session, which was widely viewed as the highlight of PCC 2019.

The session featured some of the leading lights of the athlete uprising, notably the irrepressible, passionate powerhouse Ali Jawad, the recently retired 2016 Olympic Champion Cyclist and rising star of all things athlete power, Callum Skinner, the WADA Athlete Chair and long-time trailblazer for athletes’ anti-doping rights, Beckie Scott, and Director General of Global Athlete, Rob Koehler.

For anyone with a passing interest in how sports governance is changing – and how its future might look under greater athlete engagement – the hour-long session chaired by respected ITV Presenter Steve Scott was essentially a microcosm of all the broader argument being made by reformist-minded athletes of late. If you wanted just a glimpse of what this ‘athlete movement’ was all about, you needed not look any further. This was it.

Towards the end of the session, there was a poignant intervention that might just best encapsulate the stage we have reached in the battle for a level playing field that, many hope and believe, will allow athletes to, sooner rather than later, sit alongside administrators to make the real changes required for how sport is run. That intervention came from two-time Olympic Champion and icon of American track and field, Edwin Moses no less.

Moses, who reminded the 250-strong audience that he had been at the forefront of championing athlete rights for 40 years, spoke to the four-person panel –  in what could be best described as a “from me to you” moment – stating his appreciation that finally (finally) after decades of pushing for athlete rights, the world of sport might just now be witnessing its watershed moment with athletes speaking up en masse. Like never before.

And with that cherished prospect aired by such an esteemed athlete figure, it’s hard not to be buoyed by what we are witnessing across international sport right now. The athlete uprising unfolding beneath our eyes is real, very real. And sports governing bodies have been left in no doubt by the athlete community that they ignore this uprising at their peril.