Play The Game Goggles On Whistleblowers, Athlete Power, Safety, Doping & Governance

Players in the Play The Game headlines (clockwise from top left) - whistleblowers Vitaly and Yulia Stepanov; Award winner Nancy Hogshead-Makar; Yury Ganus and Travis Tygart, heads of Rusada and Usada; and Dick Pound, of the IOC Photo Courtesy: Play the Game

Play The Game Scrutinises Sport

The 2019 Play the Game Conference was held for the first time outside Europe this year as more than 170 speakers brought their views and expertise on sport and society to the doorstep of the troubled world of Olympic governance in the United States.

For three and a half days this past week in Colorado Springs Play The Games 11th gathering considered Whistleblowers, Safety, Doping, Governance and Rights under the conference banner “Athlete power on the rise!”

Athletes are indeed finding their voices and yet still they continue to participate when that makes them part of the problem not the solution to poor and even dangerous governance.

As swimmers from the next four teams – London Roar, LA Current, Team Iron and NY Breakers – make their debuts in the pioneering global Pro-Team start-up International swimming League in Dallas today, the issues that affect their careers, livelihoods, safety, welfare and well-being are in play in a governance world that has long shut them out of genuine engagement as major stakeholders in world sport.

Play the Game is an initiative run by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies (Idan). It aims to raise ethical standards, promote democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in world sport.

Here is a digest of the major themes tackled at the 2019 gathering:


“The fight is not over yet”

Whistleblowers Yuliya Stepanova and Vitaly Stepanov exposed the Russian state doping scandal in their work with German TV station ARD’s Sportschau anti-doping investigations team.

Almost seven years have passed since Stepanova, a former Russian international 800m runner, blew the whistle on a scandal of systematic proportions. The crisis is not over, the fall out will last for years – and the whistleblowers’ lives will never be the same as a consequence of telling a terrible truth at the heart of Olympic sport.

Yuliya Stepanova has not seen her family since she fled Russia in late 2014 together with her husband Vitaly Stepanov, a former Rusada agent whose testimony also helped raise the red flag on a deception that stretched to the top of the political heap in Russia, helped ARD expose the Russian state doping scandal and sparked the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation still in play.

Here are the Stepanovs on what its all meant for them:

They also spoke at the conference in Colorado Springs, Stepanova stating “.. I do not regret anything” in what was the opening of the Play the Game conference.

“Unfortunately, I cannot change my past. I was in the Russian doping system, I cheated and now I am talking about it. I regret not speaking up sooner, but I’m grateful to the WADA Code for giving athletes a second chance.”

She had a message for governors and guardians:

“… those that run and govern sports, please, stop making deals that allow to cover up doping use and make adults believe that they can get away with cheating, and then younger generations of athletes will stop hearing that cheating is the only way to reach the top.”

For his part, Stepanov concluded:

“In a summary of my whistleblowing experience, I would say that 2/3 is positive and 1/3 is not so positive. And I would like to thank everyone who helped us in the past five years. You made it all worthwhile. We did not expect it, but we really appreciate it”.

The story in full

“Public distrust”

As a result of the Russian state doping case, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) two years ago established an independent Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU). Chairman of AIU, David Howman, former WADA boss, urged more sports to have their own independent investigations of similar attacks against sports integrity “instead of just waiting for the police to investigate”, and not just in relation to doping but also corruption and match-fixing.

Howman told the conference: “We have had the fallout from the Russian doping reports and subsequent follow-ups. Athletics, biathlon being two mentioned sports, but many more are likely to be exposed when all the data from the Moscow laboratory is publicly released. We have had governance issues in several international federations. Boxing, biathlon, gymnastics, handball. We have had reputational damage. We have had athlete rebellion and public distrust.” He mentioned a long list of sports scandals from the latest decade and added:

“Is that what the athletes expect from their leaders? Should they not be dealt with like athletes are when subjected to alleged rule breaches? What about the public, will they ever know the truth? Best practice might now be to emulate the AIU, operate with proper scrutiny, as soon as possible, recognising legal rights but delivering to athletes and the public the right outcomes for the right reasons and thereby protecting the integrity of sport. Open eyes, don’t be blindfolded.”

More from David Howman:

Icarus Revisited

Oscar winning director Bryan Fogel addressed Play the Game 2019 with a specific question: Why don’t WADA and the IOC want to hear any more evidence from Russian super-whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov?

Fogel’s Icarus documentary has had a bitter-sweet outcome so far: Rodchenkov, who had become a close friend, is now forbidden from contacting Fogel and other former acquaintances. He remains in protective custody at an unknown location.

Describing the former Russian lab director as the “biggest whistleblower in the history of sport”, Fogel’s presentation is a damning indictment of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

According to Fogel, neither organisations have contacted Rodchenkov to offer assistance, request further information on Russia’s extensive doping programme, or to thank him for his whistleblowing actions.

The story from the conference.

The Fogel speech in full:

Whistleblowing: Minimising the risks

This theme is going to be big in swimming in coming weeks and months. “Making the authorities aware of corruption and cheating can have serious consequences for the informant,” is how Play the Game introduced speakers who shared experiences on whistleblowing and suggested ways to better protect whistleblowers and encourage them to come forward.

