LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – OCTOBER 28: Thomas Bach, President of International Olympic Committee speaks during the IF Forum 2019 at the Hotel Royal Savoy on October 28, 2019 in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Photo by Robert Hradil/Getty Images)

IFMA was excited to take part at this year’s Athlete Centred Sports themed IF Forum this year represented by its Athlete Commission Chair and Executive Committee member, Janice Lyn. Here’s her wrap up of the engaging and informative 3-days forum…

The 2019 IF Forum took place in the Olympic Capital of Lausanne under the theme of ‘Athlete Centered Sport’. The IF forum came in a timely manner to highlight and further the discussions of the recent milestones such as the launch of the Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities and the IOC International Athlete’s Forum where a record number of athletes from around the world came together to talk about the most prevalent issues of today’s athletes.

Day 1 began with a heartfelt welcome from IOC President, Dr. Thomas Bach. As an Olympic Champion and also one of the founding members of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, Dr. Bach, encouraged the Athletes to be confident in themselves and to make use of their rights and voice and to embrace their responsibilities as leaders for the future.

In his final remarks, the President reminded the IFs and Athletes of the original mission of The Games conceived by Pierre De Coubertin, “Unity in Peaceful Competition” and the importance of placing this at the forefront. Dr. Bach advised of the current challenges that threaten the founding model of the Olympic Games such as operating The Games with a business model rather than a values based model, the ongoing need for transparency and the threat of the politization of sport urging the role of sport to create unity, opposed to division.

The opening address was made by SportAccord and GAISF President, Dr. Raffaele Chiulli. His address highlighted the importance of integrity and its role in making sport more than entertainment and fitness. Dr. Chiulli commented on the changing landscape of sport and the need to evolve with the times and work harmoniously to be one voice in sport towards the sole interests of the athletes.

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – OCTOBER 28: Raffaele Chiulli, President, SportAccord and GAISF gives a speech during the IF Forum 2019 at the Hotel Royal Savoy on October 28, 2019 in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Photo by Robert Hradil/Getty Images)

Olympian, Jeanette Kwakye, delivered a powerful athlete keynote address highlighting the common goals that athletes and IFs share: setting a global standard, striving for excellence, constantly redefining the sporting culture and landscape and how fostering this relationship is fundamentally important to the success of sports. Jeanette offered her views on how the IFs play a significant part in making sure the athletes have a positive experience during their careers and how engaging the athletes, “capturing the magic and igniting the spark” is going to ensure not only that a star will be born, but that the athletes are going to give back and plant more seeds for future generations.

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – OCTOBER 28: Jeanette Kwakye, Olympian, Broadcaster, Host, BBC, Sky Sports, Channel 5 news speaks during the IF Forum 2019 at the Hotel Royal Savoy on October 28, 2019 in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Photo by Robert Hradil/Getty Images)

Finally, Day 1 ended with Virgine Faivre, the President of 2020 Winter Youth Olympics (to be held in Lausanne), delivering another heartfelt youth keynote speech. She enlightened the audience on the goals of the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics being: integration, inspiration and providing the tools for the youth to become true ambassadors of sport so that they can fulfill Pierre De Coubertin’s dream of making the world a better place through sport.

Day 2 of the forum opened with a “fireside chat” with Danka Bartekova, IOC Athletes’ Commission Vice Chair, on the Athletes’ Perspective. Danka highlighted the importance of having good athlete representatives on Athlete Commissions to truly represent the “athlete voice”. She described the ways in which the IOC Athletes’ Commission gathers information such as in person communication, athletes’ forums, conference calls with athlete representatives, virtual communication, email, etc.  Danka highlighted the importance of the Athlete Forums (held every 2 years) and how they have been pivotal in creating roadmaps for the Athlete Commission and setting priorities for change. For example, in 2015 it was all about Safe Guarding and in 2016 it was how to better engage athletes at the continental level. Danka addressed the issue of people questioning Athletes’ Commissions and the qualification of athletes to make decisions at the executive level. She stated that athletes are most definitely qualified because they know the story firsthand from the field of play and that they have a very large reach to their fellow teammates and peers. She did admit that her biggest frustration was from athletes that don’t do their job. It is vital that the athletes are educated, aware and active.

Day 2 was filled with informative panels comprised of key experts and Olympians taking part in in depth discussions with topics ranging from athlete financial matters to the safeguarding of athletes.

In the first panel, Athlete Financial Well-being was discussed. Key points that were brought up in this panel were:

1)      There is a need for financial guidance as Javier Deshayes, NF and Sports Manager for FIBA stated that 60% of NBA players are broke after 5 years.

2)      Building trust in sponsors is needed to guarantee that the funds end up in the right ecosystems since athletes are being more pro-active and are utilizing crowd-funding and charity to help finance their athletic career.

3)      Athletes these days bear more responsibility as many have to brand and market themselves, look for sponsors in addition to training and competing.

4)      The importance career planning so that the athlete has a plan B and a plan for future retirement and afterlife after sport. Many athletes are oftentimes so focused and driven on their goal in sport that they only have a Plan A and are placed in a devastating state if for some reason their athletic career is cut short.

5)      The importance of IFs educating entourage on how to help athletes self-manage, self-promote and to give them the tools they can use in their careers after sport rather than through short-term monetary aid.

6)      How sponsors can create other career opportunities in the future.

The second panel discussed the protection of clean athletes. Key points put forward in this panel included:

1)      For smaller non-Olympic federations to protect clean sport, alliances must be made and different resources should be used. Grassroots development is key and it’s not just about catching the offenders but also the dealers of the network.

