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29th October 2019

20/20 for 2020 - Some Governance Checks for Governing Bodies Before Tokyo

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Where has all the time gone? The Tokyo Olympics will soon be upon us. The main focus, of course, is on training and performance in the quest for medals. Governing Bodies would be prudent, however, to review their governance at this stage, so that this does not come back to haunt them at the crucial moment. In London 2012, for instance, there was the high-profile selection appeal by Aaron Cook in Taekwondo, which must have put additional pressure on the selected athlete, Lutalo Muhammad. To his great credit, he went on to win bronze, but what might he have achieved without this controversy in the weeks before the Games?

Just prior to Rio 2016 an enquiry was instigated into British Cycling as a result of complaints made by Jess Varnish (supported by Paralympic gold-medalist Darren Kenny) following her non-selection for the Games. Although the subsequent enquiry did not report until well after the Games, the complaints led to the Technical Director (formerly Head Coach), Shane Sutton, stepping down almost immediately (even though he disputed the claims). Once again, it is a credit to the athletes in the Cycling Team that they performed so well notwithstanding all this, and the attendant publicity.

Two aspects should be borne in mind. Firstly, there is an obvious risk that performance can be affected by any controversy and/or adverse publicity, irrespective of the merits. Secondly, newspapers and other media are hungry for Olympic-related news in the weeks prior to the Games, and any controversy of this sort is likely to be played out in the full media spotlight. In short, performance and governance are inextricably linked, and both are of the utmost importance. This is particularly so, of course, following the new Governance Code, where public funding is not only dependent on medals won, but also on compliance with the Code's governance requirements.

What should be done now? In addition to any requirements imposed by the British Olympic Association:

  • Athlete Welfare: Do not wait until a disappointed, non-selected, athlete complains just prior to the Games. As the pressure rises on athletes to raise their performance, the behaviour of coaches and others must be supervised appropriately and, where necessary, questioned. "Good luck with that", you may be thinking, but the fact that something is difficult does not absolve the Governing Body of its safeguarding responsibilities, nor should any coach in the modern era question the need for this.
  • Selection Procedures: All written selection procedures should be carefully reviewed to ensure that they remain appropriate and comply with best practice. Selectors must be provided with a copy beforehand and instructed on the correct procedures. Consideration should be given to having a non-voting procedural adviser (e.g. a solicitor or barrister experienced in this field) present at any Olympic selection meeting to ensure that the Procedure is followed to the letter. After all, Olympic selection is the most likely of all selections to be challenged, there can be a great deal of money riding on it for athletes (and their sponsors), and the cost and reputational damage of a contested selection appeal can be substantial.
  • Team Discipline: The terms of written agreements with selected athletes should be reviewed, in particular to ensure that any social media requirements, and any restrictions on contacts with the Press and others, are up to date.

There is only one thing to add, with less than a year to go and counting, "Come on Team GB…!"

For more information on any of the points mentioned above, please get in touch with the our Sports Group by clicking here.