Sport is always a bit like a rollercoaster. As fans, we go through breathtaking highs and crushing lows as we support our national teams and back clubs and individual athletes. We revel in the victories and cope as best we can with the defeats and disappointments, some of which remain etched in our memories for decades. As a Tottenham fan I am barely over our capitulation to Coventry City in the 1987 FA Cup Final.
But in the past few years the rollercoaster that sport has been on has felt even more heady than usual. We have had huge highs, like London hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 and TeamGB’s and ParalympicsGB’s sensational medal hauls on home soil. These were then surpassed quite remarkably four years later in Rio – the first time a host nation has done better at a subsequent away Games.
There have been incredible football stories too. Few people at the start of the 2015-16 season would have tipped Leicester City to become Premier League champions, but they did: a remarkable achievement. Wales making the semi-finals of the European Championships last summer brought a nation together in what was an inspirational run. And Manchester City’s Women’s Team winning a domestic double last year was exceptional.
The continued growth in women’s sport in Britain has been hugely positive too. England’s football, rugby and cricket teams are all enjoying success, the structure around women’s sport is becoming more professional, and participation at the grassroots is on the rise – helped by campaigns like Sport England’s “This Girl Can”.
But there have been notable lows in sport as well. Recently, it has felt that sport has lurched from one high-profile crisis to the next, with much of the drama playing out off the pitch, court, track and road. The corruption scandal at FIFA was extraordinary and led to criminal investigations that are still ongoing, and the long-overdue end of Sepp Blatter’s reign.
There were match-fixing allegations in tennis which have led to tighter controls being brought in to better protect the sport. Athletics has been rocked by the Russian doping scandal, after Professor McLaren’s explosive independent report for WADA lit the blue touch paper and helped uncover widespread doping in Russia. This saw their athletes banned from international athletics competitions and then the Paralympic Games.
It hasn’t been plain sailing on home shores either. Questions are being asked, and an independent investigation has been launched into the culture within British Cycling, amid allegations of sexism and bullying. The full findings of the investigation are yet to come out, as I write this, but it is expected to make tough reading for many involved in the sport.
But do all these controversies and governance issues really matter to sports fans? The ones who tune in, cheer on the athletes as medals are won and embrace major tournaments like football World Cups with such enthusiasm? Do they really care about the stuff that happens off the pitch and away from the cut and thrust of competition? I think the answer is an emphatic yes.
“The fact is that sports stars are role models, whether some like that tag or not”
Sport is something that millions of people around the globe put their faith and hope in. It provides an escape from the daily grind of life and has a unique power to bring people together from different cultures, countries, and continents. Therefore upholding the integrity of sport and helping to ensure it is governed properly is of the utmost importance.
Young people look up to and idolise professional sports stars, marvelling at their incredible talents and achievements. The fact is that sports stars are role models, whether some like that tag or not. Their hard work, sacrifices and dedication are qualities that children can learn from, teaching them important life lessons.
So when there are questions raised about sport’s integrity, allegations about corruption and concern about the way sport is governed – it matters.
If sports fans lose faith in what they see in front of them, if they don’t trust those that run sport or believe it to be corrupt, then the consequences will be hugely damaging. Broadcasters and all-important sponsors could choose to walk away. Fans could turn their back on sport, leading to attendances and television viewing figures declining sharply. Young people who look up to sports stars will look elsewhere for their idols and inspiration.
In today’s fast-moving digital world sport is competing with a whole host of other interests for young people’s attention, and it is vital that sport has its house in order and sends a message: that corruption and cheating have no place here.
In the UK, we are doing our bit to ensure that happens. We want our sports governing bodies to lead the way on good governance – helping to show what best practice looks like – which can then be replicated in other countries overseas.
This is why last autumn we launched the Code for Sports Governance in the UK, which will ensure that our sports governing bodies are world-leading in this area. This is about sports bodies being more transparent and accountable, with improved gender representation on boards to help shape sport at all levels in the UK – from the grassroots to the elite.
We have been clear with governing bodies that if they do not become compliant with the code then they will have public funding withheld, and we will channel that investment through other organisations that do have the highest governance standards. Community sport projects will not suffer as a result, but it will be organisations other than governing bodies that deliver the work on the ground to encourage participation.
This push on governance came off the back of a major consultation of sport administrators led by UK Sport, the body which supports Britain’s elite athletes across Olympic and Paralympic sport, and Sport England which invests in community sport to encourage mass participation. It found that 98% of 200 organisations questioned, felt that sports bodies should be more transparent, and 78% agreed that there needed to be increased diversity in bodies that receive public funding.
I am very pleased with the positive, proactive response we have had from the governing bodies. The majority have drawn up strong plans to improve their governance and become compliant with the code by the end of October this year.
As well as this work on home soil we are also working with stakeholders internationally to help improve sports governance across the world. At the global Anti-Corruption Summit held in London last May the International Sports Integrity Partnership was formed – an initiative that is bringing together governments, international sports bodies, and relevant global organisations to strengthen efforts to tackle corruption in sport.
The Partnership has buy-in from the International Olympic Committee, the federations that represent both Summer and Winter Olympic sports, the Commonwealth Games Federation, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
It is vital that collaboration happens on an international scale so that we can best tackle the threat of corruption in sport, and the UK government will continue to play a leading role in this area. It is a shining example of our commitment to an outward-looking global Britain which works with allies and partners to shape decisions across the world.
Of course, sport will always have that rollercoaster feeling to it, with dreams fulfilled some days and disappointed on others. It is the sense of the unknown that gives sport its unmistakable drama. However, I hope in the future the drama is solely provided by the athletes and teams in competition, rather than controversies that bring sport’s integrity into question.
Sports fans the world over deserve nothing less and all of us that work in this fantastic sector have a duty to ensure that fair play, integrity, and all of the positivity that comes through sport prevails.