During the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups, Australian Football Association (FFA) official Bonita Mersiades witnessed the squandering of millions of taxpayers’ dollars in payments on professional consultants who claimed to have the ear of FIFA officials. Despite spending almost 50 million dollars on the bid, the nation received just a single vote out of a possible 22.

Mersiades raised concerns about the vast amounts of money that had been being handed over to consultants. As a result, she lost her job. “It is a risky act,” she told Play the Game 2019. “You feel alienated and alone .You feel displaced. It can take an enormous toll. “

Since she went public, Mersiades said, she has been subject to an ongoing campaign of harassment. Fake social media accounts have been set up in her name, as well as fake websites and even bitcoin accounts. “I was accused of being bitter and twisted, incompetent, unreliable, not a team player, and being in it for the money,” she said. “I was constantly harassed.”

The story in full

The Athlete Voice Gets Louder

Here is an open letter penned by athletes groups this week to Thomas Bach, president of the
International Olympic Committee

October 16, 2019

Dear President Bach,

Human rights are universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated. Ensuring respect for these rights in sport is essential for athletes as competitors, but more importantly it guarantees and recognizes us as people first and athletes second.

As we’ve seen time and time again over this last year through cases of unimaginable abuse, gender and racial discrimination, silencing of athlete voices, threats to athlete safety and wellbeing, and restrictions on athletes’ ability to make a living – the ever changing and often arbitrary rules of sport continue to supersede the rights of athletes.

Until the IOC places a priority on human rights within its policy framework and above all else, its Olympic Charter, this will continue to be the case.

President Bach, it is time to bring your words to life.

It is for that reason that we recommend the IOC to urgently adopt an ‘Eighth Fundamental Principle of Olympism’. This Principle would read:

“The Olympic Movement is committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.”

This would signal a real and meaningful commitment in respecting and protecting the human rights of athletes and all involved in sport.

In a recent press release you were quoted saying, “Our mission, to put sport at the service
of humanity, goes hand-in-hand with human rights, which is part of our DNA.” The Olympic Charter is the fundamental guide for the development, functioning, and growth of the IOC and the Olympic movement.

With ongoing issues of maltreatment, discrimination, denial of freedom expression and barriers to effective representation rampant in today’s sport landscape, the IOC continues to enable the oppression of its most valuable ambassadors. This was made clear through the IOC’s adoption of the Athletes’ Rights & Responsibilities Declaration, despite strong objections, which imposes obligations on athletes under the pretext of ‘Responsibilities’ that openly limit basic human rights. Simply put, the power of sport is in jeopardy when its athletes are being compromised.

Without a commitment to respecting all internationally recognized human rights from the IOC, athletes will continue to be vulnerable.

We are demanding meaningful change now.

It is time to adapt to today’s athlete-centered sport culture. We, the athletes are driving it and we are holding those who play in it accountable to sport’s most important stakeholder. We have mobilized quickly, and are in a position to continue to grow the athlete voice movement to all corners of the globe to ensure athletes are part of the decision processes that impact their lives.

It is time to demonstrate your commitment to us as people first. The IOC is dangerously falling behind in quite possibly the most important aspect of the Olympic movement – humanity. Sincerely,

  • AthletesCAN
  • Athletes Germany
  • United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council
  • New Zealand Athletes Federation
  • Global Athlete

Athletes’ voices: breakthrough or breakdown?

Sport would be nothing without its participants. But are the rights of athletes still taking a back seat to commercial and political interests?

That was the question posed by Rob Koehler, Director General of the athlete-led movement Global Athlete, and others at the conference.

Koehler gave his backing to Brendan Schwab, Executive Director of the World Players Association, who said that progress will be best-achieved through independent player unions. To achieve real change, he said, athletes unions must be fully independent, including financially independent, have the right to enter into collective bargaining and be able to appoint representatives without interference.

The U.S. Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), Schwab pointed out, was transformed into one of the nation’s strongest unions under the stewardship of Marvin Miller. Under his leadership, the union oversaw a huge investment in player health and safety, the abolition of the maximum wage, the introduction of collective bargaining, and allowed players a cut of TV rights money.

Play the Game 2019 also heard the views of athletes’ representatives, all of whom claimed that athletes’ power is increasing.

The story in full

Who should represent athletes?

In a panel on players’ voices, chaired by Lisa Kihl, past President of the North American Society for Sports Management, the main question was how athletes should be represented: by themselves or the governing bodies?

According to the panel, the consensus was clearly the latter despite the difficulties player unions still face in gaining acceptance.

“It’s still a struggle to be engaged at the decision-making table. We have to fight our way in. Sometimes we have to crash the tables,” said Ashley Labrie, Executive Director of Canadian body AthletesCAN.

The story in full

Athlete Safety

Swimming World reported on the honour bestowed upon Nancy Hogshead-Makar at the conference.

Hear the presentation on the topic, including Hogshead-Makar’s delivery:

Broken Trust premieres at Play the Game 2019

A crowd of former athletes, current activists and others got the privilege of viewing the premiere of Jill Yesko’s new movie Broken Trust. The film shed light on the sexual abuse of athletes in the U.S. by their trusted coaches and trainers.

