Featured on Sports Pro on 24 June 2020

Sport has the ability to be a great leveller for society. As a pastime to watch or play, it binds us, heals divisions and creates a bond where previously there may have been separation. Sport also has the unique ability to generate the right values of fairness and honesty, and of hard work and collaboration. On so many levels, sport is beneficial and brings us happiness in what is a dog-eat-dog, often cruel, world.

As it has evolved over the past 40 years into a major US$145 billion dollar global business, sport has done a great job of utilising its best assets – whether that be highlighting its peace-building value or demonstrating its ability to be a force for social change, a force for good. Of that, there can be little doubt and there are plenty of examples past and present of the huge purpose of sport for the betterment of society.

Where sport has been less effective, where our industry has dropped the ball – until recently that is – is in the crucial area of embracing the athlete voice. Yes, there are examples of athlete power that go way back – think Tommy Smith and John Carlos with ‘the Black Power Salute’ at the Mexico 1968 Olympic Games – and yes, the athlete voice is significantly advanced within the cultural fabric of sport in the USA compared to the rest of the world. But until recently, the phrase ‘athlete voice’ was hardly in the lexicon of the bulk of major sports organisations and federations worldwide.

At best, including athletes in the decision-making structures of sports federations was, until recently, seen as a tokenistic gesture that garnered good PR for the organisation. Yet, such steps were merely optics, a smokescreen for controversial, unpopular decisions to be made by federations; such tactics were seen as ‘cover’ in order to say that the athlete voice had been considered.

In any democracy, the voice of all audience sectors is expected to be welcomed; so why is it in sport of all industries that the word ‘democracy’ has meant so little? The war of attrition on that front arguably began (if one can give it a start date) back in 2015 following the explosive revelations about systematic doping in Russian athletics. In response, the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) athlete chair Beckie Scott, and swathes of others worldwide, called for the anti-doping authorities to expand the investigations into wider Russian sport. Ever since that time, galvanised by Scott amongst others, athletes have believed that the dam might well burst and that their voice might finally be heard.

We have seen it elsewhere, too. Again, in anti-doping, back in 2018 and 2019, with athlete committees across the world lobbying Wada not to make a U-turn on its ‘Russia roadmap’ by allowing the nation’s athletes back into competitive sport until they had met all the conditions for reinstatement.

We have seen it through the advent of Global Athlete, the movement championed by Olympic gold medallist Callum Skinner, which, let us not forget, until 16 months ago did not even exist. Since its foundation Global Athlete has fast achieved a significant media profile through its bold, honest, unrelenting and athlete-led approach to calling for the sporting authorities to listen to the athlete community’s wishes. In April, Global Athlete led a coordinated international effort to encourage the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Games, an effort which ultimately forced a decision.

We have also seen it with respected international conferences dedicated to the athlete voice such as the 2019 Play the Game Conference, which was titled ‘Athlete Power on the Rise’.

We have seen it with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the athlete community calling for the IOC to abolish its controversial Rule 50, which many athletes believe infringes on their human rights by stripping them of the opportunity to protest on the Olympic stage.

And we are seeing it more and more individually, away from Olympic Sport, too. Take Colin Kaepernick, who used his platform in the National Football League (NFL) to raise awareness of social injustice across the USA and paid for it with his job. Perhaps the most relevant (and certainly the most recent) example is Marcus Rashford. The Manchester United soccer star, in one of the best-case examples of positive lobbying, forced the British government to make a policy U-turn by allowing around 1.4 million children in England to claim free school meal vouchers in the summer holidays.

It is clear that athletes are starting to eke away at the outdated decision-making structures that govern them and that the tide – the huge gulf that has existed between sports governing bodies and their athletes – has been turning. The rate of change is now coming faster than at any time we have seen in history. Athletes may not be the panacea to the governance of sport but they are worthy contributors – soldiers on the battlefield – who know how the rules directly affect them just as sports administrators know how to make them.

So, to the point, why are we seeing so much of this now?

The growth of the athlete voice in recent years, I believe, has been strengthened by the continual creep towards athletes becoming the authors of their own stories. By adopting the plethora of communications channels and tools available to them, athletes no longer need to rely on others (such as the media) to tell their story for them.

The ease with which athletes can set up a Twitter or Instagram account, their own personal website – which becomes their own window to the world – or their own YouTube channel means they can tell their story on their own terms. This proliferation of media channels, coupled with the athlete’s success on the pitch, provides them with an open goal to deliver their message to the masses.

Furthermore, communications channels allow athletes to galvanise, to mobilise en masse – such as we have seen through the advent of Global Athlete and other athlete movements – much more efficiently than at any time previously. Instead of relying on media sympathetic to their cause to tell their story, they can work with their fans to help their own message ‘go viral’.

This communications power that the modern-day athlete has at their fingertips, combined with a growing fatigue at the glacial pace of change amongst governing bodies, means change is in the air – and is coming far faster than many had ever imagined.