‘It is All About the Athlete’

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Enefiok Udo-Obong

By Enefiok Udo Obong

The Olympic Games is centred around the athletes. Everyone agrees with the slogan “It is all about the athletes”. For this reason a lot of things are done to make the athletes feel special during the Games. Athletes are priority in the Games Village. They are provided with top of the class medical facilities, very decent accommodation, 24-hour food services with an endless supply of menus from all over the world. The village is littered with vending machine that dispense cold drinks anytime an athlete needs one. Also in the village, the athletes can enjoy casual dining of barbeques and fast foods, night clubs, cinemas, leisure swimming and Games Park. And all these services are totally free for the athletes. It is a kind of paradise that seems to emphasis that the Games are for the athletes.

However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not stop there. The body encourages the athletes to be part of the organization. There is a commission for the athletes. A strong commission at that and some members of the athletes are part of the IOC executive committee (the highest ruling body of the organization). The idea is simple. The athletes are the focus of all Games and so an integral part, so it is a no brainer that they should be part of the decision making.

The Athletes’ Commission’s mission is to represent athletes within the Olympic movement and support them to succeed in their sporting and non-sporting careers. It also has a key responsibility to empower athlete participation in the Olympic Movement decision making. It has a goal to ensure that all athletes’ representatives are empowered through a network of effective athletes commissions. This is vital in ensuring that athletes remain at the heart of the Olympic movement.

Last week, I was honoured to be a resource person at the Nigeria Olympic Committee Athletes Forum held in Abuja. Simultaneously, I also had to be present at the Association of National Olympic Committees in Africa (ANOCA) Athletes Commission forum which was held virtually on the same day. It was mandatory for me to attend that forum too because I am a member of the ANOCA Athletes Commission. It was equally important to be present at the Nigerian one too as the former chairman of the Nigerian Olympic Committee Athletes Commission. There was a lot to educate the Nigerian athletes on the issues of the athletes’ commission and so its current chairman, former NBA player Olumide Oyedeji had graciously invited me to speak.

What was immediately obvious was how the Nigerian athletes are totally oblivious of the roles and functions of the athlete commission. It was also clear that the Nigerian administrators are weary of having athletes’ commissions in individual federations as is required in the Olympic Movement. The reasons is not far-fetched. The Nigerian athletes see themselves so much as victims of a corrupt system and victims of corrupt administrators. While the forum on the African scene was concerned about athletes strength in the decision making process of the Olympic movement, right to free speech, clean sports, doping and how to ensure that clean athletes are protected, the Nigerian athletes in their forum were angry about lack of welfare, non-transparency or discrepancies of allowances and non-payment of grants and promises.

The Nigerian administrators on their part also view the athletes with skeptism. Afraid that athletes would use the commission to unionize and start demanding stakes or holding them to ransom. Both groups of people are wrong in their perception and mind set.

Having an athletes’ commission in a federation and sporting organization is a clear demonstration of commitment to good governance benefiting both the athletes and the organization. For the athletes, it ensures that all decisions across the organization consider the impact on the athletes. It provides a platform and resource for discussion and research related to new ideas. An athletes’ commission provides advice and a perspective straight from the field of play. It ensures that athletes are consulted and get early feedback on potential decision that would affect them eg. Rule change and finally it also strengthens links with athletes through peer to peer communication.

The athletes’ commission also benefits the organization by updating athletes about the organizations activities from an informed position. It enables athletes become ambassadors to support the organization in its mission to develop and promote the sports. It creates a point of contact for their athlete community to support both the athletes and the organization in communication.

So it is important that everyone realizes that a commission is not set out to antagonize the administrators. It is also key to note that it is not a pressure group or a labour union. The athletes’ commission is and should be part of the process of governance. The athletes have to be part of the process. The key issue is part of the decision making process with a powerful vote in the process. When this happens, trust builds between the organization and the athlete community. Then issues of discrepancies in allowances, discrimination etc will not surface because every decision made that affects athletes would have been taken with the athletes involved.

It therefore is time for us to join the rest of the world to understand that the integrity of our sport is more important than the irrelevant personal bickering of allowances and personal grudges.

We need to change our mindset and talk of how we can develop the sport we love so much and building trust is key in making the athletes and administrators work together….and establishing an athlete commission is essential to that.