The session included a question and answer session with the panel. The leader of the panel was Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who also appeared in the film, and is CEO of Champion Women, a leading activist group for women in sport. She discussed key themes such as authoritative vs. authoritarian, how sexual abuse is one symptom of a sick system, and how people often assume that prevention to abuse is common sense.

The story in full

The theme off safety comes at a time when USA Swimming is facing serious scrutiny of its handling (or mishandling, say lawyers of victims) of sexual-abuse cases, including those involving the rape and abuse of swimmers as young as 11 and 12 years of age.

It all started a long time ago, the case of Deena Deardurff known to coach peers and governors for decades during which the crisis was acknowledged, Safe Sport discussed, strong recommendations made – and yet 20 years, at least, went by without governors and guardians embracing the need to do something about it. To this day, Deardurff, first abused by her coach when she was 11, has never been asked by swimming authorities in the USA to help them to raise awareness nor even contribute to the deeper understanding required if Safe Sport programs are ever to protect athletes from abuse. Instead, Deardurff and other victims, as well as the likes of Hogshead-Makar, have been blackballed and ostracised by key figures in the sport in which they excelled.

U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar abused at least 250 young women and girls before his crimes were exposed. Why was he allowed to continue offending for so long? And what can we learn from such cases?

Hogshead-Makar noted that athlete relationships with their coaches are by its nature very intimate, which increases the potential for harm. While boundaries are often ill defined, she said, athletes are expected to talk about their bodies with their coaches and touching is still seen as normal. Until recently, she pointed out, romantic relationships between coaches and athletes were seen as more acceptable than other relationships rooted in unequal power structures.

More on that in this story

The role of team doctors in professional sport

Most professional sports teams are obliged to employ a doctor. However, according to Professor Annette Greenhow, such employment relationships make conflicts of interests inevitable. The question is: how do we manage them?

The story in full


As all in swimming who have an ear to hear know, similar doping offences don’t always result in similar sanctions.

From a realm beyond the pool, here’s a case (or two) in point.

A Tale of Two Directors

The two directors of the national anti-doping agencies in Russia and the U.S. discussed the future of anti-doping with the chairman of iNADO and two athlete and media representatives at Play the Game 2019 – but without the presence of WADA. In the turbulent world of anti-doping, there is a thin line between being a hero and a traitor. Just ask Yuriy Ganus and Travis Tygart.

The story in full

Sports governance

In this interview with Linda Helleland, Vice-President of WADA and member of Parliament in Norway, she discusses her troubling experiences with sports governance and the conflicts of interest to be found far and wide.

Also worth a listen for those who can spare the time:

International federations: Better governance and dirty tricks

Good Governance: Just another buzz phrase?

Sports administrators’ choice of words doesn’t imply they are taking effective action against crime and corruption. Good governance was a hot topic at Play the Game 2019.

Former Commonwealth swim champion Dick Pound (also former president of WADA and current member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – said that good governance is the latest “comforting, but suitably vague” term used by sport’s ruling bodies to persuade us that they are undergoing reform. Just as they claim to champion “transparency” and “diversity,” he said, sports administrators “merely require sufficient memory to use the right term.”

Having the right rules in place, Pound said, doesn’t mean that good governance is occurring. “You need to know how they are being applied,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a box checking exercise.”

Indeed not: swimming’s giving body has an Ethics Panel that can only hear cases referred to it by the leadership even when the leadership is the body that ought to be facing ethics scrutiny; and what value rules that discourage, at best, and even forbid whistleblowing? More oil that in the year ahead.

Conflicts of interest

“There is a conflict of interest when these organisations tackle issues like doping,” Helleland said. “Sports organisations must fulfil their obligations to deliver a product, preferably without scandal. If TV broadcasters and sponsors have an inherent interest in clean sport, they also have an obligation to invest in clean sport”

New York-based attorney Evan Norris was formerly the Assistant U.S. Attorney steering the global action against corrupt FIFA officials. Now he represents major companies, who are concerned about corruption within their ranks.

“Everyone has the same ideas of right and wrong, but a widespread belief still exists that sport is different,” he said. “Historically, sport operated outside the traditional business world. The fact that it has been unregulated for so long has allowed the idea to take hold that different rules apply. But enforcement is now here. There is information sharing between prosecutors in different countries, whistleblowers, financial checks, there are so many pathways to enforcement. Investigators are not going to dwell on the idea that sport is different to business. They are going to prosecute”.

The story in full

Will the Sports Governance Observer bring changes to world sport?

The latest edition of Play the Game’s Sports Governance Observer could lead to changes at the International Ski Federation. The benchmarking tool placed swim body FINA low down the league of good governance in recent years.

A total of six federations were reviewed in the latest edition of the SGO, with mixed results. Play the Game noted:

The International Biathlon Union (IBU) fared the worst with an overall index rating of just 39% but did respond to questions. In contrast, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) declined to take part and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), and the European Volleyball Confederation (CEV), did not even respond. The conference heard contrasting examples of governance from both volleyball and ice hockey.

The story in full