2)      Education of “Speak Up” and whistle-blower methods of reporting should be encouraged and using personal experiences from athlete ambassadors is an effective method for education

3)      To protect clean sport one can use intelligence to go after the ones they suspect

4)      Sport is generally clean and there is generally few that would try to break the code of honor and would rather fail than win in dishonesty

5)      The new WADA Code provides better assistance and offers stronger protection to clean athletes

 The third panel discussed athlete welfare and mental health. Key points drawn from this discussion included:

1)      Medical support and the coach is key in the role of risk management.

2)      Long term health issues related to top level athletes and analyses of over 10, 000 Olympians with respect to risk factors and outcomes are currently being studied

3)      Athlete career education, dual career planning and career transition programs give athletes a chance to build a job path with their sports career, to not put all their eggs in one basket, to have access to career counselling, networking opportunities and to ultimately have a game plan post athletic career.

4)      Offering athletes the opportunity to be educated as some top level athletes don’t have a chance to participate in an education career

5)      There is a prevalence of mental health issues in elite athletes and athletes are twice as likely to suffer from depression during the transition phase from active to retired athlete. There is also a prevalence of depression after an athlete succeeds and wins gold. Furthermore, mental health is also affected when athletes cannot compete due to injury or athletes are affected because of political issues.

6)      Up until now, during an athletes’ life, they are pushed for performance and mental well-being was not on the agenda because there is a stigma against mental health symptoms. 40 years ago the attention on mental health addressed only improvement of performance.

7)      More education is needed especially for the entourage who play a huge role in relieving stress, creating the right environment in training and the awareness of the loss of life balance as many athletes live very singularly.

8)      Coaches are also at risk of depression and mental health issues since they care for so many athletes and the pressure is high to perform.

The fourth panel discussed strengthening the athletes’ voice. The Panel discussed:

1)      How Forums like the last International Athletes’ Forum gave athletes an opportunity to submit their recommendations and open lines of communication which are extremely important for strengthening the athletes’ voice (Kaveh Mehrabi, Head of Athlete Relations and Engagement IOC)

2)      Athletes’ Commission should be gender balanced, should have disciplines represented, culturally balanced, should be able to contribute to the various commissions so that the athletes’ voice runs through the core of the federation (Sarah Lewis, Secretary General FIS)

3)      IFs need to think ahead for trends and this is done through constant dialogue. IFs need to ensure athletes are sharing their voice in trusted spaces with a willingness to listen. Studies show that out of 6-10 positive experiences, it takes only one negative experience to destroy the relationship. Therefore, there is a need for consistent positive experiences.

The last panel discussed safeguarding athletes. Key points put forward included:

1)      The Olympic Code highlights the athletes’ rights to be safe from harassment and abuse, however, statistics state that: 23% of high performance athletes have had sex with individuals with higher authority, 2-8% of children experience abuse, 65-85% of athletes experience psychological abuse and athletes in general are 4x more likely to deal with and face abuse (Susan Greinig)

2)      Federations or sports which have a “Family” feel to them can be a problem in that an individual has to be bold enough to come forward with their problem (Alwin Oberkersch, IFA)

3)      It is difficult to come up with a safeguarding tool kit because every case is different and the capacity to take on a case will also be different including the disciplinary action

4)      Athletes need to know there is a route to report, the avenue is trustworthy and if it involves a child there is an obligation to report to the authorities (Dr. Julie Gabriel, President FISav)

5)      There is a rise in criminal organizations seeking to infiltrate sport because they seek areas of wealth, fame and spotlight. It is important not to close one’s own eyes to protect the integrity of the sport according to Stiig Waever, CEO of Waever Group.

6)      To help protect athletes who use the whistle blower, entourage must be jointly responsible to look out for the athlete and there needs to be a culture developed with respect to letting athletes know that if they don’t feel comfortable, they should say something. There is often a deep regret that athletes should have spoken up when they should have.

7)      Need to ask the right questions to extract information confidentially

The final day of the forum  wrapped up the forum with two insightful workshops. The first encompassing Athlete Centered Governance lead by Jenny Wiedeke, Communications Director of FIS. The workshop covered 5 areas of athlete centered governance which encompassed:

1)      Every IF must have an athletes’ commission to have good governance. An exception may be in the case where it is a new federation and there may be more priorities especially if the IF is just setting up the athletes’ commission for the sake of ticking the box. The athletes’ commission should be empowered.

2)      Athlete’s Commission should be voted to their post but may be a hybrid of voted and appointed to ensure continuity, various cultures/genders are represented and that they have the necessary skillset to fulfill the positions. The Athletes’ Commission needs to be made up of athletes that are most representative of the sport.

3)      AC members should follow the same regulations as the IF Council and Executive Board including the term limits, gender balance and conflict of interest. Sometimes this is not possible and sometimes the AC holds an even higher standard. For example, most Executive Boards are not gender balanced.

4)      Athlete representation is more useful and meaningful where the voice is stronger whether it be on a committee or EB council.

5)      Some believe that Athlete representation is largely a token role, however, athletes can be largely active and foot draggers are largely where the problems lie.

The second workshop with Gabriella Mueller Mendoza, was an fun and enlightening workshop providing IFs with Tools and Strategies for Athlete Engagement. Gabriela highlighted that the key to engagement is to give to earn the athletes’ trust and engagement. IFs must be friends to the athletes, letting them know that they have their back in support. IF’s must mentor the athletes and help them become leaders by letting them walk under their wing but also must respect when it is ready for them to fly. IFs need to respect their autonomy but at the same time give support. Finally, IFs have to be leaders that energize athletes with inspiration, knowledge and updated skills.