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Covid-19: Amplifying the Voice of Athletes

Without any doubt, Covid-19 is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, external shock to the sporting world since World War 2. The scope and seriousness of this health crisis required that many far reaching decisions be made very quickly, often without proper consultation and, seemingly, sometimes even without the possibility to fully consider the consequences of actions taken. It therefore comes as no surprise that the actors mainly affected by the crisis are the athletes and players. Issues affecting this group not only pertain to the cancellation of most events, including the 2020 Summer Olympics, or adaptations in their training routines. For many athletes, the sporting issues also yield economic losses and uncertainty in terms of contracts, sponsorship deals, prolonged careers and the like.

Players’ unions and athlete representative bodies have existed for quite some time on the domestic, European and global level. Yet, such bodies have for long been sidelined in sport policy making and their involvement in and impact on important decisions seemed negligible. The current situation and the numerous issues coming to the forefront now present a long-needed chance to enhance the role of athlete organizations in Germany, across Europe and globally.

As competitions had to be shut down and then worked their way towards so-called “restarts”, many eyes turned to Germany, where the Bundesliga was one of the first leagues to resume. Ironically, professional football players in Germany’s highest men’s league have historically been very weakly represented and so their voices were largely ignored during this important process. As a direct result, football players around Dortmund defender Mats Hummels have formed a players’ alliance with members from the top three men’s divisions as well as the women’s Bundesliga, to represent their voices in future decisions. The currently existing players’ union, Vereinigung der Vertragsfußballspieler (VDV), operates mainly in the lower divisions and serves more as a service provider than as the collective voice of players in Germany or a social partner to the DFB and DFL.


Similar developments could be seen in German ice hockey where the players were asked to waive up to 25% of their income due to the crisis and where players have now started the formation of a union. And the union of professional handball players in Germany, GOAL, which has been in existence since 2010, is experiencing an increase in membership and demand for services. Johannes Bitter, goalkeeper of the German national team and co-founder of GOAL, remarked that during these difficult times athletes are finally starting to see the importance of players’ unions.

The athlete-led organization Athleten Deutschland e.V., established in 2017 and now staffed with full-time employees funded by public money, has worked its way to being a recognized actor in sport policy and governance. Representatives like the General Director, Johannes Herber, and the President, Max Hartung, frequently appear on TV broadcasts and are invited to discuss sport during times of crisis in the German Parliament. While the association mainly represents athletes in semi-professional Olympic and non-Olympic sports, it expressed its full support for the formation and strengthening of players’ unions in the three team sports listed above.

These instances in Germany reflect broader developments across the continent, as can be seen from the results of a recently published survey by the European umbrella organization of player associations, EU Athletes. The survey found that athletes’ demand for services provided by their player associations has increased for 93% of respondents. Additionally, membership has increased in more than half of the 29 player associations across the continent. These impressive numbers show that athletes do in fact turn to player associations when in need and are seeking support from these bodies in this unprecedented time of crisis. It is to be assumed that stronger membership numbers will provide these associations with more leverage in the future.

On the international level, US star triple jumper, Christian Taylor, has made good on his promise with the formal launch of the Athletics Association being announced on 16 July. With a board composed of international top-level athletes, the organization will now take on actions aimed at the unification and defense of the athletes’ voice in international track and field. While it is not immediately clear whether Covid-19 has spurred this process, it seems at least reasonable to assume that gathering the support of such a large number of the world’s leading track and field athletes would have been more difficult had it not been for the cancellation of all major sport events, including the Summer Olympics.

Finally, as part of the broader athlete movement, athlete activism has (once again) become a phenomenon of international scope over the last months. With the death of George Floyd and the surge of protests finding their way into sports, a newly revived movement advocating for the freedom of speech in international sport has emerged. While the abolition of rules preventing athletes from propagating political or religious beliefs is not a very recent topic, the new onslaught of criticism regarding Rule 50 of the IOC Charter takes a different form. Athletes all over the world are standing up against discrimination and are claiming the biggest stage possible to highlight causes for social change: the podium at sporting events. While the IOC Athletes’ Commission has announced a consultation process with athletes on Olympic protests, it remains to be seen whether these discussions will bring about meaningful change.

The future of sport governance cannot be envisioned without the athletes as key stakeholders playing a central role in it. Putting aside the outcome of specific issues such as the Rule 50 debate, the current crisis has made one thing abundantly clear. The increasing role of athletes’ associations and players’ unions together with the strengthened inter-organizational links will present one, if not the, key challenge to the governance of sport in the future. In line with the wisdom of Winston Churchill (“Never let a good crisis go to waste!”), the athletes’ movement now has the potential to result in substantial and far-reaching change in the field as it serves as a catalyst for the restructuring of power relations in sports. As with many recent movements and developments, it will be important to sustain long term commitment and ongoing involvement in processes, if the gains made by athletes during this crisis aren’t to subside quickly again once the dust settles.

Maximilian Seltmann is research associate and PhD researcher at the Institute of European Sport Development and Leisure Studies at the German Sport University Cologne. His research conceptualizes and analyzes athletes as political actors in the governance of sport.

Felix Wolf is a graduate research assistant at the Institute of European Sport Development and Leisure Studies and a Master student in International Sport Development and Politics at the German Sport University Cologne. His main research area lies with sport governance, where has worked on and contributed to the Erasmus+ National Sport Governance Observer.

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