Every two years all of those countries who compete at the Summer and Winter Olympic Games become aware of their National Olympic Committee, the athletes are fully aware of these bodies, but many armchair fans are less aware.
As of 2016 there were 206 National Olympic Committees with each of the 193 members states of the United Nations represented, as well as some other territories not recognised by the UN. Examples are three British Overseas Territories in Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, and Cayman Islands and four territories of the United States of America such as American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands who are recognised as just Virgin Islands by the IOC.
So what is the role of the National Olympic Committee? These national bodies are governed by the controls of the International Olympic Committee, and are responsible for organizing their nation’s participation in the Olympic Games. The National Olympic Committees may also nominate cities within their respective areas as candidates to host future Olympic Games. The NOCs also promote the development of athletes and the training of coaches and officials at a national level within their geographies.
Firstly some national sporting bodies question the last part of this role as they feel that the responsibility of training coaches and officials falls under their remit and they receive small financial compensation for that development from the National Olympic Committee, when they select one of the officials that they have developed to participate at an Olympic Games.
What many sports fans do not realise is that once a sporting association picks an athlete or a team to participate at the Olympic Games they hand over control of that team to the National Olympic Committee. Something that again many feel has now become inappropriate. Having run the Olympic program in that sport for the full four year cycle they feel that they should be allowed to see it through to completion, rather than hand it over on the home straight.
Just last year in the lead up to the Rio Olympic Games around the world we witnessed athletes who had been told the qualifying process for the Olympic Games in their sport, by their sport’s World Governing body, and met that criteria only to be told by their National Olympic Committee that they would not be sent to Rio. The reasons were mixed. We had the fact that the athlete or team was unlikely to come home with a medal, and in some cases simply the cost.
We raised the issue in an article headed “The Right to Play God Puts The Olympic Ideal at Risk last year. In this article we highlighted Badminton players in New Zealand and Hockey players in South Africa who were denied the chance to fulfil their Olympic dream, but these were just a few cases of many athletes who were deprived that opportunity.
What was a concern was the lack of support received by those athletes who met the qualifications required to participate in the Rio Olympics from their sport’s governing bodies. Surely these World bodies should have put their foot down and stated that all athletes who had met their qualifications, which had been agreed by the IOC, must be allowed to compete? One representative of a World sporting body advised however that this was unlikely to be the case as with the expansion of the Olympic Games they could endanger the future participation of their sport by standing up to a National Olympic Committees. Which begs the question who is running the sport, the International Olympic Committee or the World Bodies?
At the end of January one athlete decided to make a stand and it could be a stand that has similar far reaching effects on future Olympic Games the way Jean-Marc Bosman’s challenging of the football transfer system revolutionised that sport.
Fencer Juliana Barrett has opted to sue the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) for more than R5.5-million for failing to enter her into the 2016 Rio Games. Her claim challenges Sascoc’s controversial policy to reject all avenues of continental qualification for the Olympics across all codes bar football and cycling.
South Africa is set up in a similar way to many other National Olympic Committees where an athlete‚ or team‚ must fulfil three conditions to go to an Olympics. Firstly they must qualify in terms of criteria set out by their international sports federations. Once they have met that requirement they must then be recommended by their national federation in that sport and finally they must be entered into the Games by their National Olympic Committee.
The refusal by National Olympic Committees to nominate athletes who have met these criteria will now come under the microscope and Ms Barrett could change the way Athletes qualify in years to come, as if she wins her case the power of the NOCs may be greatly reduced or completely taken away.
Some NOCs are far more actively involved in the sporting landscape throughout the Summer and Winter Olympic four year cycle.Yet once again questions are being asked as to whether they have stepped outside of their domain of control. Whatever your views credit must be given to the United States Olympic Committee who have in their country been championing the lack of diversity in sports leadership. Nearly all of the United States National governing bodies in sport are led by white men. They feel that there needs to be more transparency as to how these people gain employment, and that the overall sporting landscape will benefit from more diversity.
Diversity is not linked simply to the colour of a person’s skin, but also to the sex of those holding key positions. In 33 of the 47 National Governing Bodies women were only represented at the lower level of the organisation, and had no representation at Executive level. This has a bearing when one considers out of the 121 medals won by Team USA in Rio five were won in mixed events, 61 by women and 55 by men.
The USOC judged all of the National Governing Bodies over ten levels of diversity and 36 of the 47 fell below the benchmark of 68% in one category. Regrettably across most sports this happened when it came to people with disabilities.
Before the Rio Olympic Games The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) issued a report on gender diversity in international sport and found them to be almost exclusively led by men. Only 24.4% of International Olympic Committee members were women at the time of the report, and only two International Federations were led by women and only 9% of National federations were led by women.
Now obviously this is going to take time, and Deborah Slaner Larkin CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation in the USA was quoted as saying “it’s not going to happen because it’s the right thing to do. In most cases it’s going to happen because there is a business case that is made and it can’t just happen in the United States. It has to happen globally.”
Richard Lapchick director of TIDES said of diversity “We find its lacking because it’s a large group of older white men in charge who generally feel more comfortable with other older white men, and if nobody’s challenging them to think differently they’re able to run the show the way they want to then.”
Some will argue whether the USOC has a right to interfere in the running of individual sports. Yet there is a different view of their Olympic Committee than that held in many other countries. The feeling is that they are simply challenging the National Governing Bodies to think differently. In November 2016 Sport England also took the same tack and warned its governing bodies that they must reach 30% gender diversity on boards or risk losing public funding.
Around the globe there are many who feel that their Olympic Committee is run by people who have been at the helm too long.
Whereas these moves are to be applauded these bodies are ultimately there for their athletes and the sport. Is this really the role of a aNational Olympic Committee? Are they moving into areas that are not their responsibility? After all their roles is to ‘promote the development of athletes and the training of coaches and officials at a national level’ within their geographies. It is not to interfere in the running of individual sports.
Ask many and they will tell you that with limited television coverage of their sport the Olympic Games is one of the few events that gives them exposure. So surely they in turn should be putting pressure back on the various Olympic Committees to ensure that athletes who have met their qualification criteria are allowed to compete; certainly ahead of other athletes who are given wild card entries to the Games.
It should come down to Merit. Just as Athletes who are good enough, and worthy of attending an Olympic Games should attend, so too must those running the sport and making key decisions be appointed on merit, not just to tick a box or make a percentage requirement in order to gain funding.
Of course none of this truly answers the question as to whether there is a need for National Olympic Committees. Or whether their existence is simply an added tier of sports management that the world could cope without. Could not the World’s sporting Governing Bodies not run their own events, and at the same time ensure that those who earned the right to compete are the ones who do?
For this reason many will be watching the outcome of the case in South Africa. Will Ms Barrett change the face of the Olympic Games for ever? There would be an irony if she does as Ms Barrett is a fencer, and Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man credited as the father of the modern Olympic Games was also an accomplished fencer. Ms Barrett may not have been a medal contender in her chosen sport but as de Coubertin said “The important thing in life is not to triumph, but to compete.”