Reviewing relationships in sport – athletes, clubs, federations and the NOC

Sport has emerged as perhaps the fastest growing industry in the world over the past two decades. We have witnessed the excitement generated by outstanding performances by athletes in every sport and the impact that these have had on interest in the industry at all levels of society.
Professionalism has touched every sport and only the Olympic Movement has been able to retain its amateur status. The quadrennial Olympic Games is the only global sporting event that has been able to remain totally exempt from the clamour for huge cash prizes by its participants yet it remains the greatest sporting spectacle on earth.
Athletes first
Sport is at once for and about athletes.
As far back as one can remember we have always been told that sport is about the athletes. Without athletes there can be no sport, and this, despite the best intentions of coaches, technical officials and administrators. It is unfortunate, however, that we do not always get the impression that the athletes are treated in a manner consistent with the central role that they play in sport.
Structure & relationships
It is generally held that the structure of sport begins with the athletes who are encouraged into participating first at the level of the school before going on to join clubs. These clubs must affiliate to the national federation which itself must be affiliated at one and the same time to its international federation and the National Olympic Committee. This structure exists for the most part but the relationships are not always what they should be. Where the relationships are not as they ought to be there are numerous problems that arise leaving the entire sports process in disarray and development a major challenge.
Whereas in the past parents took great interest in introducing their children to sport at home, we now have the school as the first scenario in which most children have their first experience of what constitutes sport.
In St Vincent and the Grenadines the schools are not appropriately structured as sporting entities. This was not always the case.
Older Vincentians hanker back to the days when students of the leading schools competed in the major divisions in cricket and football leagues. They performed well. In those days the leadership of the educational institutions seem to have had a better understanding of the relationship between sport and academics than is currently the case. They also understood much better the importance of having their schools involved in national sport. Much of this has changed today. Principals are less likely to appreciate the importance of having their students engaged in sporting activities beyond the gates of the school. Increasingly, teachers are less willing to stay on to work with students beyond the end of the official school day without remuneration in cash.
The net result of the foregoing is that schools are no longer as important a breeding ground for athletes as was the case in the past. The movement from the school’s sporting arena to the community and/or club is therefore particularly weak.
The lack of enthusiasm for sport as an integral part of life and of society’s development strategy has impacted negatively the sport development process and weakens the overall sporting structure of the society. This is perhaps the primary reason for the absence of any genuine sport culture in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Home-based athletes
Athletes who are at home have few sound options if they wish to pursue a career in sport. There are very few clubs.
Indeed the truth is that clubs are so few and far between that some athletes in different sports do not have a concept of what constitutes a club and how this differs from the kind of loose organisation – teams – in which they are involved.
Not having had a solid sporting foundation at the school athletes find themselves more eager to ‘get a sweat’ than to engage themselves in institutional development. They practise their respective sporting disciplines as frequently as time permits and hasten to form teams once competitions are on offer. They are not interested in nor are they sufficiently conversant with institution building. They simply wish to play. In most cases attempts to establish clubs in the true sense may well receive great resistance from the athletes themselves.
National associations therefore find themselves between a rock and a hard place in more ways than one. They do not have clubs in adequate numbers to secure the kind of legitimacy that would otherwise be required.
It is perhaps important to note that this is not unique to St Vincent and the Grenadines. For all of its successes in track and field athletics Jamaica does not yet possess a club structure in the sport. The national association is comprised of individual membership.
Some national associations have recently been under pressure from their respective International Federations (IF) to establish clubs rather than teams on pain of loss of development assistance. It is the reason that Basketball has had to insist on the formation of clubs.
Other organisations like Netball and Athletics have taken on board the importance of clubs to the development of the sport and its sustainability and have been seeking to encourage the formation of clubs albeit with mixed success.
Teams and clubs affiliate to their respective national associations and involve themselves in the decision-making process but largely in the determination of who gets elected at general meetings.
Few national sports associations seek to give a voice to athletes and coaches on their executive committees. For the most part therefore athletes through teams and the few clubs that exist allow the elected executive members to determine the course of the sport between elections showing little interest in anything but competitions during the period.
Scholarships and their impact
Where the athlete is based abroad there are many problems in terms of relationships. In such circumstances the athlete does not belong to a team or club that is of his nation, if he belongs to any organisation at all. In such a situation it is the national federation that seeks to maintain a relationship. This is the case with many athletes from developing countries that are attending colleges abroad, especially in the USA. The athletes are involved in the Collegiate competition system and that becomes their first priority if they are to maintain their scholarship status.
Given that in some sports there are Indoor and Outdoor Collegiate competitions these athletes emerge from the season particularly tired and may well wish to opt out of national representation altogether for the particular year or agree to represent the home country only to be too tired to give good account. In such situations the NOC can do little to effect change.
It is only when the athlete completes College that he is available to the national federation on a more consistent basis. But there exists another problem. Many of these athletes do not return home. The better athletes are encouraged by coaches abroad to turn professional. Where this occurs the athlete may become a member of the professional club of the coach and his management team. In such cases the nature of the relationship undergoes further change.
The professional outfit is not a traditional club and does not have any formal membership of the national federation nor does it wish to be so affiliated. Given the growing strength of these professional groupings international federations have accepted them without necessarily insisting on them having a particular type of relationship with the national federation.
National federations then find themselves caught in a vicious cycle in which they do not wish to hinder the professional development of the athlete but increasingly, rather then being able to deal with a club affiliate it has to deal with a professional management team that challenges the organisation in respect of the availability of the athlete to compete for the nation. Instead the athlete’s priority now becomes participation at professional events at times at the expense of his fitness and availability to national federations.
National Olympic Committees
National Olympic Committees can only exercise some measure of control over athletes where the Olympic Games and IOC-sanctioned continental and regional Games are concerned. The availability of athletes should, properly speaking, be the responsibility of the athlete in tandem with his/her club and the respective the national federation.
The NOC does not enter into relationships directly with the athletes but instead works with and through the respective national federations. If the latter organisation has to await word from a professional outfit to ascertain his/her availability to represent the nation at any given time, it means that the representation of the very best athletes is never certain. A case in point is the uncertainty of participation of the region’s very best athletes at the inaugural Caribbean Games scheduled for Trinidad and Tobago, 12 – 19 July 2009.
The point being made here is that in today’s world of sport the athlete who excels is increasingly operating outside the ambit of the national federation in terms of a relationship of some substance and continuity.
The national federation is today less in control of the athlete who turns professional and there exists remarkable tension between the two. NOCs by extension are therefore at the mercy of the athlete and his professional organisation rather than being engaged in any sort of meaningful relationship with the national federation.
In today’s Olympic Movement in developing countries therefore NOCs and national federations have a relationship only in so far as home-based potentially good athletes who are not yet professionals are concerned.