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The Athlete Voice is surging – so why has it taken until 2020 for the dam to burst?

When Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford successfully lobbied for the UK Government to make a policy U-turn recently by allowing 1.4 million children in England to claim free school meal vouchers in the summer holidays, the reaction within sport appeared almost overwhelmingly positive. Here was a prime example, if not the prime example of an individual athlete using his status for the greater good of society. This was purpose in evidence, it was positive campaigning in action and it was led by a superstar role model, no less.

Whilst this was undoubtedly a significant example of the athlete voice at its most powerful, what was surprising was the school of thought that this was something of a one-off, a breakthrough, something unprecedented, to coin an oft-used phrase in these Covid times. However, to jump to that conclusion is to be blind to the wider picture of athlete voice progress that has made inroads in recent years and has been steadily but surely rising year on year. Make no mistake, this (Rashford’s campaign) was not some arbitrary intervention; it was part of a wider global trend that has crept up on our industry. And, I would argue, from a global perspective, nor was Rashford’s campaign the most noteworthy example of the athlete voice we have seen.

Through a war of attrition that arguably began back in 2015 (if it’s even possible to suggest a start date) following the explosive revelations about systematic doping in Russian athletics – where the World Anti-Doping Agency Athlete (WADA) chair Beckie Scott and legions of athletes and others within international sport called for the anti-doping authorities to expand the investigations into wider Russian sport – athletes have ever since that time, and no doubt motivated by Scott and other pioneering athletes, believed that their voice might finally be heard, believed that the dam might well burst. Now, five years on, it well and truly has.

Again in anti-doping, back in 2018 and 2019, athlete committees across the world were lobbying WADA (though unsuccessfully on this occasion) not to make a U-turn on its “Russia roadmap” by allowing the Russians back into competitive sport until they had met all the conditions for reinstatement. We’ve seen the advent of athlete-led movement Global Athlete, which, let’s not forget, until 17 months ago didn’t even exist, and yet which since then has fast achieved a significant media profile through its bold, brave, honest approach to calling for the sporting authorities to hear athletes’ views. Remarkably it was Global Athlete, supported by other athlete bodies, who successfully lobbied the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. This was an effort that forced the IOC into making the right decision, albeit belatedly.

We’ve seen it with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the athlete community calling for the IOC to abolish its controversial Rule 50 which, many athletes believe, infringes on their human rights by preventing them the opportunity to protest on the Olympic stage. We saw it with NFL star Colin Kaepernick taking the knee during the American national anthem in response to his view on the treatment of minorities across the USA back in 2016. And, yes, we’ve now seen it with Rashford, too.

At the collective and individual level, the athlete voice has arrived and it’s on the ascendency. This is a positive shift for athletes because this trend, coupled with greater transparency amongst decision-making processes within the governance of sport, means that gone are the days where a sports federation could merely make a tokenistic gesture that garnered good PR for the organisation – yet did little to actually positively impact the fate of athletes. Such tactics were merely optics, a smokescreen for controversial, unpopular decisions to be made by federations; tactics that were seen as ‘cover’ in order to say that the athlete voice had been considered.

From these examples, and many others, it is clear that athletes are starting to eke away at the outdated decision-making structures that govern them and that the gulf that has existed between the rule makers and their athletes is evaporating. That rate of change is now coming faster than at any time we’ve ever seen. Athletes may not be the panacea to the governance of sport, but they are worthy contributors – soldiers on the battlefield – who know how the rules directly affect them, just as sports administrators are experienced in making them.

It all begs the question: why are we seeing so much of this now?

The growth of the athlete voice in recent years has been emboldened by the encroaching culture of athletes becoming the authors of their own stories. By utilising the communications channels and tools available to them, athletes no longer need to rely on sympathetic third parties (such as the media) to tell their story for them. The ease with which athletes can setup a Twitter or Instagram account, their own blog or personal website– which becomes their own window to the world – means athletes can tell their story on their own terms. The sharp growth of media channels, coupled with the athlete’s success on the pitch, provides them with a real opportunity to deliver their message to their audience of choice.

Communications channels also allow athletes to mobilise in large numbers – such as we have seen through the advent of various athlete movements – much more efficiently than at any time previously. This includes their ability to garner the support of fans through viral campaigns.

The modern-day athlete is all powerful. As sport has belatedly embraced true democracy – at a surprisingly slower rate than other global sectors – athletes now have the ability to secure positive change at their feet. Change is in the air, and due to the Rashfords and other athlete role models – and their forebears that came before them, the Beckie Scotts of this world – that change is coming far faster than many ever imagined.

Ben Nichols is a leading communications expert in international sport. Formerly director of communications and public affairs for the Commonwealth Games Federation, he also headed media relations for the World Anti-Doping Agency during “the biggest sporting scandal this century”, the Russian Doping Crisis. 

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