Sport, it is often said, should be free to govern itself. That is a principle endorsed by no less an institution than the UN, which in October passed a resolution supporting the independence of sport.
Thomas Bach, the former Olympic fencer who now runs the movement’s organising body, goes so far as to call athletic competition “the only area of human existence which has achieved universal law”, arguing that it is incumbent on politicians to respect the autonomy of sport.
Yet for all these lofty words, experience tells us that leaving sport to govern itself is a bad idea.
Politics and sport are inextricably mixed. They always have been. We have learnt over and over that corrupt practices in sport can easily spill over into more combustible areas of international politics and business. It is time for governments to take a much bigger role in governing sport.
Kowtowing to the autonomy of sport means stopping governments from doing their jobs. In 2011 Fifa, the organisation that oversees world football, suspended the Football Federation of Belize, citing “severe government interference” in the national football body. Yet it was surely the prerogative of the courts, rather than Fifa, to decide whether the government had overstepped its bounds.
It is both sensible and practical for governments to stay out of disputes involving what happens on the pitch or in the arena. That is what happened during the World Cup in Brazil this year, when Luis Suárez took a bite out of the shoulder of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini. The Argentine football star’s ensuing suspension was delivered by the sporting bodies, which also handled the appeal and enforced the ban. In another setting, the assault would probably have been a matter for the police. The autonomy of sport is best thought of in terms of what happens in competition.
The deeply unsatisfying process employed by Fifa to select World Cup venues for 2018 and 2022 illustrates what can happen when sports and politics mix at the highest levels, especially when accountability is lax. The alleged misdeeds go far beyond a few shady individuals taking bribes for votes, and in some instances may involve state-sponsored corruption. Allegations of impropriety surround the bids submitted by Russia, Qatar and the UK, among others.
If governments do not step in to help govern sport we may well find that global sporting events continue to gravitate to poorly governed places where corruption can flourish autonomously. Norway recently dropped out of the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, citing unreasonable costs. That leaves only Kazakhstan and China in the running. On the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Norway ranks fifth. China ranks 100th, and Kazakhstan 126th.
Mr Bach is right to say that sport has developed one of the best examples of universal law. That can be found in the institutions which oversee doping, the use of prohibited performance-enhancing substances in international competitions.
In a conspicuous exception to the notion of the autonomy of sport, the relevant agency operates under the provisions of a UN treaty ratified by more than 170 governments. It is overseen by representatives drawn, in equal number, from the Olympic movement and public authorities.
Observers of Fifa are right to complain about its failure to meet basic standards of governance and its ossified, insular leadership. However, little will change until we bring the games we love inside the ambit of the governance mechanisms we use in just about every other area of modern society.
That will not make problems in sport go away. But it will give us a better way to deal with them.